Portuguese colonial chairs and furniture have a distinctive style featuring dark wood, intricate inlay work and elaborate carving of foliate, flowers, animals and fruit. Otherwise known as the Indo-Portuguese style it is the merging of two cultures to create beautiful furniture. Most of the Portuguese colonial furniture we see today comes from the state of Goa, in western India.
'Goa Een vermaerde Koopstad in het Portugals Indie aen den mond der rivier Gacis.'
Antique Copper Engraving of Goa by Petrus Schenk ca.1700
The state of Goa on the West Coast of India was a Portuguese colony until 1962 and is famous for its Indo-Portuguese culture and architecture. During the 16th and part of the 17th century, Goa became the warehouse and transshipment port of all trade between East and West and one of the richest cities of that time.
When the Portuguese arrived in India they were confronted by communities and customs very different to their own. Indeed, the Indian populace were not accustomed to sitting on chairs or having furniture in the same way the Portuguese were used to.
To begin with, chairs were brought from Portugal and many ancient documents refer to forms of seating taken from Portugal to India, right from the time of the very first voyage. However due to the growing need, for furniture another solution had to be found.
Craftsmen at work. 'Carpenters - Unknown Artist'
Photo Credit: Victoria & Albert Museum, London
It was soon discovered that the local craftsmen were highly skilled and they were tasked with making copies of the imported European chairs. These were made from the indigenous exotic hardwoods found in the region such as rosewood. Furthermore, the craftsmen began to adorn the chairs with carved motifs which were Indian in design. This was the beginning of the Indo-Portuguese or Portuguese colonial style seen on many Portuguese colonial chairs.
To respond to the growing demand for seating, by the Portuguese in Goa, carpenters and master craftsmen became more organised. Workshops appeared in churches and mansions and also in streets dedicated to the production of chairs and seating in general.
Chairs in the Menezes Braganza Heritage House – Goa, India. Photo Credit: Dinodia Photos
The Goan style, is distinguished by small and elegant pieces richly carved with romantic flowery designs and/or adorned with religious motifs relating to the Christian influence of the Portuguese. Alongside the tropical wood used in production, was rattan, another material native to India. This was used on the back and seat replacing the leather or fabric used in Europe.
The Portuguese permitted the local Indian craftsmen to add their own touches and local designs. Therefore, the furniture created by them often has foliate and fruit carving alongside animal motifs such as tigers, elephants, eagles, fish, lion heads and dog heads.
Further influence came from trading partners at this time for example China, which can be seen in the corner chairs below.
An unusual and rare example of Portuguese colonial chairs, these corner chairs were inspired both by the Portuguese chairs of the time of King Jose I, and by Chinese chairs and English Chippendale chairs. On many of these chairs, essentially Chinese in style, a Chinese symbol the linghzi (the sacred mushroom that was part of the diet of the immortals) is prominent at the centre of the splat.
Chinese chairs continued to arrive in Goa because of trade with China through Macao. Usually if they did not arrive already adapted to Western taste they were altered there or simply enhanced with Indo-Portuguese additions.
Portuguese Colonial corner Chairs featuring the Linghzi symbol. Photo Credit: The Past Perfect Collection
A beautiful example of Portuguese colonial chairs are these folding chairs. Comprised of three components joined with steel screws; the back, the seat and the arms. Each extends down to form one of the three pairs of legs. The dome shaped back has a carved pierced crest rail and a central caned panel. The shaped arms end in a carved animal head and are secured with hinges to the arm support. The seat and the back are made from cane.
The form and design of such chairs were good for travel as they folded and could be easily transported.
Portuguese Colonial Triple Chair Back Bench - Photo Credit: The Past Perfect Collection
In addition to the many different forms of chairs which were made during this time are a number of benches. Often ornately carved, these are made of the same exotic hardwoods as the chairs. Many examples feature shaped triple or quadruple individual chair backs and a caned seat with open back. The armrests are usually elaborately carved in the Portuguese colonial manner.
The Portuguese brought Catholicism with them to Goa and required not only churches to be built in the European style, (eg the Basílica do Bom Jesus), but ecclesiastical furniture too.
Also known as prie-dieu chairs Portuguese prayer chairs were designed specifically for prayer.
The low seat was meant to be used for kneeling, and the top rail, which was usually upholstered, as an elbow rest or Bible support. This form was current in the mid-19th century.
The chairs shown are made of ebony with a low seat and high back which is open and carved rather than upholstered.
The chairs feature a nicely shaped crest rail with a carved and pierced floral design while the uprights of the back are relief carved with a floral design. The front and side seat reals are also relief carved with a floral design. The front legs are turned and end in a rounded peg foot, the rear legs of square section are raked.
The Portuguese colonial style is extremely collectable and varies from the most decorative and intricately carved tables and chairs to the more substantial cupboards featuring fielded panels and large brass hinges. 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.