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Published by V&A Publications. ISBN 1851773185. £75

THE V&A’s collection of Anglo-Indian furniture is the largest and most diverse in the world, while with its origins in the East India Marine Society, the Peabody Essex Museum’s roots lie in the Indo-American trade of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These two important collections are complementary and with its publication from a five-year collaboration this book marks the 400th anniversary of the East India Company.

The book’s inspiration came from the furniture in the V&A’s Nehru Gallery. The assortments of ivory and ivory-veneered chairs and cabinets, made after late 18th century English furniture designs posed many questions for the author, Dr Amin Jaffer of the V&A, an expert on furniture in early colonial India. Who produced these pieces and where, how did the makers obtain the designs and what sort of people owned this hybrid furniture, so English in its form but unmistakably Indian in execution,
rare, made of prized materials and exotic in its decoration?

Chapters include life in early colonial India: “... Insects and undertakers are the only living creatures to enjoy the climate... better to lodge up three pairs of stairs than a palace in the compound of Chowringhee”, and there is a chapter on the Indian regard for Western furniture and decorative items. European paintings were sought after, chandeliers, lustres and wall sconces were well received for the illumination of princely interiors, while the King of Pegu wrote to the governor of Madras in 1711 requesting clocks. These kept time according to the European manner and were useless to a people who divided their day into 60 units of roughly 24 minutes. These “curiosities” were kept for their chimes.

By the late 19th century some critics recognised the absurdity of a chair for British consumption decorated with scenes from the Ramayana or a sideboard carved in the style of an Ahmedamad mosque. Stylistically confused these pieces may have been but “they were well received in the West and were also in high demand among the growing tourist population in India”.

The body of this remarkable study is taken up with the illustrated catalogue of 200 objects alphabetically arranged by school within the regions of Southern, Eastern, Northern and Western India and Ceylon with a section on unattributed furniture. There are two glossaries, one of which is on materials, and a large bibliography. The scope of this scholarly work makes this a reference book for collectors, dealers, and furniture and social historians interested in the culture of British India, where “no man under the rank of captain can keep less than 30 servants” and where “everyone dressed splendidly, being covered in lace, spangles and foil”.