COLLECTION: Household Accessories

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Jewelry Box or Casket

1660-1710
Origin: Mexico, Puebla (probably)
Overall: H: 14 1/2"; W: 23 1/2" (deep); 25 drawers; 10 lidded compartments; 6 boxes which slide out; one secret drawer.
Spanish cedar, spruce, tortoiseshell, silver, mother-of-pearl, silk, paint, and mirrored glass
Gift of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II of England
Acc. No. 1957-164,A
Large octagonal (rectangular with canted corners) box veneered in tortoiseshell and decorated with inlay of mother-of-pearl. The reverse sides of the various lids and hinged side panels are painted in polychrome floral designs. The casket has pierced silver hinges, hasp locks, drawer pulls, and corner mounts. The entire structural base is apparently made up of the aromatic Jamaican species of cedar. The entire casket, including the inner removable casket, contains twenty-five drawers, ten lidded compartments, and six boxes that slide out. The top has an inlaid figure of an American Indian with a ribband reading "AMERICA"; the side panels each have an animal represented in the center. The top of the cover or lid, which has a low bell-shaped profile, is inlaid with designs in mother-of-pearl in several borders of conventionalized motifs together with floral and leaf forms. In the center is the figure of an American Indian seated on a large cushion and wearing a feather headdress. He has a quiver of arrows, a knife, and holds a stalk of corn in his left hand. Above him is a ribband bearing the legend "AMERICA". The underside of the lid is ornamented with a wide outer border of painted conventionalized leaf forms in bright blue, red, green, and pink colors with numerous white tendrils substantially filling the dark brown ground area. An inner border is painted in light red surrounding a rectangular looking glass with a carved and gilt frame with punched decoration. The frame is secured to the lid by two decorated silver-headed screws and pierced washers. Quite elaborately pierced and chased silver hinges, hasp locks, drawer pulls, and corner mounts are used throughout most of the casket. With the lid open there is revealed a central well of octagonal shape (rectangular with canted corners) with two small drawers in the lower part of the back wall. The upper part of the case surrounding the well holds eight lidded compartments, one for each section of the octagon. The tops are arched and veneered in tortoiseshell. The sides of the case, except for the back face, fall out on hinges revealing three drawers to each section, twenty-one in all. These drawers are of varying shapes inside to conform with the spaced to be filled within the case. The inner faces of the fall fronts and of the lids above are painted in the same polychrome leaf designs described for the main lid. They are locked together when closed with silver hasp locks. The outer faces of the fall fronts and the stationary one in back decorated in mother-of-pearl with leafy borders, fleur-de-lis, and central figure of an animal for each one--eagle, wolf(?), elephant, beaver, armadillo, badger (formerly identified as polar bear), stag, and rampant griffin. Into the central octagonal wall of the main case fits a conforming smaller casket which is also veneered in tortoiseshell. This casket is lifted from the larger one by silver bail handles attached to either side of its lid. The hinged lid has on top a red satin cushion secured around the edges with strips of pierced silver. Beneath is a central rectangular open compartment surrounded by two lidded compartments and six small boxes which pull up and out, with small ribbon tabs, like drawers. each box has a sliding panel to open it. The front face of the casket falls front on hinges and reveals a drawer in the loer part which has another hidden drawer built into the lower part of it that is pulled out from its rear side. The inner faces of the lid and fall front are painted in a design of potted red carnations.
Label:This grand jewelry box or dressing case is a multicultural object representing the intersection of Asian, Mexican, and European art in New Spain around the turn of the 18th century. New Spain (Mexico) was at a crossroads of cultures during its viceregal (colonial) period as Asian goods traveled to and through the country on the way from the Pacific to Europe. The artisans of New Spain, including those in Puebla, a city southeast of Mexico City, were influenced by those imported goods as well as by European, mainly Spanish, goods, craftsmen, and customers. The melding of these influences and cultures created a purely local artistic aesthetic. The box has a long tradition of ownership in the family of Admiral Sir Charles Wager, the English Commander-in-Chief for Jamaica from 1707-1709. Sir Wager may have acquired the box as part of a Spanish prize his ships captured in the Caribbean. Queen Mary purchased it from a descendant in 1932 and Queen Elizabeth II gifted the box to Colonial Williamsburg in 1957.

Fabricated from Spanish cedar, a wood native to central and south America (and best-known today for its use in cigar boxes) the box is veneered in tortoiseshell with mother-of-pearl inlaid figural and floral elements. Both tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl have a rich tradition of use on furniture and boxes in Asia and India respectively as well as in Europe. The Spanish adopted the use of mother-of-pearl after it was introduced by Muslim artisans from North Africa in the 6th century. These traditions from both west and east influenced the artisans of New Spain’s choice of materials and imagery.

The inlaid motifs on this box include an allegorical figure on the top labeled “America,” and an eagle, wolf or dog, badger or aardvark, beaver, armadillo, stag, rampant griffin, and elephant around the sides. Other than the elephant, possibly influenced by imported Asian decorative arts, the only non-native animal depicted is the rampant griffin, a mythological creature that appears in some European crests. Most of these native animals appeared in 17th century European publications describing the flora and fauna of the New World. Along with the allegorical figure of “America,” these elements might suggest that the box was produced for a European with ties to New Spain. The substantial silver mounts and the painted decoration on the interior also reflect the aesthetic and work of Mexican artisans of the period.

The box was most likely used for the storage of jewelry and small personal objects. Its large size, lockable sections, numerous drawers, and secret compartments suggest an owner of considerable wealth.
Provenance:Purchased in 1932 by Queen Mary for her personal collection from Sir Walter Beaupre Townley (1863-1945). The casket remained in the Charles II Room at Windsor Castle until its presentation to Colonial Williamsburg in 1957.

Sir Walter Beaupre Townley entered the DIplomatic Service in 1885 and retired in 1919. His descent is set out in Burke's Landed Gentry under Townley of Fulbourn, Cambridgeshire. He married Lady Susan Keppel, daughter of the 7th Earl of Albemarle.

Charles R. Beard wrote in a 1932 article in THE CONNOISSEUR that the casket has long been associated with an "Admiral Watson of (or connected with) the East India Company." Beard's research suggested that it would have originally been owned by Sir Charles Wager who was appointed Commander-in-cheif in Jamaica in January, 1706-7. Sir Wager died childless and his estate was primarily left to his widow, Dame Martha Wager (d.1748). She in turn left numerous bequests to the children of her late husband's sisters and half-sisters, among the latter was Rear-Admiral Charles Watson, (1714-57) who was Commander-in-Chief in the East Indies and presumably the Admiral Watson long associated with the casket. On his death, the casket would have passed to his son Sir Charles Wager Watson (1800-1852) and his grandson Sir Charles Watson (b.1828). On the death of the last Sir Charles the baronetcy became extinct and the casket passed to the Rev. Charles Francis Townley (b.1856) whose father, Charles Watson Townley (1824-93) was son of Richard Greaves Townely (d.1855) and Cecil, one of the seven daughters of Sir Charles Watson, 1st Baronet.