COUNTY DURHAM.- The Bowes Museum
announced the acquisition of a highly important 18th century bronze casket, believed to be the only one of its kind in existence.
The hinged rectangular porcelain and gilt coffer - acquired with the support of the Art Fund, the V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of The Bowes Museum - joins the Museums already outstanding collection of European fine and decorative arts from this period.
Formerly owned by the Duke of Lorraine ¬- the brother in law of the Empress of Austria, and Governor of the Austrian Netherlands at Brussels ¬- it is cleverly made from three different styles of Chinese porcelain vases, carefully cut into sections and set into European gilt bronze mounts on a wooden framework. The styles of decoration include plants, flowers and trees, and landscapes.
The top is made of a large porcelain dish with a bird on a branch motif set inside a circular gilt mount, while inside is a wooden liner for whatever treasures the Duke wished to secure. When he died in 1780 the beautiful object was sold at public auction in Brussels.
The Museums Keeper of Ceramics, Dr Howard Coutts, said: The method of construction is almost unknown at the time, and represents a kind of highly skilled and complex manual technique often reserved for items of Princely Magnificence, destined for royal treasuries.
In the 19th century the casket was recorded in the collection of the Earl of Lonsdale at Lowther Castle in Cumbria, who formed an outstanding collection of decorative art that now features in many of the great museums of the world.
It left Lowther in 2011, but was considered so important and rare an object that its export was blocked by a reviewing committee the following year, providing a last chance to raise the money to keep the casket in the UK. The committee recommended that the export decision be deferred on the grounds that the casket is of outstanding aesthetic importance and outstanding significance for the study of trade in Chinese porcelain in the 18th century and the history of taste in European Courts.
Principal Keeper Jane Whittaker said: This unique object is an interesting fusion of Eastern and Western cultures; it fits very well within such an eclectic collection as that of The Bowes Museum
Dr Coutts will continue to research this important piece of decorative art.