The Vizagapatam cabinet
This extraordinary cabinet in the collection at Kingston Lacey, Dorset – known as the Vizagapatam cabinet – is one of the finest examples of Visakhapatnam furniture in any English collection. Its extravagant design and scale and intricate craftsmanship render it among the finest examples of its type.
East Indian furniture for European merchants
Kingston Lacy’s remarkable cabinet on stand was made in c.1760 in Visakhapatnam, a port on the east coast of India that was a centre for textile manufacture and furniture production, and became famous for inlaid ivory work.
The cabinet is characteristic of Visakhapatnam’s blending of Dutch and English forms of furniture with Indian craftsmanship and materials. The cabinet top closely resembles 1760s English designs, while the stand, with its cabriole legs and lion’s paw feet, is informed by English or Dutch table or chair design of the 1740s and 50s.
An interior to impress
Among the finest of its type, the cabinet is decorated with a combination of ivory inlaid rosewood and solid engraved ivory. The exquisite panelled doors are inlaid with detailed representations of palm trees. What sets the cabinet apart is the highly elaborate architectural interior, with ivory columns and balustrades, and recesses and drawers inlaid with floral and scroll designs.
The cabinet’s decorative scheme demonstrates the influence of Visakhapatnam’s textile industry on furniture production in the port. Dense foliated patterns and palm tree motifs on the panelled doors invoke designs for Chintz fabrics that were popular across Europe in this period.
Furniture of this type was not made for the export market and was instead probably produced for East India Company civil servants living on the Indian subcontinent. Anglo-Indian furnishings were often brought back to Britain by East India Company personnel, with some pieces being dispersed through gift or sale.
It is probable that this cabinet entered Kingston Lacy’s collection through George Bankes (1787–1856), who became Commissioner of the India Board in 1829 and was appointed to the select committee on the East India Company in 1831.
This was a period of heightening interest in Indian art and design; India was then the centre of the British Empire, and its manufactures were later promoted at international exhibitions such as the 1851 Great Exhibition.
Today, the use of ivory for decorative purposes is difficult to understand. Nevertheless, ivory has been used in cultural production for thousands of years, appearing in both luxury and utilitarian goods in Europe, Asia and Africa.
As a material, ivory was prized for its softness of lustre, lightness of colour and smoothness of texture. Artisans valued its durability and elasticity, finding it suitable for carving, turning, engraving and for use as a veneer.
From as early as the second half of the 17th century, ivory-inlaid furniture became the specialism of Visakhapatnam craftspeople, when it began attracting European interest and buyers.
Ivory is particularly susceptible to light damage. The conservation team at Kingston Lacy mitigates against deterioration by ensuring the cabinet is positioned away from direct light. They also protect the interior by keeping the doors closed.