Ebony and Ivory



Western in form and Indian in materials and ornamen­tation, this sumptuous ebony and ivory chair testifies to the artistic, cultural, and political complexities of life in southern India in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. Elevated seating was not a typical part of traditional Indian culture. Indians typically ate, socialized, and conducted business on rugs or thin mat­tresses while reclining on bolsters. Many European merchants in India adapted to these local customs, but others brought furniture from home or commissioned Indian artists to create western style fur­niture for them.1 Using expensive materials such as ebony, padouk, and ivory or more widely available hardwoods, Indian furniture-makers fabricated functional objects of exceptional beauty.

The 2001 publication of Amin Jaffer’s Furniture from British India and Ceylon: A Catalogue of the Collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum highlighted the two larg­est collections of Anglo-Indian furniture in the world and was the first work to cover this rich subject in depth. Since then, the Peabody Essex Museum has continued to selectively add masterworks of Anglo-Indian furniture to the permanent collection, including this chair.2 Its elegance, sinuous designs, and fascinating history make it one of the collection’s highlights, but because it was acquired after the publication of Furniture from British India, it has been a collection sleeper. That is about to change. From January 23 to February 2, the chair will be featured in the Winter Antiques Show’s 2014 loan exhibition Fresh Take: Making Connections at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Made in Vizagapatam, India, the chair’s form closely follows European examples of the mid-eighteenth century. Vizagapatam (now Vishakhapatnam) was the most important harbor between Calcutta and Madras on India’s eastern Coromandel Coast. This thriving port city was a major center for the production of west­ern style furniture as early as the 1600s. Vizagapatam craftsmen were particularly noted for their skill with inlaid and veneered ivory. These artists often engraved ivory, filling the lines with a black resinous paste known as lac to create boldly con­trasting designs against the white ground.

Many of the inlaid and engraved designs on this chair-intertwining flowers and a tree of life mo­tif on the back splat-relate closely to Indian designs on cotton palampores (bedspreads) exported from the Coromandel Coast to Europe in the eighteenth century (see Fig. 2).  More unusually, this chair is also decorated with fleur-de-lis medallions on the knees and the crest and seat rails. Their inclusion suggests that the chair was originally commissioned by or for a French patron in India.

Officially, southern India was governed by local rulers appointed by the Mughal em­peror, but in the mid- to late eighteenth century French and British forces increasingly vied for control of the lucrative textile trade in India. In their efforts to dominate the region, British and French troops backed rival candidates for the throne of the nawab of Arcot, who ruled the Carnatic region between the Eastern Ghats and the Coromandel Coast.3 The British supported Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah (1717-1795) and succeeded in placing him on the throne in 1749. With the beginning of the Seven Years’ War in Europe in 1756, these passive rivalries took on new vigor, replicating the military conflicts the two nations were also undergoing in Europe. In 1761, after a four-month siege, British troops seized Pondicherry, the headquarters of the French East India Company and an important trade center within this textile-producing region. The British celebrated their victory by commissioning a large painted and mordant- and resist-dyed cotton hang­ing depicting the victory, which was recently featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s magisterial exhibition Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800 (see Fig. 3). PEM’s ebony and ivory chair was similarly created within this climate of European conflict in India, although who com­missioned it and why is not entirely clear.4

According to a needlework inscription on the chair’s seat, sadly now lost but illustrated in 1934, “this Chair was sent a Present to Lady Harland in the year 1772 from the Nabob of Arcot when Sr. Robert Harland Bart. was Commander in Chief of His Britanic [sic] Majesty’s Fleets in the East Indies and Plenipoten­tiary from the King of England to the Nabob of Arcot.”5 Admiral Robert Harland (c. 1715-1784)served as head of the British Navy in the East Indies from 1771 to 1775 and was given the challenging task of negotiating with the nawab over his debts to the East India Company, which, by 1770, amounted to close to £900,000.6 Muhammad Ali Khan Wal­lajah, known for the lavish gifts he often bestowed to foster diplomatic exchanges, may have presented this Vizagapatam chair decorated with French fleurs-de-lis to Robert Harland as a gift to his wife as an ironic and celebratory reminder that the political winds in India had shifted toward the British. Or perhaps the nawab was simply guilty of the sin of regifting.

  1 Indian officials sometimes offered western style furniture as a cour­tesy to their visiting European guests. George Paterson, Sir Robert Har­land’s official secretary, was always offered a chair when visiting the nawab of Arcot’s court, even though the nawab himself sat on a carpet. See Amin Jaffer, Furniture from British India and Ceylon: A Catalogue of the Collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Peabody Es­sex Museum (V&A Publications in association with the Peabody Essex Museum, London and Salem, 2001), p. 78, n. 36, and p. 112.  2 The chair was acquired from the estate of Los Angeles designer Tony Du­quette; see The Duquette Collections, Christie’s LosAngeles, March 12-14, 2001, lot 57.  3 This region corresponds to the modern Indian states of Tamil Nadu, southeastern Karnataka, and southern Andhra Pradesh.  4 Ananda Ranga Pillai (1709-1761), the chief dubâsh, or native servant, to the French East India Company in Pondicherry owned a Vizagapa­tam desk-and-bookcase inlaid with ivory with related tree of life and floral motifs.  5 R. W. Symonds, “Furniture from the Indies III,” The Connoisseur, vol. 94 (August 1934), p. 119, Fig. XII.  6 Peter James Mar­shall, The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India, and Amer­ica, c. 1750-1783 (Oxford University Press, London, 2005), p. 233.

KARINA H. CORRIGAN is the H. A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art at the Peabody Essex Museum. 

For more: Saying the V-Word