Portuguese colonial cabinets like the Contador, have a very distinctive style featuring dark wood and, intricate inlay work of foliate, flowers, animals and decorative patterns. Otherwise known as the Indo-Portuguese style, it is the merging of two cultures that created beautiful furniture. Most of the Portuguese colonial cabinets we see today come from Goa on the western coast of India.
Goa – The most prominent Portuguese colony in India from 1510 -1961
The term ‘cabinet’ is now generally understood a medium to large size piece of furniture dedicated to storage, which is accessed by doors and may consist of open shelving and perhaps a few drawers.
The earliest cabinets, however, were chests of a relatively simple design that were later modified due to the demand of functional features to be added. It is believed that cabinets are the result of the realisation that access via the front rather than the top, like with chests, was more convenient. Then, raising the chest higher made frontal access easier than having to bend down. Consequently, the cabinet, as a form of front-opening chest placed on top of another chest or on a table, and ultimately on its own legs, was born. This style of furniture was popular across Europe in the 17th century.
A specific style of cabinets is the Indo-Portuguese or Portuguese colonial style. The Portuguese were one of the first European powers to establish a significant presence in the India subcontinent. They wanted the same furniture as at home and commissioned highly skilled local craftsmen making copies of the imported European cabinets. These were made from the indigenous exotic hardwoods found in the region such as rosewood and mahogany.
Furthermore, the craftsmen began to adorn the cabinets with motifs which were Indian in design. This was the beginning of the Indo-Portuguese or Portuguese colonial style seen on Portuguese colonial cabinets.
The Portuguese were fascinated by small, intricate and concentrated designs inspired by Mughal inlay work. For the decoration of cabinets these designs covered the entire surface. Like writing boxes and table cabinets (or so called ‘contador’ in Portuguese) produced during Mughal imperial rule in the 16th and 17th centuries that feature geometric ornamentation with foliate scrolls.
A Portuguese colonial ‘Contador’ refers to a type of cabinet or desk box that was used for storing documents, accounts, and valuable items. The term ‘Contador’ itself is Portuguese for ‘accountant’, reflecting its primary function as a piece of furniture used for administrative and organisational purposes.
A Contador typically combines a writing desk or work surface with storage compartments. The writing surface often has a hinged lid that can be opened to reveal a writing area, and the interior of the cabinet includes compartments and drawers for organising documents and belongings.
Many contadors feature intricate wood carvings and inlay work, often showcasing decorative motifs, religious symbols, or scenes from daily life. The inlay work can include materials like ivory, mother of pearl, different types of wood or brass, like the present example above that was made in Goa. The inlay work on the top and the front features paired dragons with striped bodies and spotted tails, surrounded by scroll borders with confronting birds that have been identified as the heraldic eagles of Goa, or the mythological Jatayu, king of the vultures in the Ramayana. (Jaffer, A., Luxury Goods from India, London, 2002, pp.56-57, no.21).
Portuguese colonial cabinets are not only beautiful pieces of furniture but also important artifacts that reflect the cultural exchanges and historical context of the time when Portugal had a significant presence in India. They are prized for their craftsmanship and continue to be appreciated for their artistic and historical significance today.
The Past Perfect Collection has an interesting and varied collection of (Portuguese) Colonial Furniture which can be seen online on our website and in our store in Singapore.
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