An ebony and ivory carved chair

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An ebony and ivory carved chair


An ebony and ivory chair with foliate-carved frame with two finely carved lion finials with shields, swan neck pediment and a row of three ivory balls. This chair has two rows of six ivory spindles to the back and turned legs joined by stretchers. There are two Makara (a Hindu mythical sea-creature resembling a dolphin) carved on the rail beneath the central ivory ball and two domed ivory discs on either side of the caned seat. Coromandel Coast, Southern India. Circa 1700.

  • Condition: Good. The seat is re caned.
  • Provenance: From a Parisian collection.

Height: 42 in; 107 cm
Width: 19 in; 48.5 cm
Depth: 17 in; 43.5 cm

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Sir George Birdwood, an Englishman living in India in the late 19th century, took note of that country’s vigorous commerce in artworks. "In India everything, as yet, is hand wrought" he wrote, "and everything down to the cheapest toy and earthen vessels, is therefore more or less a work of art."

That was especially true of the furniture that Indian craftsmen were producing for Europeans. Carved ebony chairs and tables similar to this example were made for European consumption and are recorded in British collections from as early as the mid-18th century. They were brought back to Britain by merchants and officials employed in the various East India companies.

This type of chair belongs to the earliest chairs found on the Coromandel Coast. Its design is based on Italian Renaissance chairs that were very popular in Holland in the early 17th century. The colonial example hardly differs from the originals found in Holland since the furniture makers on the Coromandel Coast were skillful at copying Dutch designs.

The shape of the chair in question is European but the Indian furniture makers used eastern materials, such as ebony and ivory which is a rare combination in furniture. The decoration consists of floral motifs, two carved lion finials and Makara. The latter is generally depicted as half terrestrial animal in the frontal part and half aquatic, usually a dolphin-like fish or seal tail, in the hind part. In Hindu astrology, this mythical beast is equivalent to the sign of Capricorn in the signs of the Zodiac. Makara are considered guardians of gateways and thresholds, protecting throne rooms as well as entryways to temples. The luxurious ebony and ivory cradle and an ebony and ivory chair both at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, are the most closely related examples we have found to this chair as they combine the same materials, and the cradle is also decorated with sinuous carved Makara.

The production of solid ebony furniture in India seems to have first begun along the Coromandel Coast, a textile-producing region where a number of East India company trading factories were based. A Dutch traveller, Georg Rumphius, recorded that the Coromandel Coast is exceptionally richly provided of this (ebony) as the natives make from it all kinds of curious works, as chairs, benches and small tables, carving them out with foliage and sculpture.

Ebony (diospyros ebenum or Ceylon ebony) is a native wood of southern India and Sri Lanka. Its hardness allows for intricate carvings and its smoothness once polished produces a black lustre similar to that of Chinese or Japanese lacquer. By the 17th century, ebony had become one of the most appreciated Asian hardwoods in Europe, and quickly became one of the most sought-after of that century.