Japanese lacquer casket (small chest)

Maker unknown
Japanese, 17th century
Lacquer, gold and silver, mother-of-pearl

Welcome to Chiddingstone Castle’s Year of Japan!

This year we are going to be celebrating our amazing Japanese art collection and the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics 2020. There will be a series of cultural events, activities, and themed days for all the family to enjoy. These will include ikebana demonstrations (Japanese flower arranging), talks on Japanese art, object handling sessions, traditional festival crafts, music performances, and a ‘Japan Festival’ day in August. Please check our what’s on page for details of the different events throughout the year.

The best way to start our Year of Japan and a new series of Object of the Month posts is with the rare and beautifully-crafted ‘Chiddingstone Casket’.

The casket is part of a small group of high quality lacquerware made in Japan in the 1630s – 1640s for export. It is particularly rare because its shape was inspired by European architecture, possibly an Italian pavilion. There are pairs of columns framing the corners and the central panel. The two-tier sloped ‘roof’ of the casket forms the lid, and the top section is a lockable compartment. There are other drawers and hidden compartments included in the elaborate design.

The inside of the main lid

The western-style casket is covered in traditional Japanese designs and imagery. The surface is decorated in the most expensive and complex lacquer techniques. Included in the decoration are Chinese mythical lions, dragons, flowers, autumn plants, a samurai, elegant ladies, seaside scenes, a horse with cherry blossom, and a tiger with bamboo. The images are created using the maki-e technique – sprinkling gold or silver powder onto designs painted in wet lacquer. The high-relief areas would have been made by mixing charcoal powder with the lacquer to create a 3D texture. The surface is also inlaid with pieces of mother-of-pearl, gold, and silver details. Thin strips of carefully cut mother-of-pearl highlight the edges and the borders of the panels. The casket would have taken over a year to make, from constructing of the casket out of wood, to applying, drying, and preparing many layers of lacquer, to adding the final decoration.

Close up of a section of the design – a horse tethered to a weeping cherry tree

According to our records, Denys Eyre Bower discovered the casket in an antiques shop in Wales in the 1940s. Denys was the last private owner of the Castle and collected all the artefacts, artworks, and furniture that you can see here today. He left the Castle and collections in his will, with the wish that they would continue to be enjoyed by future generations. Denys was not particularly wealthy and did not have a very big budget. He was able to collect so many high quality lacquer objects because they were no longer fashionable. The late-19th century trend for all things Japanese had died down and large country mansions were having to close and their contents were sold during the war period.

The casket used to belong to the famous novelist and collector William Beckford (1760 – 1844). It appears to have left Beckford’s collection in the 1823 sale of his home, Fonthill Abbey. There was a lot in the sale that was described as ‘an exceedingly rare and beautiful small jewel cabinet of raised Japan, the model of a pavilion of Italian architecture’. This lot was most likely the casket.

Denys Eyre Bower admiring objects from his Japanese collection

The casket will be on display in the Castle’s Japanese Room for our open season 2020 (April – October). We hope you will join us to view the Japanese collection and enjoy the Year of Japan events.


This object is just one of the many objects that form part of Denys Eyre Bower’s five impressive collections which include Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, and Books. For more information on these objects, review our Object of the Month series, visit the Historic House and Collections or contact our Curator, Naomi Collick by email or by calling 01892 870347.

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