Ebony furniture is not to everyone’s taste, but a fished-out brown furniture market and a couple of colonial sleepers in the regional salerooms recently has prompted speculation that the black stuff could be due for a revival.
First there was the 19th century Anglo-Indian tester bed at Lawrences on July 16. Discounted by an estimate of £300-800, it fetched £14,000. Secondly, there was an Indian ebony centre table which made £34,500 at the Tring salerooms of Brown and Merry on July 20. The auctioneers declined to speak to Antiques Trade Gazette about the table, but present at the sale was a specialist dealer who said that it was “near identical” to the one in the V&A illustrated right.
The V&A table originated from the Coromandel Coast of India, c.1670, and featured in Amin Jaffer’s groundbreaking book Furniture from British India and Ceylon, published earlier this year.
Jaffer writes (page 138) that the museum “...believed that this was one of three ebony tables from Horace Walpole’s collection at Strawberry Hill”. The author is careful to say that there is no concrete evidence for this, only “...a closeness in design to the two documented tables from the house”. Those two tables were dispersed at the Strawberry Hill sale of 1842. One was purchased by the Marquess of Westminster and has since entered an American private collection, the other was bought by the Earl of Derby and was dispersed with the contents of Knowsley Hall in the 1950s – whereabouts unknown. The third table was sold to the Bond Street dealers Town and Emmanuel, but its subsequent history also is unknown. Conceivably, the table at Brown and Merry could be either the second or third unaccounted table from Strawberry Hill and information gleaned at the Tring sale suggested that the table had come from an outhouse on the nearby Mentmore estate, once home to a number of antiques purchased from Walpole’s collection.
Quite why a table of such importance might have been languishing in a barn beside the ex-chief valet’s quarters is unclear, but the unpopularity of ebony furniture after the Victorian period may have resulted in its exile from the main house. Even if the Brown and Merry table was not owned by Horace Walpole, it belongs to a kind which has graced major aristocratic collections – another one can be found at Longleat – and dealers will be hoping for a return to the mania for black furniture which afflicted the Gothic writer, his peers, and the general public during the 19th century.