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The Weld Blundell Amber Cabinet, by Polish c.1700


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About the artwork

Baroque designers loved using extraordinary materials. Amber is a resin which oozed out from the bark of trees millions of years ago and was fossilized. This cabinet is covered inside and out with panels of it. This amber was mined in Poland, near the Baltic Sea. It was made into a cabinet in the port city of Gdansk -most famous today for the Solidarity movement which grew there in the 1980s. Gdansk, formerly known as Danzig, was the centre of the amber trade when this cabinet was made around 1700. Amber was a precious material and its supply was jealously guarded by the ruler of the area, the Elector of Brandenburg.

The cabinet was probably kept in a room which was itself called a cabinet -a 'cabinet of curiosities'. This was full of natural and manmade wonders from all over the world. Explorers were bringing back lots of new things such as ostrich eggs, jade carvings, and the feathers of birds of paradise. Amber took its place among these and the amber cabinet provided a place to store the most precious of them. The proud owner would impress their friends by opening it up and showing off their treasures. The drawers might also hold more practical things like writing equipment, board games and jewellery. The bottom drawer still contains eight original scent bottles, each with its cork and brass stopper.

The cabinet was formerly part of the famous art collection at Ince Blundell Hall near Liverpool. The collection included sculpture, gems, paintings, drawings and furniture. They were collected by Henry Blundell, and the cabinet bears evidence that it was in his possession between 1801 and 1810, because in the bottom drawer is the engraved signature 'G. Bullock'. George Bullock was a young Liverpool sculptor and furniture designer and Blundell was his most important patron. The cabinet is very fragile and it seems likely that Bullock repaired it for him. Some parts of it look different from the rest and may be Bullock's work. These include three of the four ivory panels on the outside of the doors and all the ivory feet. We do not know how Blundell acquired the cabinet or where it was before that.

The ivory panels are carved with scenes involving cupids and their general theme seems to be love. On one panel a cupid presents a picture of a heart to a lady. Another shows a cupid with a pile of skulls - this may mean that you should enjoy love while you can, before death strikes you down. Alternatively, it may mean that love is stronger than death. Baroque images were often puzzles, intended to keep you guessing.

See the cabinet being opened in either of these movies:

It is rare to find lumps of amber longer than about four centimetres. The maker of one mirror recorded on the back of it that it took him five years to find enough big pieces of amber to cover the frame! Objects covered with large panels of amber represented the ultimate luxury. Rulers would send them to each other as stunning presents. It was popular to make precious materials up into a cabinet as a way of showing them off. This is the grandest amber object in any British collection. There were once even larger pieces covered in amber. Gdansk artists in 1677 made an amber throne for the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I in Vienna, but only fragments are left. One of the great mysteries of the Second World War is the disappearance of the Amber Room, created in 1709 by Ernst Schacht and Gottfried Turow of Gdansk, and given by Frederick I of Prussia to Czar Peter the Great of Russia. During the war it was taken from the Summer Palace in Zarskoje Sselo to Kaliningrad, and never seen again.

Amber often has internal faults which make it difficult to carve without breaking. Compared to other materials for carving, it is fairly soft, like ivory. In Gdansk the same carvers worked in both materials and both are used in this cabinet. When amber is first dug up it is a clear golden-yellow, but over time it turns red. In 1700 many people thought amber had magical powers and could heal the sick or detect poison by changing colour. Perhaps they were also impressed by its strong charge of static electricity, a form of energy which was not yet understood. The glow of light through amber was so exciting because, until the invention of plastics, there was nothing else like it.

The cabinet was purchased with the help of generous grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Art Collections Fund in 2002.