Colonial Dutch East Indies Carved Ebony Chair
Batavia or Sri Lanka
late 17th century
height of back: 78cm, height of seat: 39.5cm, depth: 50.5cm, width: 58cm
This fine chair is of colonial Batavian and possibly Sri Lankan provenance. It dates to the late seventeenth century with some later alterations. It is of ebonised wood has twist-turned lower rails (spindles) and legs, seat rails or aprons carved in low relief with leaf and flower motifs, stiles similarly carved and cross and back rails that are finely and densely carved with swirling floral and leaf motifs. The cross and back rails are separated by twist-turned pegs. The rear stiles are surmounted by solid carved buds or cones. The seat is of smooth-planed, ebonised planks. Mostly, such chairs have rattan seats set within the frame. Almost certainly, this chair had such a seat or was intended to have one and that the planks are a later (but still old) replacement. Veenendaal (1985, p. 51) illustrates a reconstructed Batavian settee with a similar plank-board seat.
This chair is almost identical to one illustrated in Brohier (1978, figure 1 of Plate X – first published in 1938).
Examples of this type of chair often exhibit signs of having been reconstructed from other pieces, probably on account of the basic expense of the tropical timbers used in their construction but also because of the value places on their carved elements. The front seat rail of this example most probably was formerly a cross or back rail for another chair. This and the addition of the plank-board seat suggests that it might have the same or similar provenance to a set of Coromandel Coast or Batavian-style ebony chairs and settees now in Windsor Castle, near London.
Windsor Castle records show that eleven such chairs were purchased in May 1825 for what was then the considerable sum of £440 (Roberts, 2001, p. 246). Other chairs and settees described as having been ‘possibly’ purchased from the dealer E.H. Baldock in 1828 are believed to combine Sri Lankan frames with seventeenth century carved panels from Batavia. It is possible that the firm Baldock was reconstructing furniture of this type in London at this time or was having it done in Sri Lanka on its behalf.
Complete chairs of this type variously are attributed to seventeenth century colonial Sri Lanka, India’s Coromandel Coast and Batavia in the Dutch East Indies. One theory is that such chairs originally were commissioned by senior VOC officials and their wives for use in church.
As Jaffer (2002, p. 46) states, no other group of Indo-European furniture has been as misunderstood as carved furniture from Sri Lanka, India and the Dutch East Indies. The furniture is of solid ebony or similar, carved with varying degrees of relief, and has twist-turned rails and other components.
Carved chairs of the type here have been recorded in English collections since the mid-eighteenth century according to Jaffer and much confusion as to their origins has been caused by the nineteenth century presumption that such chairs were surviving examples of early English furniture, most likely dating to the Elizabethan period. Jaffer pinpoints Horace Walpole (1717-97) with this mis-attribution. He acquired two ebony chairs from Esher Palace, Surrey and thought that they had been the property of Cardinal Wolsey who had lived there after 1519. He acquired these and other similar types of furniture mostly at auction to furnish his Gothic revival house, Strawberry Hill. The house and its contents became much celebrated. By the early nineteenth century, Walpole’s view that the ebony furniture that he had acquired was English and early had become well established.
Veenendaal (1985) argues that those of Batavian or at least Dutch East Indies origin tend to have low rather than high relief carving. Also, the twist-turned rails of Indian and Ceylonese examples tend to have ‘tighter’ or more closely carved twists.
The chair here is in a stable, usable condition.
Brohier, R.L., Furniture of the Dutch Period in Ceylon, National Museum Board of Ceylon, 1978.
Furniture from British India and Ceylon: A Catalogue of the Collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum, Timeless
Luxury Goods from India: The Art of the Indian Cabinet Maker, V&A Publications, 2002.
Moss, P. (ed.),
Asian Furniture: A Directory and Sourcebook, Thames & Hudson, 2007.
For the King’s Pleasure: The Furnishing and Decoration of George IV’s Apartments at Windsor Castle, The Royal Collection, 2001.
et al, La Route des Indes – Les Indes et L’Europe: Echanges Artistiques et Heritage Commun 1650-1850, Somagy Editions d’Art, 1998.
Furniture from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India During the Dutch Period, Foundation Volkenkundig Museum Nusantara, 1985.
UK art market.
Inventory no.: 1940