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Simon Ray: Indian & Islamic Works of Art

South India (Vizagapatam), circa 1740-1750
Height: 18 cm
Width: 41 cm
Depth: 30.5 cm

A rosewood and ivory inlaid workbox, the ivory boldly engraved and stained with lac to give a profusion of large, exotic flowers and leaves contained within rectangular borders to all sides, and framing a large single floral design to the lid. The box has a further lockable drawer to the front and sits on carved bracket feet.

To the top of the box is a design of an elegant tree-of-life standing on a stylised rocky mound, with delicate multiple stems that intertwine and bear variegated flowers and leaves. Four smaller rocks with wave patterns, almost like thumbprints, flank the central motif at each corner, and from where floral and leafy sprays rise up as if moving in the breeze. A spectacular border of large exotic flowers and leaves on sinuously scrolling vines and tendrils, accompanied by miniature flowers, leaves and buds, frame the central scene. The flowers and leaves are of abundant variety and imagination. Spiky, overblown and exuberant, their energy allied to a consummate elegance, these extraordinary floral specimens twist and turn with a vital sense of life.

Each side of the box is decorated with similar thick borders of bold scrolling flowers and leaves, characteristic of Vizagapatam ornament around the mid eighteenth century, where bands of scrolling foliage decorated the edges rather than covering the entire surface.¹ The ivory borders all frame rectangular empty spaces where one can truly appreciate the colour and grain of the rich Indian rosewood with its slight reddish hue. To the front of the box, the plain central field has a silver oval escutcheon framing the keyhole, there to secure the brass hinged lid. Below this, the bottom border contains a further oval ivory keyhole escutcheon within its pattern, which when opened reveals a thin discreet drawer with a brass lock.

The inner edges of the lid and the body of the box are lined with strips of ivory decorated with continuous meanders of scrolling leaves and flowers, but the actual interior remains undecorated. The box stands on four short bracket feet carved with a slight chinoiserie influence.

The design and execution of the flowers and leaves on this workbox suggest a close relationship with textiles manufactured in the first quarter of the eighteenth century in areas around Vizagapatam on the north Coromandel Coast. The textiles featured flowers of similar bold and distinctive character as our workbox. The precise devices used to define flowers and their petals, such as circles of cusped rings, layers of cusped chevrons, scales and dense hatching to the centres of leaves and flowers, are common to both Vizagapatam woodwork and Coromandel palampores (painted or printed cotton bed-covers), the former engraved on ivory and the latter painted on textiles.² The tree-of-life sprouting from a stylised rocky mound is also the central motif on palampores of the Coromandel Coast, framed by borders of similar flowers. It is also worth mentioning that both mediums were made for the European market, therefore utilising designs, which were known to appeal to the export trade.

The British East India Company had a trading station there from 1668 and by 1756 the whole area had come under British control. From the late 17th century a tradition grew in Vizagapatam for the manufacture of objects and furniture in a western style, decorated in a distinctive manner, using ivory etched with black lac to inlay and veneer. The decoration was drawn from Mughal culture, then adapted. The first written reference to ivory inlaid furniture in Vizagapatam was made in 1756 by a Major John Corneille, who noted that the area was known for the quality of its chintz, which is ‘esteemed the best in India for its brightness of its colours’ and that ‘the place is likewise remarkable for its inlay work, and justly for they do it to the greatest perfection’. ³

From a private residence in Whitchurch, England and by decent from the owner’s father who brought the box back from India in the 1930s when serving in the armed forces.

1. Amin Jaffer, Furniture from British India and Ceylon: A Catalogue of the Collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum, 2001, p. 188.
2. Ibid., p. 186,
3. Ibid., p. 172

See John Irwin and Katherine B, Brett, Origins of Chintz, 1970, pls. 6, 10, 12, 14 and 18 for examples of palampore textiles with a similar design.

all text & images Simon Ray: Indian & Islamic Works of Art

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