Published: December 19, 2000
Creations in Ebony and Ivory on View through April
SALEM, MASS. – Sir George Birdwood, an Englishman living in India in the late Nineteenth Century, took note of that country’s vigorous commerce in artworks. “In India everything, as yet, is hand wrought,” he wrote, “and everything, down to the cheapest toys and earthen vessels, is therefore more or less a work of art.”
That was especially true of the furniture that Indian craftsmen were producing for Europeans. Without a tradition of Western-style furniture construction – Indians mostly ate, read and socialized at ground level on textiles – the pieces they produced were often stunning cultural hybrids: Western in form and function, but Indian in execution and materials.
On February 2 the Peabody Essex Museum will mount a special exhibition of this unique art form. “Ebony and Ivory: Furniture from British India and Ceylon” showcases the museum’s rare holdings of Indian export furniture, spanning more than 250 years of furniture making in India. It includes 19 pieces of furniture, many of which have never been on display. The exhibition runs through April 29.
“Using exotic materials like ivory, lacquer, tortoiseshell and Asian hardwoods, these cabinetmakers made functional objects of exceptional beauty,” says exhibition curator Karina Corrigan. “This furniture reflects the intersection of cultures in colonial Indian life.”
“Ebony and Ivory” also comprises decorative objects, paintings, photographs, textiles and works on paper, which illustrates the social and commercial life of British India. Visitors can also experience the pungent aroma of rare hardwoods such as sandalwood and rosewood from “scent boxes” on display, or see Indian decorative techniques on panels. A concluding section allows visitors to peruse the exhibition catalogue while sitting on Indian mattresses and bolsters or Anglo-Indian chairs.
The exhibition is in conjunction with the publication of Furniture from British India and Ceylon: A Catalogue of the Collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum. These two institutions hold the most important collections of Anglo-Indian furniture in the world, and this illustrated catalogue represents the first comprehensive look at this subject.
The exhibit begins with an ivory veneered chair, circa 1770. The chair is based on designs by English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale, but the use of ivory marks this as an unusual piece of furniture for its time. The technique of engraving ivory and filling the engraved lines with black lacquer is typical of the craftsmen in Vizagapatam, an important furniture making port on India’s east coast. Ivory pieces such as these are the most recognizable type of Anglo-Indian furniture.
Also shown is an elaborately carved ebony chair from late-Seventeenth Century Ceylon. Chairs of this type were among the furnishings of Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s famed estate. As such, they were long thought to have been made in England. But no English craftsman would have carved a chair entirely of ebony, nor would he have decorated its back and seat rail with serpents. Such details set pieces of Anglo-Indian furniture apart from their European contemporaries and are a source of fascination for art historians and lovers of fine furniture.
A large, intricately carved sofa, circa 1865, is in the same tradition as the Ceylon chair. The serpentine-shaped sofa is a carved menagerie of unicorns, birds and beasts, set amid dense foliage. Even the arms are carved with lion’s heads. The sofa’s owner was Edward Delhonde Ropes, the American consul at Zanzibar from 1864 to 1869. Zanzibar boasted a large Indian population, including craftsmen, and its brisk trade with Bombay flooded the East African region with Indian export furniture, among other rdf_Descriptions.
The museum, in the historic seaport of Salem, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm; Sunday, noon to 5 pm. For more information, 800/745-4054.
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