A 17thC Gem Encrusted Pietra Dura Cabinet, Penshurst Place, Kent

Trish Evans - House and Garden Guide at Penshurst Place. ©Penshurst Place 2013
Trish Evans – House and Garden Guide at Penshurst Place. ©Penshurst Place 2013

Trish Evans has been a house and garden guide at Penshurst Place for the past 16 years.  She knows the family home of Viscount De L’Isle inside out and, having explored the house myself, I know that asking her to choose her favourite piece was a little unfair.

Penshurst Place has been the home of the Sidney family since 1552.  It was gifted to Sir William Sidney by Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI, in recognition of his role as loyal steward and tutor.  The house is now filled with beautiful belongings and, although tempted by a Ming vase from the Ching Dynasty, Trish finally chose a Florentine Ebony Veneered Pietra Dura cabinet as her favourite piece.

Pietra Dura Cabinet, Penshurst Place  ©Penshurst Place 2013
Pietra Dura Cabinet, Penshurst Place
©Penshurst Place 2013

Made from ebonised rosewood this perfectly symmetrical cabinet stands shoulder high and dates back to the late 17th century.  Ten small drawers hide behind its main cupboard door whilst a further ten drawers, of differing sizes, sit on top.  Plain panels of lapis lazuli are interspersed with highly decorative images of birds, flowering branches and flowers all made from precisely cut and highly polished semi-precious stones.

Trish says ‘it brings sheer beauty to the eye. It fires the imagination. For example what would be kept in those drawers? Love letters, secrets, beautiful jewellery, diaries, lacy handkerchiefs…? It’s a talking point, very dainty and feminine and an extremely desirable object. ‘

Close up of left hand side of Pietra Dura Cabinet ©Penshurst Place
Close up of left hand side of Pietra Dura Cabinet
©Penshurst Place

The inlay technique used to create the decorative panels is known as Pietra Dura. No spaces are left between the interconnected stones and the craft dates back to the Roman Empire.  It became popular amongst the Florentine craftsman during the mid-16th century and gained great support from the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco de’ Medici, who imported the best stone carvers from Milan and Rome to establish, and advance, the decorative art in Florence.  Fortunately this highly skilled craft is still being practised today and, having trained in Florence, Thomas Greenaway, a family friend of Lord De L’Isle, now creates his own pieces at his workshop in Northamptonshire.

Those of us in Kent, however, can see this cabinet for ourselves in the Tapestry Room at Penshurst.

The house is open to the public between 12 noon and 4pm until the 3rd November.  The grounds of Penshurst Place are also well worth exploring and you can find further visitor information here.

Many thanks to Trish Evans, marketing executive Abbie Voice and Viscount De L’Isle for their help with this post.

And thank you for reading it!  If you would like further snippets about Kent’s historical people, places and objects sent directly to your inbox, please enter your email address at the top right hand corner of the screen.

See you again soon. Rachael

Penshurst  Place, Kent ©Penshurst Place
Penshurst Place, Kent ©Penshurst Place


  1. Victorian Supersleuth

    Excellent – a fascinating piece and a beautiful cabinet. I’d love to know what was in those drawers too!

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