Object for July – Decorative Bridal Box Panels

When the Gayer-Anderson brothers undertook the restoration of Little Hall in the 1930s they fitted out a number of its rooms with architectural features and decorative pieces. The items were collected on their travels in Egypt and the middle East. One such room, named by the Gayer-Andersons as the Study but now known as the Panel Room, was fitted with cupboards which housed smaller items from their collection of antiquities. The doors to the cupboards, which were always locked, were faced with panels from Persian bridal boxes or dowry chests. The panels are decorated with Asian birds, scenes of domestic life, flowers and fruit. Thomas thought the room with its “cheery bright yellow woodwork and …Persian flower pieces” was one of the most complicated and successful decorative schemes undertaken within the house.

The panels of the bridal boxes reused in the Study are probably 18th or 19th century in origin. Traditionally such chests, usually of wood, are rectangular in form and have a flat lid. They may also have had concealed compartments for valuables. The elaborate painted decoration on the panels in the Study includes symbols of virtue and good fortune. The stylised tulip is a symbol of feminine beauty, perfection and paradise. The Chrysanthemum is associated with the Persian  pre-Islamic Zoroastrian spiritual being, Ashi Vanghuhi, a female Yazad or angel of  ‘good blessings and rewards’. 

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Panel from a middle eastern bridal box reused in the decorative scheme of the Study at Little Hall. The bird is possibly a Persian nuthatch.

The purpose of bridal boxes, as their name suggests, was to keep and transport the items needed by a bride to set up her new home. The purchase of the box and its contents would be funded by her family and friends. They equate today to the John Lewis weddings web site. In Muslim communities the chest would usually be placed in the women’s quarters of the house. They were a status symbol and might also serve as a practical piece of furniture such as a bench or table.

Thomas, the Colonel, observed that the finished room, with its reused panels from the bridal boxes, fulfilled admirably the various functions required of it. He also felt that it afforded an outstanding example of the phenomenon whereby items acquired from one ancient building may fit into another with uncanny rightness. From ancient times peoples have reused materials and ornament from earlier structures. The Arch of Constantine in Rome incorporates sections of decorative and symbolic masonry from earlier monuments in the city. The Roman’s even had a name for the practice of reusing materials in new works, “spolia” (Latin, ‘spoils’).

A craftsman decorating a bridal box, Iraq, 1922. Though the practice continues today demand is greatly reduced.

The incorporation of the panels from the bridal boxes into the decorative scheme of the Study at Little Hall is likely to have been undertaken purely for aesthetic reasons. However, in the past the practice of spolia was undertaken for a number of motives, including unavailability of skills or other resources, or out of respect for the meaning or symbolism of the incorporated material.  The practice of spolia continues with the growth, since the early 20th century, of architectural salvage and reclamation yards throughout the country. Today the practice has the added benefit of sustainability.

Michael Sutherill

Curator, Little Hall, July 2020

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