World Coins

Historic Argyll coin cabinet returns home to Scotland

In the 18th century, a gentleman would keep coins and medals that he had secured on his “grand tour” of Europe in his library. 

Usually, these would be stored in a mahogany coin cabinet. While the majority of such cabinets would have been purely functional, some were known to be works of art in their own right. 

Known as the Argyll Cabinet, one fantastic example of coin cabinetry has now found its way home to Scotland. 

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London dealer Thomas Heneage operates Thomas Heneage Art Books, which is based in Duke Street in the St. James’s area, a quick hop, skip and a jump from Christie’s. 

The firm may be relatively small, but it has a wide reach, with a presence at the world’s leading fairs for art, antiques and design including TEFAF Maastricht. Over the last year or so, Heneage had promotional material for a collection of seals and also a coin cabinet. 

The cabinet was supposedly made for George William Campbell (1768 to 1839) who became the Sixth Duke of Argyll in 1806. 

Constructing a cabinet

It is constructed from maple wood. It takes the form of a typical Roman funeral urn of the second century A.D., with a triangular pediment and architectural ornamentation at the corners. It is not the work of a great cabinetmaker as there is a certain lack of refinement to the drawers, indicating that it could have been produced in the workshops at Inveraray Castle. 

Nevertheless it is an important piece of Neoclassical furniture.

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The cabinet is intricately decorated with penwork. This form of embellishment emerged in Britain toward the end of the 18th century and became the most fashionable of activities for aristocratic ladies in the first decades of the 19th century. The distinctive black or white decoration was frequently copied from engravings. 

Many of the decorative motifs on the Argyll Cabinet are derived from Charles Heathcote Tatham’s Etchings of Ancient Ornamental Architecture of Italy. This was first published in 1803 and it is known that the duke was a subscriber to the second edition — meaning that he made pre-payments prior to its publication.

Penwork decoration was applied directly to the wooden surface being adorned with inks and watercolor. 

The subsequent highly polished surface was achieved with the addition of one or more coats of varnish. The pastime was so popular that an entire industry emerged, supplying not only materials but also tuition to budding amateurs. 

Pre-prepared boxes as well as small items of furniture in light colored-woods, brushes, pattern books, paints and varnish were retailed by the likes of Rudolf Ackermann’s shop, which he named “The Repository of Arts” in London’s Strand district, a fashionable mecca for the discerning upper classes.

So, who decorated the Argyll Cabinet? 

It is signed “ML pinxit” — where pinxit is the third person singular perfect active indicative of “pingo,” which translates (inter alia) as “I decorate.”

The only problem is that ML has not been identified. However, from 1770, George William Campbell had the courtesy title of the Marquess of Lorne until he inherited the dukedom in 1806. It is therefore possible that the penwork for the Argyll Cabinet was undertaken by the hand of the future Sixth Duke of Argyll.

Another owner?

It is also possible that the cabinet was not made for the sixth duke, as he was not known as a coin collector. 

However, Archibald Campbell, the Third Duke of Argyll (1682 to 1761), was an enlightened collector and patron, who is known to have assembled impressive gem and numismatic collections. 

While Thomas Heneage’s promotional material states that the cabinet was made for the sixth duke, it suggests that it may have been inherited from the third duke.

The cabinet has been acquired by the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. This is one of the finest university collections in the world, containing more than 1.5 million items. 

The body copy of the museum’s display label for the cabinet states “it appears to date to circa 1805,” whereas it ends with “Early 18th century maple wood and penwork coin cabinet.” 

Most likely it was made in the 18th century, with the penwork decoration being made in the early 19th century — and possibly by the Marquess of Lorne, just before he succeeded to the title of sixth duke.

A spokesman for the Hunterian commented, “This unique and outstanding cabinet is of the greatest importance to Scottish numismatics and Scottish and British collecting of the late Enlightenment. It represents a rare survival of an early coin cabinet. Such cabinets, often made specially for the owner, were not uncommon after 1750 but the majority have long disappeared. The only similar item surviving in Scotland is the temple-shaped cabinet made for the Duke of Atholl in Perth in the 1740s. Again, the number of surviving early small cabinets in England is very limited, perhaps half a dozen.”

The cabinet was purchased by the Hunterian with money from the Walter Allen Fund and the Marion Archibald Bequest. Archibald was a curator in the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum from 1963 to 1997.

To learn about the Hunterian’s collection, visit it online

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