Colonial chests are a wonderful combination of striking elegance combined with practicality. They were one of the most common pieces of furniture made for the European colonists in India and came in many forms and styles. From the elaborate carving of the Malabar chest, to the more minimal style of the camphor chest to perhaps the most famous of them all, the commanding Dutch colonial chest. These antique chests have stood the test of time due to quality craftsmanship and versatility of use.
Dutch colonial chest in the living room of Malalasekara House, designed by Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa.
When India was under colonial rule, local artisans created pieces of furniture specifically for expatriate residents and traders. These elegant pieces blended British Regency and Victorian styles with native craftsmanship and typical Indian ornamentation.
After chairs and settees, large chests were the most common item of furniture for the European colonists in India. The many moves from post to post undertaken by the trading companies officials in the course of their careers made the chest an indispensable item of furniture in every household. An important function fulfilled by the chest was as a storage trunk in which such desirable goods as tea, Indian textiles or even silver plates, silver cuspidors and other valuable household goods could be stored when the officials were either transferred or repatriated.
Large rosewood storage trunk with brass mounts – the chair gives a feel of the size.
The Past Perfect Collection, Singapore.
The prized colonial chests – came in all sizes and woods, and elaborately decorated with glowing brass mounts and studs in intricate patterns. The hinges were also highly decorative, ending in distinctive, decorative finials.
The ornate mounts and hinges often had ‘Jali’ work, so that the wood of the chest showed through, and the brass, in the finer pieces, was incised with delicate patterns, all with marvelous effect. Jali is a Hindi word which means ‘net’. It is open work , done in wood, stone or metal.
Striking in design and appearance are the late 19th century Dutch colonial chests. They are usually characterized by the combined use of light and dark colored wood to create a contrasting effect. For example a chest made of satinwood with mounted borders in ebony.
Satinwood was the most beautiful and highly valued wood used in the latter part of the 18th century and is perhaps the most widely known of decorative timbers. It is a highly figured, close-grained, hard, durable wood native to Ceylon and the East Indies. It is light yellow to golden brown in color with a lustrous satin-like quality and has an excellent finish. One other characteristic of satinwood is its aroma. When cut and worked it smells like coconut oil. Satinwood was an expensive timber, and it was used, on the whole only for special pieces for wealthy clients. It was frequently used in combination with ebony.
The combination of mahogany with ebony also makes a stunning appearance. The Dutch colonial chests are often further ornamented with a beautiful pierced foliate lock plate surrounded by studs and have cast bail handles against a pierced plate on the sides.
The handles on the sides indicate that these chests were most likely used by traders to carry their wares to sell, while travelling between different areas.
Camphor wood chests were also widely used in the 19th and early 20th centuries as storage trunks used to transport tea, silks & porcelain from China to India.
Camphor is characteristically light brown in colour yet sinewy, with a slight sheen to it. It is has a wonderful, fresh scent, which was intended to repel pests such as moths and woodworm from infesting the wood.
Brass brackets usually adorned the corners of these chests and the chest’s clasp was also usually made of brass.
Stacked Antique Camphor Chests - The Past Perfect Collection, Singapore
Originally created by carpenters in India, these sturdy chests are exported to the Gulf from their centres of manufacture, namely Bombay, the Malabar Coast, and Surat. The material is generally dark rosewood or teakwood, replete with metal (usually brass) clasps, hinges and handles. Carving of curvaceous leafy tendrils springing from a central vase, terminating in flowers and circular pendulous fruits is often seen on colonial chests from the Malabar area. It is suggested that these are to be breadfruit, a tree indigenous to the Malabar area. The back and sides are beautifully carved with geometric patterns.
A different category of antique chests made during the 19th century are the so called “Arab chests” .The term Arab Chest more correctly denotes ownership rather than provenance. In reality, early chests were trade items collected by Arabs from the ports on areas on the west coast of India. They were mainly used for storage on ships during transport or in houses to store valuables.
The Bombay hinge with spiky coxcomb and cut out cross.
Arab chests are of boarded construction with front, back and sides butted together and nailed. No screws or glue are used. The example above is a so called “Bombay” chest which can be identified by the shape of the hinges, hasps and handles, type of studs, design of mounts and the quality of the applied sheeting.
The Bombay hasp is large and intricately filigreed. The Bombay hinges end in a spiky coxcomb with five points beneath which is a cut out cross. The significance of the cross may well be Christian, having regard to the Portuguese influence on the Malabar coast and the proximity of the two areas. The studs are small with short shafts and the sheeting is of a light weight and is punched and pierced.
Where these chests were made is unsure. It is probable that workshops or communities in villages in outlying areas south of Bombay sent their products to Bombay for marketing, hence their designation in the trade as “Bombay” chests.
Indo-European colonial chests do not only reflect an important and fascinating custom of the colonial era in India, but they demonstrate the best craftsmanship in the use of practically every decorative material and technique of that age. However, because chests were extremely versatile, they also appealed to home owners who appreciated its elegance, strength and ease of storage.