Audio: East meets West - Ivory chair
Elegant European styles of furniture were copied by Indian craftsmen using local materials, as in this ivory chair. This chair, its pair and the accompanying table are of solid ivory. They were made in Murshidabad, the Nawabi capital of Bengal and a famous centre of ivory-carving.
Furniture makers there made small quantities of western-style pieces, possibly only as commissions. Mani Begum of Murshidabad gave these pieces as part of a special gift to Warren Hastings, the first British Governor-General of India. Their western forms and exotic working reflect the blend of tastes at Indian courts at this time.
In the audio below, Christopher Cook and Amin Jaffer discuss how East meets West in an 18th century carved ivory chair. The chair was given to Warren Hastings, the first British Governor-General of India, by Mani Begum of Murshidabad.
Part of the Proms 2004 Performing Art season of talks.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Good morning. Knowing that you're all perspicacious, you will have studied your card. You will see that the chair on you card has metamorphosed into something quite different. Well not quite different, but something other. I'm not going to apologise for it because I think we've got the better of the bargain.
Basically the chair we were going to have here when we planned all these a while ago, has been selected for what's going to be an extraordinary exhibition here at the museum in the autumn which our guest, Dr Amin Jaffer, is one of the curators of and it's sort of in the sick bay so to speak at the V& A being got ready for its moment of glory in the exhibition, so we have a comparable chair, but it's a chair with, as I think you're going to discover, a very different and rather richer and a rather more interesting history than that chair, so I make no apologies for having done the substitute. So, you won't have your crib sheet in front of you, you'll have to exercise your eyes as before.
We're going to wait just a moment to be told we're OK and then we'll start.
You'll need to come a little closer on this side.
East and west and the cultural exchange between the two is the principal theme of this year's proms and here beside me is a magnificent example of that traffic. It's an ivory chair with a curved back, a generous cane seat and five elegantly curved legs. Ivory with traces of gilt for a chair that was carved and decorated in India at the end of the 18th century and almost certainly as a gift for an English super-sahib who'd served his time and done his duty in the east, but now it's a prized possession here at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington.
Well, I'm joined by the keeper of this chair, so to speak, and it's one of a pair of chairs, Dr Amin Jaffer, exhibition curator in the research department here at the V& A and an expert on furniture from British India.
Dr Jaffer, it's carved out of solid ivory, it's got traces of gilt and it's extraordinarily richly decorated, this chair, isn't it?
DR AMIN JAFFER: Absolutely, It's the top of the line, as it were. It's the absolute finest in ivory work made in India in the late 18th century.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: The sheer quality of the workmanship is the first thing that takes your breath away. This is made by a very sophisticated furniture maker's craftsman - almost artists.
DR AMIN JAFFER: Yes, almost artists - they're really ivory carvers rather than furniture makers. I think the important thing to remember is that before Europeans arrived in South Asia, people traditionally sat on textiles on the ground, so furniture consisted of bolsters and cushions etc., so the production of a western style elevated chair was quite a new thing to the ivory carvers and what's remarkable is that they were so successful at duplicating the construction of western furniture.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Where did they get their model from? If you were a well-heeled sahib working for, presumably at this period, the East India Company, did you simply go along and say to the ivory carver or to a carpenter in the bazaar, 'Would you please make me six chairs.'? How did the process work?
DR AMIN JAFFER: It's a fascinating process. I think the thing we've got to remember is that before the 1850s or '60s, when you hired a cabin on your way out, you were required to furnish it, so you took furniture out with you and very often you kept it when you were building a new home. So, the convention in terms of commissioning something in India was to provide the artisan with what they called a muster, which is a model. So, you'd either take along a physical chair or ask him to come home and measure it, etc, or you'd give him an engraving or an image of some sort. This is also, the 18th century is the great age of the pattern book, when it comes to furniture. We think most of all of Chippendale and his great directory of the 1760s but he was only one of a number of English furniture makers who decided to publicise themselves by producing these designs. So, it could have been almost anything. This chair is very unusual in its design. It's very clear that makers were drawing their inspiration from a number of different sources.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Can you find one source in one pattern book that's a kind of dominant one?
DR AMIN JAFFER: For this chair? Not really. No one single source. It's very clear, for example, that the palm fronds on the back and the splats with their intertwining foliage come out of a book by someone called Robert Manwaring of the 1760s, but there are also elements, for example, the way the arms curve out very gently, that derives from Chinese furniture. The very round, oval seat is inspired by French furniture, so it's very clearly a hybrid.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: And the most extraordinary thing, for me at least, is in fact the legs, because there are three so-called cabriole legs, carved curved legs and two straight bent ones at the back but they're all linked together by a stretcher which is, it all kind of meets in a central piece in the middle at the bottom. That's a design I've not seen before. Can you find a source for that?
DR AMIN JAFFER: Yes, round chairs of this type with five feet, sometimes six feet were known in the east as burgomaster chairs and quite often the seats swivelled and the idea was that these were used by the head honcho of the Dutch East India Company local factories or the head of the local settlement as a sort of chairman and so there's a precedent for that and that is again one of the influences. What's very exciting is if you look at this very closely, you see that these, the little stretchers, are turned out of solid ivory and they're to a very standard European form. The central component in to which they're all tenoned is totally Indian in character. It's actually carved extremely delicately with a lotus flower and so again, we have this great contrast between the typically European and the typically Indian.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: And that theme runs wonderfully, almost riotously one might say, through all the decoration, because if you look at the seat itself, the kind of thicker bit of the seat, surely these are peacocks or representations of peacocks?
DR AMIN JAFFER: They're representations of peacocks, they're also seen or interpreted sometimes as palms wide open, but again, how they contrast to the more traditional European acanthus leaf, you know, which conventionally on furniture of this period, would have been on the upper legs as we have here, is what's really fascinating for me - this marriage of the two different decorative traditions.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Do you think that is self-conscious as it were that we have the acanthus leaf of the west, the great Greek classical tradition and yet we have peacocks and lotus leaves and palm leaves from the east? Is this a conscious attempt to fuse these two ideas?
DR AMIN JAFFER: I don't think that the artisans who were carving this were thinking quite along those lines. I think that the chair and its decoration really represents the period, which was one of fusion in taste. And it's one in which, if you look at East India Company miniatures of the day, where you'll see Hastings sometimes seated on the ground.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: That's Warren Hastings, the administrator?
DR AMIN JAFFER: Exactly, Warren Hastings, who's connected to this chair, as it were, but the point is that in the period, the great East India Company officials lived a sort of hybrid life. The clothes they wore were a hybrid, everything about their existence was and so I think it's very natural that the ornament on their furniture was a mixture of east and west.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: So our sense of there being a frontier between east and west, between India, British India and Europe, Britain, is really a 19th century idea, not an 18th century one?
DR AMIN JAFFER: I think it's very much a 19th century construct for all sorts of reasons. Things changed in the relationship between east and west in the 19th century. In this period, luckily, we have a very happy, very playful moment between India and Britain, particularly when it comes to lifestyle and taste and the excitement and the appeal of the other.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Quite the most striking decorative detail we've left till last. It's at the end of these curving arms, there are what I take to be two tiger's heads that end the arm - what is going on here because they've got, if you look at them, they've got red mouths as if they've got red tongues or indeed have been savaging some poor man and drunk the blood afterwards?
DR AMIN JAFFER: Well, these are very fantastically carved heads of tigers, absolutely right, and because of these tiger heads these chairs were wrongly, for a very long time, associated with Tipu Sultan, the great South Indian ruler who was known as the Tiger of Mysore.
One of the most celebrated items in the V& A in the Indian gallery is a man-eating tiger organ. It's a big model, I'm sure you're all familiar with it, it's one of the great objects in the museum, and that object really was part of the British public imagination in the 19th century and so when these chairs were written about in the 19th century, the association between this very obvious tiger and that very obvious tiger was made and there developed a great myth that these chairs came from the palace of Tipu Sultan.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: And Tipu Sultan took the tiger as his icon, his motif, did he?
DR AMIN JAFFER: He absolutely did. You find tigers in the forests around Mysore first of all and he saw himself as a sort of tiger figure. He was a great threat to the British presence in South India and he was also a great connoisseur of the arts and we have a small display in the gallery downstairs which shows you how tigers and tiger stripes were used decoratively on his arms and armour, on the uniforms of his soldiers, on the textiles, on the carpets, on his own dress, on the jewellery, on everything that came out of his court. It was really his badge. But, I think it's important to note that because Tipu used it so vocally, as it were, he's associated with it, the tiger's a common symbol of royalty throughout India.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: So, the old and romantic myth was that these chairs, this pair of chairs had been made in Tipu Sultan's great workshops in Mysore - you've exploded that - in fact, this is not the case - it's a fanciful idea?
DR AMIN JAFFER: It's totally fanciful and we're very lucky to have found a group of correspondence relating to Warren Hastings and the ruler of Murshidabad, the old princely capital of the state of Bengal and she was the regent, she was called Mani Begum, who was originally a dancing girl and she married the Nawab and when the Nawab died and there was a sort of power vacuum, Warren Hastings installed her as the regent and she thanks Hastings and his wife Marion by giving them, over a number of years, pieces of very, very high quality ivory furniture.
And when Hastings comes back to England, it's his agent in Calcutta who's transacting the shipping of the furniture and Hastings asks him repeatedly to give letters to the Begum to thank her or to tell her how fantastic the furniture looks in the house in Dalesford - Warren Hastings' great house which he built in the Cotswolds and that's how we really know that this piece, one of a pair, belonged to this great important commission.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: So that means you must be fairly certain in what kind of workshop they were carved?
DR AMIN JAFFER: Well, actually, because Indian craftsmen, the craftsmen who were making this were illiterate, we have very little record of them. What we know of these craftsmen is really through European eyes, through European eyes who talk about the workshops, Europeans who, when they arrive in Murshidabad are offered little bits of ivory carving and letter openers and things like that. We actually don't have names of makers, for example.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: But there would have been a very particular tradition that the… of ivory carving that the Begum would have been able to access in preparing this sequence of gifts for Warren Hastings, her friend?
DR AMIN JAFFER: Absolutely. When Murshidabad became the capital of Bengal or Princely Bengal, ivory carvers from local towns came to it, it was a new city, and they started to produce things for the court. It was very traditional in India for the ruler to provide tusks from his own elephants which would be made into fly whisk handles, fan handles, mirror stands and mirror cases, ivory boxes - all sorts of things were used by Indian princes, so there was very much a tradition of very, very high level ivory carving. The great leap is for the craftsmen to apply their skill to the production of a totally different form and one that's quite challenging, because of course, a piece of furniture also has a function - it's got to stand.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: And you've got to be able to sit on it presumably?
DR AMIN JAFFER: And you've got to be able to sit on it.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Is it true that Warren Hastings returns, where eventually he'll be impeached for his supposed poor behaviour in India, he returns and the Begum continues to send him these wonderful objects but that some of them don't actually reach him?
DR AMIN JAFFER: Absolutely. We've also got to remember that the shipping of objects was always a risk in the period, as it is now. And one of the great consignments of ivory furniture, I think there were four chairs and some buffalo horn chairs all went down with a ship called the Hinchinbrook and some are at the bottom of the sea, if not totally lost to us.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: I love the idea that quite, you know, perhaps almost shamefaced that the Hastings' simply write back, explain to the Begum that alas, the ship has gone down and that her chairs are at the bottom of the ocean, but he'd be very happy to have a few more.
DR AMIN JAFFER: Absolutely, and she provides them.
What's very interesting is, that although Hastings was able to acquire these fairly simply, because of his rank, the thing is that when these chairs came back to Britain they caused an absolute sensation. Hastings gave a pair to Queen Charlotte and that began her life as a collector of ivory furniture from India and pieces like this were written about in the press as the richest and finest furniture that existed because of the ivory and the gold. The idea of having solid ivory furniture was seen as so remarkable and so over-luxurious - really truly exotic and it symbolised, I think, in Britain at the time, the richness of Asia, the richness of this land of spices and silk, of diamonds, in particular.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: And presumably it was the idea of the exotic that was at the heart of the appeal? The idea that it wasn't something that you could have made in a European workshop - it trailed clouds of oriental glory and exoticism.
DR AMIN JAFFER: Absolutely. Just the material itself, ivory, and again, used in the solid, it just couldn't be done in the west, where you have the copying of ivory through paint finishes as it were, so here we have the real thing and again, with the gold, it completely evokes the sense of the richness of the east.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Is it also an example of something that was taken for granted by many people in England and certainly those who lived and served in India? This was an ostentatious culture in India, it was an expensive culture - it was the equivalent nowadays perhaps if you lived in London or Paris or talking about the cost of living in Tokyo. This was an expensive place, Calcutta.
DR AMIN JAFFER: Well, yes. The interesting thing, of course, is that men went out to India to earn their fortunes but they found very quickly when they got there that the cost of living in India was incredibly expensive. And one of these things was the sheer number of servants you were expected to keep, because according to Indian cast traditions, servants wouldn't do any job other than they were supposed to do and everything was very closely regulated. Apart from that, because at the top level you had people who were on such vast fortunes and traders earning so much, there developed this endemic high conspicuous consumption and because, again, one was away from the metropolis, away from of London, it was very easy for people to reinvent themselves and develop their personalities particularly with all of this new money. So life was extremely flashy.
There's a great diary of the period written by someone called William Hickey and if you haven't read William Hickey of the 1760s/1770s, I would recommend him, he's very amusing. He writes about how he gets so used to the ostentatious clothes of Calcutta that when he comes back to London, he goes to the theatre one evening wearing, he describes, 'A spangledcoat' He is laughed at, but the thing is, even if you go to India today, the colours that people wear are that much brighter, the jewellery and it has a lot to do with the light, it's a very strong harsh light.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Looking again at this chair with which we begin and end our conversation, one other idea occurs to me. There is something, for all its richness of decoration for the traces of the gilt, for the sheer flamboyance of it, there is something classical about it too, isn't there? Do you think that is part of the appeal of India in this period, that it is a classical world in some sense?
DR AMIN JAFFER: Well, I think I'd like to answer that on two levels - on one level, the aesthetic of the white and the gold appeals to the neoclassical revival of the 1780s and 1770s absolutely, but on a deeper level, what we've got to consider is that this is a period in which there's a group of scholars, British scholars in India who were very interested in exploring India, charting it and the first thing they find, of course, is a subcontinent littered with monuments with inscriptions and they immediately start to try and decipher these.
A man called Sir William Jones, who was out there, was a linguist, a classicist, starts to learn Sanskrit which is the key to understanding this great heritage, and he discovers within six months of learning Sanskrit that in fact it's very closely related to ancient Greek but that it's more sophisticated and better, he says and there developed a great sense of India being a far older civilisation, much older than the classical west. And this group of scholars started to look around them and saw people wearing unstitched clothes - saris and lunghis, worshipping at alters, praying to a pantheon of gods, living in a highly-segregated social structure and they realised that what they'd found is the ancient classical west still alive in the east.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: So they invest it with all the feelings that they have about the glory that was Greece?
DR AMIN JAFFER: Absolutely, absolutely. They begin to see India as the originator of the modern west.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: So, those who return, like Warren Hastings, return with wonderful loot like this chair, have actually seen, unlike most of their fellow middle class and scholarly upper class citizens, have actually seen this Greece that's disappeared?
DR AMIN JAFFER: Absolutely, absolutely. I must say that this moment of enlightened thinking and fascination is not a very long moment. The political changes of the early 19th century sweep that ancient history under the carpet.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Dr Amin Jaffer, thank you very much indeed.
DR AMIN JAFFER: My pleasure.
CHRISTOPHER COOK: Thank you ladies and gentlemen. As always Dr Jaffer will stay here briefly because he's happy to talk and answer questions.