My favourite object is found in the King’s Room. The dark, ebony cabinet can sometimes be overlooked in a room filled with shimmering silver. It is thought the cabinet was made in Paris in around 1650 and has carved decoration on the exterior doors including flowers and scenes representing the story of Jonah and the Whale.
It came to Knole from the palace at Whitehall through Charles, 6th Earl of Dorset as a ‘perquisite’ from his office of Lord Chamberlain. The cabinet has twelve legs and is relatively unassuming from the front.
However, cabinets of this type followed an established tradition whereby the decoration became more complex and opulent as the cabinet was opened. Inside, it is richly decorated with various inlaid woods, mirrors and tinted ivory.
There are more secrets hidden inside, such as a handwritten note by Vita Sackville-West, written when she was a child. The note was found during routine winter cleaning in 2007, hidden at the very back of the cabinet, inside a secret drawer.
It was previously unknown to Knole staff at the time of its discovery and reads: “Dada, Mama and Vita looked at this secret drawer on 29th April 1898. Vita.”
Cabinets like this one were hugely popular, particularly in France, from about 1640 to 1660. Owners of such cabinets would have used them to house precious objects and rare curiosities as well as being decorative and luxurious pieces in their own right, demonstrating the wealth and status of their owners. Ebony was a fashionable wood for veneering during this period and was imported into France as trade routes across the globe became more firmly established around the middle of the 17th Century. The high cost of importing the wood added to their luxury status and they were popular among the nobility.
Skilled, French carpenters who were able to make cabinets of this kind became known as ébénistes, after the wood which they often worked with. The popularity of these cabinets waned from around 1660 until the early 19th Century when antiquarian tastes became more established. Cabinets were often restored during this period or panels from them were reused elsewhere.
The cabinet is in one of the few showrooms with any environmental control. Despite having suffered some damage over the centuries, it remains in a secure condition as a result of the stable environment in which it is in. Unfortunately, the cabinet has suffered in the past from pest insect infestations, primarily woodworm. It is closely inspected annually during the winter clean, during which time we look for signs of damage, pests or hidden secrets.