A Coromandel Cabinet on a Stand
Sri Lanka or Coromandel Coast
Cabinet: 82cm high, 109cm wide, 56cm deep
Stand: 69cm high, 114cm wide, 56cm deep
Provenance: Thierry-Nicolas Tchakaloff Collection
Stock no.: A5505
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A Coromandel Cabinet on a Stand
A stunning carved ebony cabinet belonging to a very small group of ebony furniture that was made for local Dutch VOC officials in South India, the Coromandel Coast, Batavia and Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) in the second half of the seventeenth century (Terwen-de Loos 1985; Veenendaal 1985; Jaffer 2001; and Veenendaal 2014). This group of furniture is characterised by low relief carving with vegetal motifs, the blending of Christian and local imagery, the use of solid ebony for the turned, carved, or openwork elements, and plaques, combined with twist-turned components which were common in contemporary European furniture.
This two-door cabinet, finely carved in low-relief and profusely decorated throughout, has eleven drawers and sits on a separate stand that is fitted with two large drawers. All elements of the cabinet and stand are made from joined and pinned solid ebony (Ceylon ebony, Diospyrus ebenum), apart from two internal shelves in the cabinet which are probably Indian rosewood edged in ebony, and a top board of European pine in the stand, added later. The identical pouncing within the carving and their shared distinctive drawer construction confirms that the cabinet and stand are of a piece. The lavish use of ebony or kaḷuvara in Sinhala, an exotic hardwood highly prized in Europe since antiquity, illustrates the natural wealth of the Sri Lankan and south Indian forests. Both rare and expensive, ebony is also an extremely hard wood and difficult to work with, thus requiring a high level of skill in the production of a luxury piece such as this.
When open, the interior of the cabinet reveals its architectural form, with banks of drawers surrounding a central cupboard door which opens to the right. The door has two carved columns and a capital, further emphasising the architectural form of the cabinet. The top drawer is flanked on each side with three arched niches. While the interior sides of the cabinet doors are plain, the exterior of the cabinet and the fronts of the drawers are defined by the same delicate low-relief carving. The decoration of the exterior sides consists of a central field with two concentric scalloped medallions featuring vegetal scrolls in two-fold symmetry. These forms are known in Sinhala as liya væla and form the basis for much of the decorative repertoire used in Ceylonese and South Indian carving (Coomaraswamy 1956, pp. 98– 99).
Made by highly skilled, local craftsmen, and influenced by contemporary European elements, this early example is rare. The Ceylonese imagery across the carving suggests that it was most likely made in Sri Lanka or South India. It is likely that artisans would have travelled between the two regions (Veenendaal 1985, p. 24). Ebony cabinets on stands from this early period are very seldom found, as opposed to the more numerous contemporary chairs and settees, or smaller two-door table cabinets and caskets (Veenendaal 2014, p. 41).
A Sri Lankan mythological bird-like creature known in Sinhala as serapenḍiyā (also as guruḷu pakṣiyā), meaning ‘ruler of serpents’, and a double-headed eagle, known locally as bhēruṇḍa pakṣiyā (Coomaraswamy 1956, p. 85) are deployed throughout to ward off evil and protect the precious contents stored in this type of furniture from unscrupulous people. The serapenḍiyā has the head of a lion or makarā, albeit with the snout curled inwards, the body of a bird, and an S-shaped tail (Coomaraswamy 1956, p. 83). It appears as a pair of masterfully carved entangled birds with their tails transformed into vegetal scrolls over the fronts of the eight smaller drawers on the inside (flanking the cupboard door), and the larger two on the lower register, as well as on the stand on the fronts of its two large drawers and over its sides. The double-headed bhēruṇḍa pakṣiyā decorates the drawer in the first register of the cabinet. Highlighting the architectural design of the cabinet, the decoration of the central cupboard door consists of a niche covered by entablature enclosing what seems to be a European-derived heraldic shield with a combination of lozenges (the field divided into lozenge-shaped compartments) with semy-de-lis (the field strewn with fleurs-de-lis). On top of the ‘shield’ rises an oversized eagle with outstretched wings. Crowning the entablature, flanked by two Classical-shaped urns, there is a crowned cherub, also with open wings. The crowned cherub possibly points to the Christian identity of its owner.
The cabinet belongs to one of the least understood groups of so-called Indo-European furniture (Jaffer 2001, p. 130), partly on account of the misunderstanding by Horace Walpole (1717–97), the British writer and influential collector and connoisseur who amassed a large collection of such ebony carved furniture in his palatial residence, Strawberry Hill, London, who believed that they were made in England. The presence of these types of ebony carved pieces of furniture in many aristocratic British houses was mistakenly associated with the Tudor period, and the use of twist-turning was believed to be typical of Elizabethan furniture. This may have led Walpole to infer that such pieces were of early English manufacture, an error that persisted throughout the nineteenth century.
Recorded in British collections from at least the mid-eighteenth century, pieces such as openwork ebony chairs and tables, and more rarely large cabinets with stands like the present example, were brought to Britain in large quantities by officials of the East India Company and merchants. We know less about the subsequent fate of those pieces owned by Dutch VOC officials, apart from what is recorded in Dutch museums. The Coromandel Coast was certainly one of the most important centres for the production of such carved ebony furniture; an ebony table from the Coromandel Coast in the Victoria and Albert Museum (IS 73-1981), dated 1660-80, has the same low relief vegetal carving, and also features Christian-inspired motifs and carved serapendiya as well as parrots (Jaffer 2001, no. 2 p. 138-9). One somewhat similar cabinet on a stand made in Sri Lanka for the Dutch market (133.0 × 78.0 × 47.5 cm), set with Chinese-style silver fittings, belongs to the collection of the Kunstmuseum Den Haag (formerly the Gemeentemuseum), inv. 0540200, purchased from Beeling & Zn., Leeuwarden, who reportedly bought the piece in England (private conversation with Hartkamp-Jonxis). A more lavish cabinet on a stand, deploying similarly quintessential Ceylonese motifs (liya væla), acquired many decades ago in England, belongs to the collection of the noted Dutch art historian Ebeltje Hartkamp-Jonxis, curator emeritus at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Later, from 1680-1740, we see the iconography of these cabinets (and caskets) shift towards more deeply carved large floral motifs, mixing European with local decorative repertoires, a development also seen on contemporary chintz textiles made in the Coromandel Coast for export.
With thanks to Mary Galloway, Ebeltje Hartkamp-Jonxis, Hugo Miguel Crespo, Thierry-Nicolas Tchakaloff and Peter Holmes.
Coomaraswamy, A.K., Medieval Sinhalese Art, 2nd ed., New York, Pantheon Books, 1956.
Crespo, H.M., India in Portugal: A Time of Artistic Confluence, Porto, Bluebook, 2021.
Hartkamp-Jonxis, E., van Campen, J., Asian Splendour: Company Art in the Rijksmuseum, Walburg Pers, Amsterdam, 2011.
Jaffer, A. Furniture from British India and Ceylon: A Catalogue of the Collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum, London, V&A Publications, 2001.
Terwen-de Loos, J., Het Nederlands koloniale meubel: Studie over meubels in de voormalige Nederlandse koloniën Indonesië en Sri Lanka, Franeker, 1985.
Veenendaal, J., Furniture from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India during the Dutch Period, Delft, Volkerkundig Museum Nusantara, 1985.
Veenendaal, J., Asian Art and Dutch Taste, Zwolle, The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, 2014.