Fitzwilliam Museum acquires 17th-century cabinets

Art Fund has supported the acquisition of a pair of 400-year-old Italian pietre dure cabinets and helped save them from leaving the UK.

A pair of cabinets, by Unknown, c1625 © Fitzwilliam Museum

A pair of cabinets, by Unknown, c1625


© Fitzwilliam Museum

A temporary export a bar was placed on the cabinets to provide an opportunity to keep them in the country after they were sold for £1.2m to a foreign buyer at Sotherby’s last summer. Thanks to a £200,000 grant from Art Fund and support from National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and other benefactors including The Pilgrim Trust, enough money has now been raised to save them for the nation.

The cabinets have been part of a private collection at Castle Howard, Yorkshire since they were purchased by Henry Howard, the 4th Earl of Carlisle, most likely during his ‘grand tour’ of Italy (1738-9). They date back to 1625 and were made in Rome almost certainly for a member of the papal Borghese dynasty, a very powerful and wealthy family.

Each cabinet is veneered with ebony and rosewood and has been embellished with inlays of semi-precious hardstones and gilded statuettes and escutcheons. They sit on mahogany neoclassical stands, with gilded caryatids (supports in the form of antique maidens) and are likely to have been made in c1800 with designs by Charles Heathcote Tatham.

‘We are very happy to support the Fitzwilliam in acquiring this captivating pair of cabinets, a fantastic addition to the permanent collection in its bicentenary year.’

  • Stephen Deuchar
  • Art Fund director

Christopher Rowell, a member of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, stated that the cabinets represent ‘the high watermark of the British taste for Italian princely furniture’ and that ‘with the exception of the National Trust’s cabinet at Stourhead, made in Rome around 1585 for Pope Sixtus V, these are the most significant cabinets of this type in Britain’.

Tim Knox, director of Fitzwilliam Museum, said: ‘Splendid hardstone mounted cabinets such as these were the ultimate trophy of British ‘grand tour’ collectors in the 18th century. With their lavish inlay of electric blue lapis lazuli, and glowing jaspers, and later English stands with gilded caryatids, they are a perfect combination of Italian pomp and English splendour. Nowhere in the UK is it possible to see a pair of Roman cabinets of quite this swagger and splendour. I am thrilled that we have saved these remarkable objects from export and that they can take their place amidst the Fitzwilliam’s world-class collections. They are a fitting acquisition to celebrate the 200th birthday of our founder, Lord Fitzwilliam.’

Sir Peter Luff, chair of NHMF, said: ‘Exquisitely beautiful and exceptionally rare, it is when you consider these cabinets in their original context at Castle Howard, one of our finest country house interiors, that they become very important to the UK’s heritage.’

The pair of cabinets will go on display at the museum on 10 August, when they will be unveiled as part of celebrations of the founder’s birth.

Venue details

Fitzwilliam Museum Trumpington Street Cambridgeshire CB2 1RB 01223 332900

Entry details

Free to all

Tue Sat, 10am 5pm

Sun & Bank Holidays, 12noon 5pm

Closed Mon, 24 26, 31 Dec and 1 Jan

Tags: Supporting museumsweve-helped-to-buy