Pair of Ebony Coromandel Chairs
We are pleased to announce that these chairs will be on display at Strawberry Hill House and Garden's upcoming exhibition, Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill: Masterpieces from Horace Walpole's collection, 20 October 2018 - 24 February 2019. Click here for further information on the exhibition.
These magnificently carved and pierced ebony chairs were made on the Coromandel Coast in south-east India during the 1660s-1680s. The Coromandel Coast was a region known for its active textile manufacturing industry with many factories producing for the European market, and it was also known as a centre for making ebony furniture as confirmed by the inventories from the Dutch East India Company (Jaffer, p.133). Furthermore, many of these pieces of ebony furniture were taken to nearby Ceylon and Batavia where they were replicated. In order to differentiate between these often very similar pieces of furniture, scholars have divided the furniture into five stylistic types (see Jaffer, pp.133-34 for a full description of types A-E). These four chairs fall within the group known as ‘type C’, characterised by pierced decoration, dense scrolling designs, and motifs from Christian and Hindu imagery. Chairs of this type are elaborate and contain small decorative additions of ivory, and finials often in the shape of birds. According to Jaffer, two documented groups belonging to ‘type C’ exist in Britain. The first group is from Longleat, the seat of the Marquesses of Bath, in Wiltshire, where an inventory from 1740 has a reference to 24 chairs of this type. The second group was originally in Montagu House, London, mentioned in an inventory in 1746, and the chairs are now in Boughton House, Northamptonshire (Jaffer, p. 133). Furthermore, it would appear that all of the chairs formerly in the collection of Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Orford, in Strawberry Hill, London, are of the same type. At the sale of Walpole’s belongings in 1842, some of these chairs went to Knowsley, Merseyside, the seat of the Earl of Derby, and others to Eaton Hall, Cheshire, the seat of the Duke of Westminster (Jaffer, p. 137).
It is very likely that our four chairs belonged to the group bought for the Duke of Westminster at Walpole’s sale in 1842. On the inside of the front seat rail on one of the four chairs is an old exhibition label reading ‘Art Treasures Exhibition, Wrexham, 1876’, and on the back seat rails of all the chairs are numbers (3, 10, 14), one of them now torn off. The Art Treasures Exhibition of North Wales and the Border Counties opened on July 22nd 1876 and ran for three months. While the name on the label on our chair is completely faded, the Duke of Westminster opened this exhibition and played an instrumental role in it by contributing many objects from his own collection. Three carved ebony chairs from his collection were published in 1939, each slightly different in style (for an example of the one closest to ours, see Wall, fig. 27). The collection at Eaton Hall was sold in 1960.
Examples of ‘type C’ chairs can be found in the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, Accession Number AE85711.1-2, illustrated in Jaffer, p. 136, fig. 1, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Accession Number IS.6-2000.
Literature: Jaffer, A. Furniture from British India and Ceylon: A Catalogue of the Collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum, Timeless Books, India, 2001.
Port Cities: Multicultural Emporiums of Asia, 1500-1900, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, 2017
Veenendaal, J. Furniture from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India during the Dutch period, Volkenkundig Museum Nusantara, Delft, 1985.
Wall, Dr. V. I. van der. Het Hollandsche Koloniale Barokmeubel: bijdrage tot de kennis van het ebbenhouten meubel omstreeks het midden der XVIIde en het begin der XVIIIde eeuw, De Sikkel, Antwerpen, Martinus Nijhoff, 'S Gravenhage, 1939.