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  • Dickie Zebregs

Ebony: Wood as Black Gold

Ebony, the most cherished kind of wood, which can be worked in the finest carvings. Mysterious and extremely pleasing to the human eye. Since its discovery it has been treasured far and wide and we will give you a small insight in its history.

Finely carved work in ebony fed a European domestic and colonial market hungry for this rich, lustrous and exotic material. It was imported in a raw state too and a favoured material employed in Dutch Kunstkabinetten from the beginning of the 17th century and perhaps more recognizably in the ripple moulded frames seen on Dutch pictures from that epoch. There was seemingly a unifying delight in experimenting with this material to produce surface effects and texture by both European and Asian craftsman.

Ebony, initially sourced in Mauritius, was brought from across the Dutch colonies including Jakarta (Batavia), modern day Sri Lanka, the Coromandel coast of India and the Maluku Islands in Indonesia. The movement of furniture is well documented between these colonies as well as to Europe. 17th and 18th century inventories in Europe as well as in Batavia record objects from India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, China and Japan filling the cosmopolitan interiors of the wealthy. Ebony was recognised, like ivory and turtleshell, as being particularly desirable. In 1677 Thomas Bowery an Englishman travelling through India writes of tables and chairs in ‘that admirable wood ebony’.

Objects in ebony were instantly recognizable as items of value in both the East and the West and in Europe we see some individual objects achieve almost mythological status. In England their origins were sometimes thought to be Tudor. Romantic provenances develop, they became the gifts of Kings, from the sea-going vessels of great explorers, from the bed chambers of rulers and the trappings of hallowed ecclesiastical halls. The antiquarian Henry Shaw’s exquisite hand-coloured engravings capture two ebony chairs in his rich compilation, Specimens of Ancient Furniture – Drawn from Existing Authorities, published in London in 1836.

Shaw’s reproductions are boldly captioned ‘Ebony Chair Given by Charles II To Elias Ashmole’ (still in the Ashmolean Museum today) and ‘Ebony Chair Belonging to Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill’. Walpole's love of this work and the decoration of his gothic revival mansion enforced this belief that these were English and early. He acquired a set for Strawberry Hill in 1763 from the Conyers family of Stoughton House, Huntingdonshire. These feature in a watercolour from 1788 by John Carter of the ‘Holbein Chamber’ at the great house.

These exquisitely worked pieces were a real contrast to furniture produced in Europe, particularly in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries and have always been fashionable – for over three centuries. Certainly the Ashmole ebony chair, which features shallow relief carving, was considered important enough to be part of his gift to the University of Oxford in 1682, and an extensive suite of seat furniture, acquired by Thomas, 1st Viscount Weymouth is recorded at Longleat on the 15th September 1740.

Objects like the Ebony table with Marble top from our collection (see image above) make it hard to determine where specific types of carvings are from. The table shows very detailed carvings, but has a typical Indonesian marble top. Therefore it is safe to assume it is from Indonesia, and probably made by an Indian furniture maker in Jakarta (Batavia). The fact that this marble top is still present is extremely rare, for it was very costly to bring such a heavy piece to Europe by ship. Usually, a marble top was replaced by a European one upon arrival.

The Indian ebony armchair from our collection (see image) is also an object which makes it hard to determine where certain carvings originated. Ebony furniture with bold half-relief carving of flowers was made in Batavia, Sri Lanka and in India. However, a number of stylistic features (see: Jan Veenendaal,Furniture from Indonesia, Sri Lank and India during the Dutch period, 1985, page 21- 26), a carved letter on the inside of the seat rail which apparently originates from an Indian script and the fact that this armchair turned up in England all make it likely that this chair is a “Custstoel”, a chair from the Coromandel Coast. Certain materials in the world please the human eye, but why that is, is often not known. Unworked ebony is one of those materials, but certainly when worked it calms the human mind and pleases the eye in to the extreme. It is therefore that ebony objects were and still are collected and sought after. We invite you to discover the ebony objects from our collection, that originated from far away shores.

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