Tracing the history of the Murshidabad chair

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This chair, one of a series of four, represents a culmination of the creative dialogue between Britain and India. Made between 1780 and 1790 in Murshidabad, the former Nawabi capital of Bengal, it reflects the fusion of the traditional luxury ivory craftsmanship, for which the place was renowned, with the latest furniture designs from London.

Details of the chair, such as its proportions and ornamentation, may have been transferred to India thanks to published model books which, at the time, were a popular method of providing regional and overseas furniture makers with current metropolitan fashions. . A similar design is seen in George Hepplewhite’s The cabinetmaker’s and upholsterer’s guide from 1766, 1789 and 1794. We know that such volumes were common in early colonial India: for example, an example by Thomas Chippendale The gentleman’s director and cabinetmaker from 1762 is listed as restored by a Calcutta library in 1785. It is also possible that the chair was copied from a model brought from England, probably used to furnish the cabin of a ship on the long voyage around from the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean.

An object of great style, this ivory chair would doubtless have belonged to someone of high rank, probably an East India Company official of high rank. Ivory furniture was de rigueur among the highest echelons of society at the time. At the top of the social pyramid of British India, Clive of India and Warren Hastings both built significant collections of the material, and the latter donated ivory furniture from Murshidabad to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. The Queen acquires additional coins – both as gifts and auction purchases – as long as her estate’s inventory is no less than 20 coins. Her son, the Prince Regent, used Indian ivory chairs to furnish the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, a bulbous-shaped fantasy inspired by Mughal architecture.

The chair is ambitious in its construction, composed of a wooden core, entirely veneered with ivory leaves. From a technical standpoint, this would have been difficult to achieve, as the thin ivory plates pegged to the structure were unsuitable for the deep carving needed to define the original curvaceous shape of the seat and armrests. The rigid arms reflect the limits imposed by the choice of material.

During the time this chair was made, people in the subcontinent mostly sat cross-legged on textiles on the floor. Its creators therefore produced an object totally foreign to their way of life. Perhaps considered strange by its creators, the chair would have also been considered exotic by its users; in this sense, it is an object that could only be achieved following a cultural exchange.

The curious position of this type of furniture, caught between two cultures, meant that this chair was not easily understood when it entered the Victoria & Albert Museum as a gift at the end of the 19th century. Even when I first saw it, as a student of art history, almost nothing concrete was known about such hybrid things, only that they belonged neither to the East nor to the West. For me, it was precisely this marriage of British design and Indian technique that made the chair so fascinating: it seemed to me to capture something of ourselves, a blend of many cultural influences.


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