During the colonial era in India many exquisite pieces of inlay furniture were made. The perfect marriage of the skilled Indian craftsman and the western form of European furniture makes these artfully made pieces highly admired today.
Inlaid legs of a British colonial tripod table from Hoshiarpur - The Past Perfect Collection
Inlay is the technique of ornamenting an object by embedding pieces of a different material in it, flush with its surface to produce a design. In terms of inlay furniture this usually involves bone or ivory inlaid in wood, brass inlaid in wood and wood inlaid in wood.
Vizagapatam, (now known as Visakhapatnam), is a port on India's east coast and is renowned for its distinctive inlay items and inlay furniture. In 1756, Major John Corneille (from the British Service), said Vizagapatam was ‘remarkable for its inlay work, and justly, for they do it to the greatest perfection’.
In the early 18th century craftsmen skilled in working with ivory began to apply their traditional skills to the production of furniture and decorative objects for western consumers. The technique practiced in Vizagapatam involved inlaying wood, mainly ebony and rosewood with floral designs in ivory, predominately covering the full furniture piece.
Hoshiarpur, a town in the Punjab is well known for its workmanship in ivory and ebony inlay. The region produced many beautiful items such as antique boxes and occasional tables. The characteristics of the inlay furniture from this region was dense ivory inlay in foliate designs, with chevron borders of alternating ivory and wood. The type of wood used was Indian rosewood or sheesham which is a good quality timber and indigenous to the area. The inset corner mounts reflected the influence of English campaign furniture.
Hoshiarpur Inlay work with ivory and ebony.
Dressing box and occasional table – The Past Perfect Collection
Wood inlaid into wood is found in South India where white cedarwood would be inlaid into such items as boxes and tables usually associated with the region of Tamil Nadu. Here beautiful patterns of foliate and stringing white cedar inlay work could be seen. Famous from this area also is Dutch colonial furniture where ebony would be inlaid into items as cupboards and chests.
Dutch colonial cupboard (above) and chest on stand (right) with ebony inlay – The Past Perfect Collection
From around the third decade of the 19th century, the people of Monghyr in North India adapted their traditional craftsmanship to the taste of the Europeans who were travelling upstream. Noted for ivory inlay work, they produced boxes in ebony with very fine floral designs. They made both large pieces of furniture and smaller boxes all with inlay motifs of stiff floral sprigs.
During the early 19th century, it was very much the height of opulence to inlay delicately pieces of brass design into wood, especially for box decoration. Furthermore, the brass strengthened the boxes, especially at the corners. This art form was only attained by the most skilled and patient craftsman. Not only would the brass itself have to be carefully hand fretted and filed into ornate and fluid designs, but it would also then have to be precisely inlaid into the wood without fault. The richer coloured woods like Mahogany and Rosewood were often favoured for use with brass inlay work as these combinations really emphasized and contrasted each other with great effect. Such boxes were found in administrative areas such as Calcutta.
From 1880’s large European styled objects such as chairs and tables were skillfully produced and exported to the West due to their popularity and demand for them. Moreover, Liberty & Co in London featured inlay furniture in a catalogue from 1896. Today top-quality antique inlay furniture is highly coveted, and The Past Perfect Collection has a personally selected collection in store and online. Each piece is unique and a testament to the skill of the craftsmen and artisans from past centuries.
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-Furniture from British India and Ceylon, Amin Jaffer
-The Schiffer Book: Antique Boxes, tea Caddie & Society 1700-1880, Antigone Clarke & Joseph O’Kelly