A MAGNIFICENT LOW-RELIEF CARVED EBONY CABINET-ON-STAND
Coromandel Coast, probably Masulipatnam, 1650-1680
Finely carved in low-relief, profusely decorated throughout with flowers and foliage, with eleven drawers behind two doors, above a large drawer and four turned legs, with gilt-bronze mounts.
H. 135.5 x W. 86.5 X D. 57.5 cm
The present cabinet-on-stand features low-relief carving relates to an ebony chair reputedly brought to England by Catherine de Braganza as part of her dowry in 1662, later given by Charles II to Elias Ashmole and now in the Ashmolean Museum.
It also relates to a pair of chairs en suite with a settee, dated to 1640, on which George III and Queen Charlotte sat on their visit to Cotehele, Cornwall, in 1789 (illustrated in: Furniture from British India and Ceylon, by Amin Jaffer, London 2001, p. 133). Jan Veenendaal in Furniture from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India during the Dutch period, Delft 1985, p. 21-29, discusses this low-relief carving in ebony which he dates between 1650 and 1680 coming from the Coromandel Coast of India. His illustrations of the low-relief carvings in a number of chairs share much with the carvings of the cabinet here.
A similar cabinet, on a later stand, dated as early as 1650, is in the collection of the Gemeente Museum Den Haag (inv. no. 0540200). Because of a sticker inside reading “Hamilton Palace”, the present cabinet is probably the one recorded in The Tribune as being present at Hamilton Palace in circa 1851, where it is described as “A fine antique solid ebony cabinet covered all over the outside on spiral turned legs with two doors and a drawer and drawers inside”. It probably is the same as the cabinet sold in the first mayor dispersal of the collection of the Dukes of Hamilton in 1882 where it was erroneously catalogued as “An old Italian ebony cabinet wit folding doors enclosing drawers, and on a stand with drawer and stretcher, carved all over with flowers and foliage, mounted with metal gilt – 2 ft. 8 1/2 in. By 1 ft. 9 in., 4 ft. 5 in. high (see Christie’s London, The Collection of Pictures, Works of Art and Decorative Objects. The property of his Grace the Duke of Hamilton, K.T. 19 June 1882, lot 178).
This was a misconception in England in the second half of the 18th and most of the 19th century, for which Horace Walpole (1717-1797) who had a large collection of ebony furniture from the Coromandel Coast in Strawberry Hill, may be responsible. He ascribed much of the ebony furniture made in South Asia to Italian or English Tudor workshops in the 16th and 17th century. In addition to its corresponding dimensions, the presence of patches on the present cabinet where (gilt metal) mounts would have formerly been positioned, make it almost certain the present cabinet and the one listed in the 1882 sale catalogue are one and the same. Hamilton Palace in Lanarkshire, Scotland, held one of Europe’s most important art collections. The 10th Duke was a passionate collector of art and many of the items he acquired for Hamilton Palace are now in museums and galleries all around the world. Amongst a kaleidoscope of objects, the Duke acquired an extensive group of ebony furniture which included a fabled suite of ebony bedroom furniture, incorporating 17th century elements from the Coromandel Coast, supplied by John Webb of Bond Street in 1826 and 1828.
The present cabinet possibly was acquired by the Duke during this period of collecting. In 1810 he married Susan Euphemia Beckford, daughter of William Thomas Beckford and would no doubt have been influenced by Beckford’s remarkable collection of ebony furniture at Fonthill Abbey. In the sale of property from Hamilton Palace by Christie’s in 1882, a pair of chairs from the Coromandel Coast (catalogued as “A pair of Tudor chairs”) was sold, one of which now is in the collection of the V&A (inv. no. 413-1882). As early as 1610 the Dutch used ebony in their furniture because of the way its surface and ripple mouldings catch the light of candles. Initially the ebony came from Mauritius, which the Dutch occupied in 1598.
From there the ebony went straight to Amsterdam to be worked there. In 1658 there was hardly any ebony left and the Dutch deserted the island. From about 1630 on ebony came from the Coromandel Coast, Sri Lanka and the Moluccas and was mostly worked there.