The family have always understood this desk to be a Vansittart heirloom although there were connections with the East India Company through the Smith family too. There is a reference to objects from India and pertaining to him at Shottesbrooke in 1910. Eden Vansittart in his History of the Vansittart Family, p.14, writes that of the curious Indian objects owned by Henry 'Most of these are still at Shottesbrooke House'.
Henry, like many of his contemporaries working in India at the time, appears to have been a collector of some note. Eden Vansittart (op. cit. p.14) records that 'In 1768 he presented King George III and Queen Charlotte with a 'Mohr Punker' or peacock boat, an emblem of Indian royalty (see The Gentlemans Magazine XXXVIII., 405, 406). He brought over many curios, including a Persian painting of Nadir Shah now in the India Office (see Fosters Catalogue of Paintings of the India Office) and a very large diamond...'. It is tempting to think that the present lot formed a part of this group.
Another kneehole desk which was acquired by Robert Clive (d.1774) is now at Powis Castle, Powys (fig. 2). Clive served a number of terms in India, first travelling to Madras in 1744 as a writer or clerk in the East India Company though distinguishing himself in military actions, and then serving in Bombay (1755-60) and Bengal (1765-67). Clive initially championed Henry Vansittart to become Governor of Bengal before their spectacular falling out4. The Clive desk, with a closely matching though not integral toilet-glass, must have been acquired in his first or second term of service since it is recorded that the feet were replaced by the London cabinet-maker George Bradshaw in 1761. It is worth noting at this stage that the present desk retains its original engraved-ivory veneered bracket feet, a rare feature from this group and apparently found on only one other recorded example in the The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (see fig. 3 and below). In common with the Clive desk and other examples from this slightly later group, the present lot is made of only one primary timber, the ebony borders no longer employed, and the marquetry is more painterly, featuring large leaves and oversized tulip-like flowers tied with ribbons at the corners, in addition to the dense small flowers of the Benyon table. While the superb Clive table features a curved arched kneehole, others, like the present lot, have a rectangular kneehole with a sliding compartment of pigeon-holes and drawers indicating a dual purpose.
Another made in rosewood and with virtually identical marquetry was exhibited by Lennox Money Antiques, London, at the Grosvenor House Antique Dealers Fair, 1977. This was given by Warren Hastings5 - close friend and confidant of Henry Vansittart and a senior representative of the East India Company at Fort St. George (1768-72) and Governor of Bengal (1772-85) - to his goddaughter on her marriage to George Elwes of Marcham Park, Berks, 17896.
Other closely related writing/dressing-tables include one sold Sotheby's, New York, Property from the Collection of Lily and Edmond J. Safra, 3 November 2005, lot 144 ($828,000 with premium). Executed in padouk rather than rosewood, it features almost identical marquetry with large flowers and tied ribbons to the corners7. A further example, from the collection of the Marquesses of Townshend at Lansdowne House, London, and latterly Raynham Hall, Norfolk, sold Christie’s London, The Exceptional Sale, 7 July 2011, lot 15 (£289,250 with premium). Another sold Sotheby's, London, The Property of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Cotton, 14 November 1975, lot 68.
For a near identical version almost certainly for the same workshop, with the same handles and ivory veneered bracket feet, see that in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and which at one time was owned by Sir Thomas Rumbold (1736-1791), Governor of Madras (M.3-2016) (fig. 3). A member of the Bengal Council between 1766- 1769, Sir Thomas would have undoubtedly known Henry Vansittart during his tenure as Governor making it conceivable the two desks were commissioned at the same time.
1 Jaffer, A., Furniture from British India and Ceylon, Singapore, 2001, p.172
2 Henry Vansittart (1732–1770) married Amelia Morse, the daughter of Richard Benyon’s successor Nicholas Moorse who was Governor of Madras from 1744 to 1746. Like the Vansittart’s, Benyon’s family seat was in Berkshire.
3 Ibid., p. 182.
4 Both Henry and George Vansittart were at one time close allies of Clive. George accompanied Clive on his diplomatic mission to Oudh, during which the East India Company secured the ‘diwani’ or charter from Emperor Shah Alam empowering the Company to administer Bengal. Henry Vansittart’s relationship with Clive was more fractious. At first, they were great supporters of each other, however, on Henry’s return from India in 1765, Clive attempted to make him a scapegoat for the Company’s failings and quickly turned from friend to foe. For further information on the Vansittart brother’s time in India, see Williams, C., The Nabobs of Berkshire, 2010. pp. 362-377.
5 In contrast to his relationship with Clive, Henry Vansittart’s friendship with Hastings was an enduring one and the two were close professional allies. In 1762, in an attempt to rectify the abuse of the ‘dansak’ - a concession which allowed Company goods to move between the Moghul provinces without having to pay customs duties - Vansittart and Hastings negotiated an agreement with Mir Kasim, the then Nawab of Bengal, in 1762. The Bengal Counsel refused to ratify the agreement and in a fiery meeting Hastings was punched by his bitter enemy Stanlake Baston (see Williams, C., op. cit., pp. 362-377).
6 Interestingly, having seen the Hastings desk at the Grosvenor House Antique Dealers Fair in 1977, Sir John Smith writes to Lennox Money regarding his ‘almost identical piece, made for the family’, and goes on to note ‘I did not realise that the drawers in the kneehole draw forward, but now that I have tried it I find they do just like yours. The only considerable difference is that our piece has a solid ivory plinth instead of wooden legs’.
7 The Safra desk is illustrated in Synge, L., Mallet’s Great English Furniture, 1991, p. 184, fig. 210.
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