An ebony, ivory and hardwood bureau cabinet Vizagapatam, third quarter 18th century
Princess Heide von Hohenzollern, Schloss Namedy.
Thence by descent until sold to the present owner.
Amin Jaffer, Furniture from British India and Ceylon, 2001, pp. 183-185.
The present cabinet closely relates to the examples produced in the Indian port of Vizagaptam, illustrated, Jaffer, op.cit., pp. 183-185. However, it has the distinctive feature of an elaborately shaped upper section which is possibly derived from European prototypes rather than the English forms which have clearly inspired the cabinets illustrated in Jaffer, op. cit., pp.182 & 183, no.35, and pls. 81,83 & 84. Furthermore, the mouldings framing the cabinet are entirely ebony or ebonised which is more typical of the early 18th century Vizagapatam cabinet work which can be identified for its use of ebony as a background to the ivory inlay as opposed to teak or padouk. This cabinet may therefore possibly represent a transitional phase between the early and mid-18th styles of engraved ivory inlay produced in Vizagaptam. It is also tempting to speculate that the shape of the upper section is a consequence of the influence of the descendants of the Dutch settlers who colonised neighbouring Bimlipatam in 1628.
Vizagaptam furniture and related wares
Vizagapatam is situated on the south east coast of India between the Godava River and Nagapatnam, close to the large city of Madras to the south. Since the 17th century it has served as a major port, and has historically been part of the major trading route between Europe and the Far East. Amin Jaffer notes that `Vizagapatam possessed the ingredients necessary for the success of a centre of furniture-making', its fine harbour providing access to many fine timbers including teak, ebony and rosewood which were indigenous to the surrounding Northern Circars region. Other materials, such as ivory from Pegu, padouk and sandalwood were also readily available to the local craftsmen. The area was an old established centre for the manufacture of dyed cottons which had attracted European traders since the 17th century. These included the Dutch who established a trading post at Bimlipatam to the north in 1628, and the English, whose textile factory was founded at Vizagapatam in 1668. In 1768 the whole of the Circars region came under the control of the East India Company, with a subsequent increase in population due to the expanding lucrative coastal trade.
Curiously, although it is evident from the survival of several pieces of furniture dating from the second quarter of the 18th century, the first written reference to ivory inlaid furniture in Vizagapatam was made in 1756 by a Major John Corneille, who noted that the area was known for the quality of its chintz, which is `esteemed the best in India for its brightness of its colours' and that `the place is likewise remarkable for its inlay work, and justly for they do it to the greatest perfection' (A. Jaffer, op.cit., p. 172).
It is obvious from the pieces which survive from the mid-18th century that native craftsmen were strongly influenced by their European customers. Furniture from Vizagapatam was often based on either Dutch or English examples, or designs made available through contemporary furniture pattern books. Such derivation is best seen in the suite of ivory-inlaid chairs, now in the British Royal Collection, commissioned by Alexander Wynch, Governor of Fort St. George, the design for which was clearly influenced by Chippendale's Director of 1762.
The degree of influence over native cabinet makers by resident English merchants is poorly documented, although Samuel Banks, a merchant who died at Vizagapatam in 1754, was certainly closely involved with them. As Jaffer states, `accounts of his estate indicate that he traded in teak, sandalwood and ivory, and held substantial stocks of looking glasses'. He also left a group of `unfinished' inlaid boxes indicating that he had some involvement in their manufacture. Another merchant John Compton, who was a contemporary of Banks, left `half a dozen tea caddies and a total of seventeen "Escrutores inlaid with ivory" which were not fitted with mounts'.
Although the design of furniture produced by Indian cabinet makers was heavily influenced by European models, its decoration remains purely Indian in character. The broad bands of engraved ivory depict wonderfully exotic foliage with sinuous branches and luscious flowers and fruit. These motifs, first drawn by Indian artists, were initially used as decoration on brightly coloured cotton goods, such as palampores, which had proved to be immensely popular in the west since the 17th century. The clear white of the ivory, ornamented with engraving enhanced by black lac, inlaid into rich native timbers, must have proved particularly exciting to the western eye. Towards the end of the 18th century items of furniture were more commonly totally veneered with sheets of engraved ivory, the engraving sometimes incorporating architectural views (see lot 234).