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Indian, Vizagapatam (between Culcutta and Madras), circa 1850-1880.
Height 4.5” (12cm) Width 14” (36cm) Depth 10.5” (27cm)
Stock No. 9570
Europeans had settled in and around Vizagapatam on the eastern coast of India from the beginning of the 17th century and saw the harbour there become the finest on the Coromandel Coast. As an ideal location for a port, it saw a vast number of ships and vessels travelling between Madras, Bengal and the East Indies. Extremely fine timbers from the region such as teak, ebony and sandalwood were in good supply and the Kamsali caste from the northern stretches of the Coromandel Coast married their ivory inlaying skills with western influences to produce fine and prized furniture and boxes, etc. An officer, in 1806, observed that the ‘natives, besides their cloths, are very expert in their ivory works…making various little boxes and work baskets of ivory and bone, which are bought by the Europeans to take home as presents’. Eliza Fay, visiting in 1815, also commented on the ‘beautiful sandal-wood and ivory boxes, for which this place is so famous'. In 1801, Henrietta Clive, Countess of Powys and daughter-in-law to Lord Clive of India wrote from Vizagapatam, ‘we have seen the people inlaying the ivory. It appears very simple. They draw the pattern…they intend with a pencil and then cut it out slightly with a small piece of iron. They afterwards put hot lac upon it and when it is dry, scrape it off and polish it. The lac remains in the marks made by the piece of iron’.
The first half of the 19th century saw the introduction of a broader range of materials, particularly buffalo horn, elk horn and porcupine quill. Many notable Europeans, such as governors of the Madras Presidency, Edward Harrison and Richard Benyon, as well as Lord Clive of India, commissioned ivory inlaid furniture. Vizagapatam western style furniture has also been found in Indian, princely collections and the Maharaja of Vizianagram – located in what is now Andhra Pradesh - commissioned much furniture to be inlaid with the ivory he periodically harvested from his own elephants.
This box is of high status and would have been highly prized, even when new. A writing box of similar form is on loan to the V&A museum from the Royal Collection and was given to Edward Vll when prince of Wales, on a visit to India in the 1850s by the aforementioned Maharaja of Vizianagram.