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CARVED EBONY CHAIRS
Carved ebony chairs were made throughout South East Asia during the second half of the 17th Century, particularly along the Coromandel Coast of India and in Batavia (Indonesia) or Ceylon.
These ebony chairs were conceived at the end of the 17th Century, when a new style of ebony furniture became fashionable in the Dutch colonies, between circa 1680 and 1720. The main difference from the previous era is the decoration of large sculpturally carved flowers, called 'half-relief'. This distinction was discerned at the time, as it is possible to see from the inventory of Cornelia Linis, the widow of the clergyman Johannes Vermeer, dated 1690, which mentions, in the front room, 'twelve high kaliatur chairs with large flowers'. This new type of floral decoration was developed around 1680, probably on the Coromandel Coast, and was rapidly introduced in the other Dutch overseas territories. An important factor was, of course, the import of such items of furniture by transferred employees of the United (Dutch) East India Company. Another would have been the influx of slaves from India to Indonesia shortly after 1680, amongst whom were most likely many cabinet-makers. The transport of gravestones with similar floral borders, which were used as ballast on United (Dutch) East India Company ships, and samples of Indian textiles also contributed to the spread of this new decoration (J. Veenendaal, Furniture from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, Delft, 1985, pp. 47-55).
Dutch colonial chairs were considered entirely appropriate for the decoration of Romantic antiquarian interiors in England during the second half of the 18th Century and most of the 19th Century, as they were thought to be Tudor. This tradition was compounded by Horace Walpole at the time he was furnishing his Gothic mansion, Strawberry Hill in Middlesex. Having seen a pair of ebony chairs in Esher Place, Surrey, where Cardinal Wolsey had lived from 1519, he immediately associated them with Wolsey, reinforcing a tradition which survived for many years (C. Wainwright, 'Only the True Black Blood', Furniture History Society Journal, XXI, 1985, pp. 250-254). Walpole himself acquired several chairs related to the present examples, including, in 1763, eighteen chairs and two tables of solid ebony from Stoughton House, Huntingdonshire, the seat of the Conyers family, which he placed in the Holbein Chamber at Strawberry Hill. Several chairs of this type also furnished St. Michael's Gallery at Fonthill Abbey - William Beckford's supreme folly. Further examples were in the collection of the Dukes of Hamilton and were included in the sale of the contents of Hamilton Palace in 1882.
This model of chair was also used in a design by Pugin in 1834 in which he chose a group of Tudor pieces as the subject for an engraving, entitled 'Ancient Furniture'.