This magnificently curvaceous armchair, intricately inlaid with scrolling flowering branches on a rich ebony ground was executed in Vizagapatam in the 1760s.
During the eighteenth century, Vizagapatam - a port on the northern stretches of India's Coromandel Coast - was a major center for the production of western-style furniture inlaid or veneered with ivory. The furniture was produced by artisans of the kamsali caste imitating Western forms that date as early as the late 17th century. Although British cabinet-makers do not appear in the East India Company's list of residents in the area, the European influence on these pieces is substantial. Local British merchants are known to have supplied craftsmen with timbers, ivory and tools and also probably supplied printed designs of furniture and architecture. The early Georgian form of this particular example is quite obvious. In addition to these local merchants, many patrons also participated in the design and manufacturing process. Furthermore, there is a likelihood that Dutch or Dutch-trained cabinet-makers from nearby Bimlipatam, a port established in 1628, or artisans of Indo-Portugese descent in the area may have exerted influence in this center.
The vast majority of output consisted of portable articles - tea caddies, work boxes and miniature bureaux, such as the one for which Thomas Chippendale supplied the stand at Mercham-Le-Hatch in 1767 (illustrated in P. Thornton, 'The Furnishing of Mersham-Le-Hatch - Part One', Apollo, June 1970, p.277, fig.13). Larger pieces of furniture were also made although these are quite rare and seem to have been by special commission and in many instances can be linked to leading East India Company officials. These objects were highly prized by these officers - Major John Corneille observed in 1756 that Vizagapatam was 'remarkable for its inlay work' - and governors of Madras (to which district Vizagapatam belonged) such as Edward Harrison (1711-17), Richard Benyon (1734-44) and Alexander Wynch (1773-75) all returned to England with Vizagapatam furniture including bureau-bookcases, kneehole dressing-tables and chairs.
This armchair is part of the same tradition, but is additionally interesting in that it was presented to, and quite possibly made for, the wife of a British official by an Indian prince. The seat was formerly upholstered with a petit-point panel which explained that it 'was sent a Present to Lady Harland in the year 1772 from the Nabob of Arcot when Sr. Robert Harland Bart. Was commander in chief of His Britanic Majestys Fleets in the East Indias and Plenipotentiary from the King of England to the Nabob of Arcot'. According to Robert Symonds, this panel was nineteenth century in date, although there is no reason to doubt this elevated provenance.
Muhammad Ali Wallajah, Nawab of Arcot (r.1749-1795) frequently distributed such presents amongst the British officials who paid court to him at his palace at Chepau, Madras. He socialized extensively with the British, hosting elaborate Western-style parties and taking on Western manners. He acquired English manufactured furniture for his own home, ordering, for instance, a suite of chairs and tables from London in 1767. The Nawab of Arcot borrowed extensively from leading East India company officers and would pay them enormous amounts of interest against these loans. Particularly given his close associations with the British, it is curious that the chair is inlaid with fleur-de-lys which might lead one to believe that the chair was originally intended for a member of the French Royal family.
Stylistically, the chairs relate to a large suite of ivory-inlaid furniture acquired by Baron Lionel de Rothschild, which was also thought to have been commissioned by the Nawab of Arcot. A pair of armchairs from this suite, ivory-inlaid on a padouk ground, was sold, The property of a Gentleman, Christie's London, 9 July 1998, lot 50 (£84,000), along with three pairs of side chairs from this same suite (lots 51-53).
Part of a suite of seat-furniture sold from Governor Alexander Wynch's estate and purchased by George III for Queen Charlotte in the 1781 Christie's sale is now in the Royal collection at Buckingham Palace (illustrated in J. Harris et al, Buckingham Palace, 1968, p.119). Six side chairs, possibly from this celebrated suite, whose form corresponds to a design in Thomas Chippendale's Director of 1763 (pl.xvi), was sold in these Rooms, 17 October 1992, lot 366 ($374,000). Examples of large case furniture produced in Vizagapatam include a kneehole desk, also supplied for Mersham-le-Hatch (illustrated in P. Thornton, op.cit., p.118) and a clothes press sold by Sir John Smith, C.B.E., sold Christie's London, 15 November 1990, lot 111 and possibly executed in the same workshop as these chairs.
Sir Robert Harland (c.1715-1784) served in the East Indies as commander-in-chief of the British fleet from 1771-1775. Just prior to his departure to India, he was created Baronet. He married a daughter of Colonel Rowland Reynolds. They had three daughters and a son.
A forthcoming book by Amin Jaffer entitled Furniture from British India and Ceylon will be published by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London in February 2001.