The Magazine Antiques
The Eighteenth Century Cuban Sacristy Chest of Drawers
With more than five hundred years of written history, the island of Cuba has the oldest colonial heritage in the Western Hemisphere. Once facet of this heritage is furniture. Thousands of examples of colonial furniture survive, but the one form that most Cuban furniture scholars feel best exemplifies essence, or Cubanidad, is the eighteenth-century sacristy chest of drawers (comoda de sacristia). One of the most famous of these (PI. II) is in the Cathedral de la Habana (Cathedral of Havana, Pl. I), although it is not as large as the one (Pls. III, IIIa) in the city’s oldest church, the Iglesia del Espiritu Santo (Church of the Holy Ghost), which was built in the 1630s. The block front sacristy chest was used to store everything used in the celebration of the Mass, including the priest’s vestments.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Cuba’s capital, Havana, had become the third largest city in the New World after Mexico City and Lima. Partly this was because of the success of the tobacco trade. Tobacco was Cuba’s most profitable agricultural crop until sugar gained the lead later in the century.
The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 that ended the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) enabled the British to insist on talking over the asiento, the exclusive contract for supplying slaves to the West Indies over the next thirty years. Trade was opened to goods from England, France, and the Netherlands.
French and English trading links with Cuba were well established by the second decade of the eighteenth century, and Cuban fashions, especially in furniture, were increasingly influenced by imports. It was at this point that the restrained Spanish colonial furniture of the previous centuries in Cuba underwent a dramatic change with the importation of other European styles directly and via Spain, which itself imported a good deal of English furniture.
Although England was a source of inspiration for Cuba, the baroque style that developed in France during the reign of Louis XIV (r: 1643-1715) influenced the Cuban baroque both directly and indirectly through Spain via the Spanish platereque style, which was in turn influenced by the French baroque.
When all Cuban governmental offices were centralized in Havana in 1733, the city became more attractive to commerce and a magnet for wealth. With the founding of the Real y Pontificia Universidad de San Jeronimo de la Habana (now Universidad de la Habana) in 1728 by Father Geronimo Valdes (1649-1729), one of Cuba’s “builder bishops,” there was a surge of ecclesiastical and private construction. As Maria Luisa Lobo Montalvo has described the city:
“During the first half of the eighteenth century, Havana – crossroads of the Indies – ceased to be a mere hub of American commerce, and became a thriving city, exporting the bounty of the tropics: tobacco (despite the state monopoly decreed in 1717), sugar, salted meat, hides, livestock, and hardwoods. It was an expensive city where wages were higher than in Spain or Holland.”
There is no better example of the Cuban baroque style in architecture than the Catedral de La Habana with its ornate columned façade (Pl. 1). Constructed of coquina, a fossilized coral rock (also known as “black teeth” or “iron shore”) and limestone, the cathedral dominates the city’s Plaza de Catedral. Rebuilt in 1748, the cathedral has been described by the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) with the adage “music turned to stone.” Because rich members of local congregations spent large sums building an furnishing their churches, ecclesiastical furnishings, including sacristy chests, were fabricated without thought of expense. Most of these chests were made of Cuban mahogany (Swietenia mahogoni) with West Indian cedar (Cedrela odorata) interiors.
By the mid-eighteenth century Cuban architecture became more dynamic, and decorative arts and furnishings followed suit. A later, more elaborate, baroque style began to incorporate traces of the French rococo asymmetry (see Pl. IV).
In 1762, Havana and the western half of Cuba was ceded to England as one of the consequences of the Seven Years` War (1756-1763). Havana became an open port, which changed the social, economic, and political landscape. As one historian has written: “During the British occupation, Havana’s residents had enjoyed their ability to purchase coveted consumer goods from the British merchants that had descended upon the city. With the return of Spanish rule, the government had instituted a degree of comercio libre, or free trade, which, while not the economic freedom of unrestricted laissez-faire, was a vast improvement over the previous system.”
With comercico libre, fashionable furnishings were now imported directly from France, England, or the Netherlands as well as from Spain. Consequently, Cuban furniture made during this period was quickly given foreign forms and styles such as the Queen Anne style, as well as French and Dutch baroque and rococo elements. In an article about English eighteenth-century furniture exports to Spain and thence, perhaps, to Cuba, Robert Wemyss Symonds wrote: “London since earliest times had possessed the reputation for the making of articles of the best quality and of the latest design. Not only to Englishmen at home and in the colonies, but also to many foreigners… For distinctive features of design, apart from the brighter coloring of the Japan grounds, the use of cane seats to chairs, stools and settees owning to their greater coolness in a hot climate, is one noticeable characteristic of this furniture.”
Like Cuba, Spain was inundated with foreign fashions in furniture design, and because of this many scholars maintain that any purity of form in Spanish furniture design disappeared with the eighteenth century.
“Spain gradually lost her national traits in furniture toward the end of the XVII century. In the XVIII they completely disappeared during the rule of the Bourbons, when the dominant styles were naturally those called ‘Louis,’ which in many cases were full of elegance and restlessness of line, whose curves and graces sharply conflicted with Spain’s characteristic robustness and simplicity.”
What some furniture aficionados considered a loss for Spain was a gain for colonial Cuba. While eighteenth-century foreign influences are considered a dilution of the integrity of traditional Spanish furniture, most Cuban baroque furniture forms are exuberantly vernacular interpretations. Cuban artisans blended some of the traditional elements of furniture from Europe with exotic local influences to create furniture with bold proportions and dramatic ornamentation (see Pl. V).
By the mid-eighteenth century, sugar had replaced tobacco as the source of Cuba’s wealth, and with these riches came imported furniture in the style of Louis XV from France, and Chippendale furniture from England, which was deemed more prestigious than the local product. However, the relatively soft woods of European furniture were no match for the humidity, tropical woodworms, and termites of Cuba. As a result, locally made reproductions and interpretations of the European imports came into fashion (see Pl. IX).
Among the elite the sacristy chest was considered the finest of all furniture forms to give to their local church and to adorn their private chapels. The smaller freestanding form of these extravagant chests with their undulating block front facades is believed to have possibly originated in Mexico or Brazil, but recent research points to a Cuban origin. These smaller chests were used in bedrooms and drawing rooms (see Pls. VI, VII). Adapting and commissioning what was originally a religious form increased the self-importance of the owner.
Originally, the block front was carved from a single thick piece of mahogany. As the eighteenth century progressed Cuban cabinetmakers created ever more exaggerated serpentine fronts, with the design continued on the sides and the feet protruding farther forward (see Pl. X). only in the nineteenth century was the raised surface glued onto a thinner board.
The Cuban sacristy chest inspired craftsmen throughout the New World to copy it. Portuguese rococo sacristy chests are found in Brazil; Dutch bombe examples are found along the northern coast of South America; and many examples are found in Mexican cities. Although it is documented that Cuban sacristy chests were shipped throughout the Caribbean, it is not known if they were the prototypes for the Mexican and South American examples. In an article about the decorative arts of Mexico, David B. Warren has written:
“During the second half of the nineteenth century, the ubiquitous storage trunks began to be replaced by wardrobes and chests of drawers. The one shown … is unusual in that banks of large drawers are concealed behind a pair of doors that comprise the undulating façade. The origin of this motif in combination with conforming ogee bracket feet is not clear. It seems to come ultimately from Chinese furniture and may have been introduced to Mexico either directly from China, or through furniture imported from Holland, itself influenced by Chinese examples. The stylistic kinship with the undulating facades of the block front furniture that evolved in Newport, Rhode Island, is intriguing, but at the moment inexplicable.”
North American scholars claim that the block front originated in Newport, Rhode Island, in the 1760s with the cabinetmakers John Townsend (1732-1809) and John Goddard (1723-1785). However, research by R. Peter Mooz has placed the earliest known block front in Boston in the late 1730s. as serpentine block front sacristy chests were made in Cuba as early as the 1730s, the North American origin of the form seems dubious. An ingenious theory was put forth in 1928 by William Brownell Goodwin (1866-1950), who visited Havana and saw the sacristy chest in the cathedral. He wrote:
“My theory naturally is that John Townsend himself or John Goddard or both of them shortly after 1741 visited Havana for the purpose of choosing and selecting fine mahogany for their work, and at that time visited the Cathedral, saw this piece, and recognized the unusual quality of its workmanship and evolved the type known as the American Block Front.”
There are records of North America merchants visiting Cuba to buy mahogany for cabinetmaking. However, Goodwin’s theory antedates the discovery of the Boston block front furniture of the late 1730s. Mooz thinks it is “probable that Newport furniture designs, individual though they are, were originally drawn from precedents outside Newport. The form was based on blocking developed in Boston and the ornament may have been taken from French designs, but the creative genius that combined these elements and perfected the style was Newport’s alone.”
The hundreds of eighteenth-century sacristy chests of drawers in Cuba today remain a tribute to the skill and innovative sense of design of their anonymous makers. They serve as an impetus for further study of the confluence of cultures in colonial Cuba and how it affected the development of the tradition of craftsmanship on the island.
(2) Maria Luisa Lobo Montalvo, Havana: History and Architecture of a Romantic City, trans. Lorna Scott Fox (Monacelli Press, New York, 2000), p. 72.
(3) Sherry Johnson, The Social Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Cuba (University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2001), p. 10.
(4) Symonds, “English Eighteenth Century Furniture Exports,” pp. 57, 59.
(5) Rafael Domenech Gallissa and Luis Perez-Bueno, Muebles antiquos espanoles/Antique Spanish Furniture, trans. Grace Hardendorff Burr (1921; Archive Press, New York, 1965), p. 20.
(6) David B. Warren, “The arts of viceregal Mexico, 1521-1821: A confluence of cultures,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 161, no. 4 (April 2002), p. 126.
(7) R. Peter Mooz, “The origins of Newport block-front furniture design,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 99, no. 6 (June 1971), p. 882.
(8) Quoted in “Speculations on the Rhode Island block-front in 1928,” comp. Wendell D. Garrett, ibid., p. 891.
(9) Mooz, “The origins of Newport block-front furniture design,” p. 886.
MICHAEL CONNORS is the author of Cuban Elegance published by Harry N. Abrams in March.