Scrolling Vines for the Dutch: from Vizagapatam to Masulipatnam
By Jan Veenendaal, translated by Zebregs&Röell
The Origins of the Document-boxes with Dutch coats-of-arms of High-ranking VOC-officials in Asia
In his publication 'Furniture from British India and Ceylon' Amin Jaffer attributes a chapter to furniture originating in Vizagapatam (Visakhapatnam), historically a small harbour-town at the north coast of India in the present-day state of Andhra Pradesh. In this chapter, he elaborates on a small ebony box with domed lid, decorated with silver mounts which can be found in the collection of the Victoria&Albert Museum. (ill. 1). Jaffer places this box in the tradition of the so-called Vizagapatam pieces of furniture and includes several document-boxes owned by high-ranking Dutch VOC-officials (ill. 2), of which the inlay shows close resemblance with the before-mentioned box. The boxes are decorated with characteristic finely inlaid pen-engraved bone or ivory flowers and scrolling vines, evenly distributed on the lid and sides of the box.
This ‘Explained’ focusses on this distinct group of artefacts (ill. 1, 2 & 3), to which Jaffer refers to as Vizagapatam. Opposing his opinion, it will be argued that the origins of these boxes with fine inlays do not originate from Vizagapatam, but from Masulipatnam (Machilipatnam), a harbour-city about 300 kilometres south along the coast of Andhra Pradesh.
Vizagapatam It was not until 1682 that the English East-Indian Company (EIC) opened an office in Vizagapatam. The first years were arduous, and the city counted no more than a few dozen English inhabitants, which were mainly preoccupied with their own concerns for safety. Over time the English gained more power, and living conditions became better, which resulted in trade and investments rising steadily. This all at the cost of their establishment in Masulipatnam, where their authority now was in rapid decline. Already around 1700 the first pieces of furniture were made in Vizagapatam for the well-to-do English inhabitants who occupied high positions within the East-India Company. These precious showpieces were treated carefully, and relatively much of them have survived the test of time and can now be found in private and museum collections. Remarkably enough the box on ill. 1 is dated between 1720 and 1730 by the V&A and therefore should be as old as the later discussed box dating from circa 1725 (ill. 6), however much the inlay seems to be older due to its simplicity.
Does this contradiction not already point out that each style originates from a different place, and cannot be regarded as consecutive fashion-trends in one city?
The inspiration for the Vizagapatam inlays finds its origins in Europe. It is known that John Crompton, an English merchant who lived in Vizagapatam around 1750, owned large quantities of wood for the fabrication of furniture, ivory and designs for chintzes, hand-painted cotton fabrics. Therefore, besides English designs for chintzes, there were probably separate designs for English motifs on inlaid furniture. Starting from 1730, the inlays on such pieces became more elaborate, and clear resemblances can be regarded when studying designs for Spitalfields silk, originating from the part of London which was at the time an important centre for silk-production and fashion. It is safe the argue that designs from James Leman (1688-1745) or Joseph Dandridge (1665-1746) were used as an example for inlays from this period. (ill. 4 & 5)
Around the start of the 17th century, the Dutch established trade-posts along the coasts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, formerly known as the Coromandel Coast. As early as 1606 the Dutch established a VOC trade-post in Masulipatnam, North-Coromandel. In the 16th and 17th centuries, this city was a vital port-city of the Golconda Sultanate (1512-1687) and starting from the mid-17th century the economy boomed due to the arrival of European companies, and in the third quarter of this century, the city flourished and attracted many immigrating wealthy Persian and Islamic merchants.
We should thank Thomas Bowrey for an important first-hand source about the crafts in the city. He visited the town around 1672 and described the situation long before there was a Vizagapatam furniture-making industry. He wrote that Masulipatnnam brought refined and high-quality products, with exceptionally the fine and multi-colour cotton fabrics, especially the palempores for blankets, a diversity of floral-motif chintzes that are as fine as satin and are much lively in colour, but also chairs, tables and the fabled ebony cabinets and writing boxes, with elaborate inlays of tortoise and ivory. The fabrics are exported in great numbers to other parts of India, to Persia, Arabia, China and Southeast Asia, but also England and Holland. The English trade-post is governed from Fort St. George in Madras, and that of the Dutch receives its orders from Casteel Geldria in Paliacatta. In Dutch travelogues of the time, the northern part of the Coromandel Coast (where Masulipatnam was the most crucial Dutch trade-post) is also famed for its eye-catching chintzes and fabulous ebony chairs, tables and cabinets.
Document-boxes with English coats-of-arms
A few years ago, the Rijksmuseum restored a Vizagapatam box (ill.6), which had a coat-of-arms on the inside of the lid, which was unattributed at the time. Quick research on arms of the English officials in Fort St. George in Madras attributed the arms to James Macrae, who was the director from 1725 to 1730. A comparable chest attributed by an art dealer to Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of British-India (1773-1785).
However, it is more likely that the chest belonged to hiss less fortunate family-member Francis Hastings, who was director of Fort St. George from 1720 to 1721 but was replaced on 15 October due to illness and died two months later. All these document-boxes are made of ebony or palisander and inlaid with an intricate motif of scrolling vines sprouting from baroque vases.
Document-boxes with Dutch coats-of-arms
In the Rijksmuseum collection, one can find another document-box but make from a light-coloured wood inlaid with a Dutch coat-of-arms, attributed to the Falck family (ill. 2). This box was possibly owned by Frans Willem Falck, who died in 1737 in Sri Lanka at the age of 27 and not his son Iman Willem Falck, VOC-governor of Sri Lanka from 1765 to 1785, during whose reign these boxes were no longer being made.
Furthermore, there are two similar pieces in the Groninger Museum from the collection of Jan Albert Sichterman, Governor of Dutch Bengal from 1733 to 1744. In a private collection, there is another chest with Jacob Mossel’s coat-of-arms, Governor of the Coromandel Coast between 1738 and 1743, who later moved to Jakarta (Batavia) due to his installation as Governor-General (1750-1761).
Zebregs&Röell sold a few of these boxes, of which one from the Sichterman collection, however, inlaid with an apocryphal coat-of-arms of Sterthemius, for that of Sichterman was removed by the family. We recently also sold a box of smaller size, with the coat-of-arms of Galenus Mersen, director of the VOC living in Masulipatnam.
It is possible that the consignees ordered extra smaller objects to sell upon arrival in the Netherlands. A large box is highly unusual, such as the box from our collection. It has a fantasy coat-of-arms resembling that of the Netherlands, which would sell well in Holland.
Recently, a box was offered in Amsterdam, now in a private collection, made from ebony with the same inlays and fantastic silver mounts. This box belonged to Johan van Oordt (1701-1775), merchant for the VOC at Ambon from circa 1724 to 1740. (ill. 3)
Besides these large-sized boxes, smaller boxes are known which are comparable to the one on ill. 1, with domed and flat lids. These boxes often show up in the Netherlands, and not seldomly have intricate silver mounts from Jakarta (Batavia) or Colombo. (ill. 3). Remarkable is that the English document-boxes with coats-of-arms can be dated around 1720, due to Francis Hastings, whilst those of the Dutch are made around 1737-1740. If the last-mentioned boxes were made in Vizagapatam, it would be peculiar that there are no boxes known with fine inlay of scrolling vines and an English coat-of-arms. In other words, the Dutch would have needed to travel to Vizagapatam to order, against English fashion, very outdated boxes. Such a purchase would be highly unlikely, also regarding the fact that Dutch ships would seldomly sail into the harbour of Vizagapatam. The Dutch VOC-post in Masulipatnam, where trade-goods were stored before being shipped off to a wide array of destinations worldwide, was visited by Dutch ships that sailed between Bengal, the Maluku Islands, Jakarta (Batavia) and Sri Lanka regularly each year. The 18th century English preferred the more elaborate palempores or bedcovers from Vizagapatam above those sold in Masulipatnam and did not trade with the city anymore. However, the Dutch still traded for chintzes and more importantly, less elaborate textiles for export to local Asian and African markets out of Masulipatnam.
Kalamkari Before there was any trade with Vizagapatam, Bowrey enthusiastically described the colourful but very costly palempores of Masulipatnam, that were sold a piece, or as bulk intended for trade in Europe. Many of these palempores with coats-of-arms of rich or noble Dutch families came to the Netherlands, amongst which the one owned by the Steengracht family. However, for the VOC, the cheap cotton fabrics bought by the thousands were more profitable. These fabrics, often white, dull, chequered or striped or so-called guineas lijwaat and salempoeri were profitably sold off easily on the Maluku islands. There the sales market was best, especially when the clove-harvest was good. This makes it understandable that Jan van Oordt, VOC-merchant on Ambon owned such a fine inlaid box from Masulipatnam. As the merchant, he had to decide how many and which cotton fabrics had to be purchased in this city.
However, Masulipatnam was most famous for its rare, fine, hand-coloured cotton fabric with a repetitive motif of delicate, scrolling vines, each ending in the same flower type. This chintz is called kalamkari, after the Persian word for calligraphy. Ever so being of Persian descent, it was a local speciality which was highly sought-after in the whole Sultanate of Golconda.
An exciting example of this motif can be found on a large palempore which possibly was ordered by direct order of Gerrit van Westrenen (1670-1730) in Masulipatnam, for the occasion of the marriage of Johan Steengracht (1692-1743) and Anna Catharina van de Pere, the lady of Oost en West Souburg on the 5th of June, 1718. The mother of Johan Steengracht was a far-cousin of the mother of Gerrit van Westrenen, who was head-merchant and chief of Masulipatnam at that time, and later became VOC-governor of Coromandel Coast. (1) Johan Steengracht himself was director of the VOC chamber Middelburg in Zeeland. In the centre of this bedcover, the Steengracht family's coat-of-arms can be found surrounded by a spray of flowers such as carnations, tulips and lilies, loosely tied by twines and leaves, exactly the Dutch taste at that time. Extraordinary are the corner-decorations of Islamic cupola’s with pinnacles (ill. 7), where the red border is filled with finely scrolling vines, ending in the same flowers as can be found on the Masulipatnam kalamkari. Truly an Indian motif and not an English or Dutch design that was defined by European fashion which could change each year. This particular motif is not only ancient but used continuously and still nowadays in India. Therefore, it is not remarkable that furniture-makers in India kept producing small boxes, writing-boxes and cabinets with inlays in this traditional motif that originated in Masulipatnam.
In conclusion, the arguments as mentioned above show that the Dutch document-boxes with coats-of-arms were made solely in Masulipatnam. It is hard to find any argument at all, proving they originated from Vizagapatam.
We are grateful to our friend Mr Jan Veenendaal, collector and authority on art and crafts made under Dutch influence in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and South-Africa, for this article on Masulipatnam document-boxes.
Amin Jaffer, Furniture from British India and Ceylon, V & A Publications, London, 2001.
Sinnappah Arasaratnam and Aniruddha Ray, Masulipatnam and Cambay, a history of two port-towns 1500-1800, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 1994.
Thomas Bowrey, A Geographical Account of Countries Round the Bay of Bengal, 1669 to 1679, Hakluyt Society, Cambridge, 1905.
W. Francis, Vizagapatam district gazetteer (reprint from 1907), Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 1992.
John Fryer, J., A new account of East-India and Persia: in 8 letters being 9 years travels, begun 1672 and finished 1681, R.Chiswel, London, 1698.
Laura Koster, Een documentenkist uit Vizagapatnam, India. Verslag van een restauratieonderzoek, Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2014. (PI Thesis, not published)