Un-locking a Korean Chest at Lotherton Hall

Last week we investigated the interior of the largest and most beautiful Korean chest or cabinet at Lotherton Hall. The Gascoigne family collected four of these, and we know from the furniture catalogue by Christopher Gilbert, published in 1978, that the insides have been viewed before.
We located some keys, and one let us unlock the outer doors, to see the 10 drawers inside.

 All four cabinets are from the late Joseon dynasty (1392-1897), and date from around 1800-1830. Their fairly simple decoration indicates that they are men’s chests rather than women’s chests (see the elaborate decoration on the women’s chest in the Philadelphia Museum for comparison).

The cabinet, of upright rectangular design, is attached to a low stand with shaped rails and bracket feet; and has flush-panel double doors. The door junction is masked by strip of bass finely engraved with pots of flowers while the circular elaborately lobed escutcheon, decorated with flowering trees and birds, bears six medallions featuring the six syllabled Sanskrit mantra ‘Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ’, well known from Buddhist scriptures. 
Because Confucianism was dominant in the Joseon Dynasty and it provided a unifying perspective for artistic styles, this Buddhist inscription is unusual. It may well mean that this particular cabinet was used by monks in one of the Buddhist temples. The outer door handles are backed by profiles of flying bats, symbols of good fortune, and the design detail also includes fishes (a symbol of wealth).
Normally these chests were made for the men’s study room (Sarangbang). In Korea the use of these treasure or seal chests was adopted from Japan, from where the name was also taken, Japanese Kap-kae-susuri became Korean Kap-kae-suri. In Korea the woods most commonly used are pine or paulownia. 
Korean traditional furniture was designed to be suitable for the lifestyle of sitting on the floor. This floor was warmed by under-floor heating, taking the heat from the slightly lower kitchen area and dispersing it around the house. Korean traditional houses, han-ok, had relatively low ceilings and small living spaces. Low furniture helped to give the interior more of a feeling of space, and also fitted with fashionable aspirations for a minimalist well-ordered look.

Find out more about Korean furniture:
  • Traditional Korean Furniture by Man Sill Pai and Edward Reynolds Wright, published in 1984. Wright’s collection is now in the Wiseman Art Museum in Minneapolis. 
  • Korean Antique Furniture & Accessories by Mathieu Deprez ,  published 2014.
  • Kofum.com gives a good overall impression of traditional Korean architecture and interiors.

By Myunghae Seo, Voices of Asia Intern

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