New Case Study: Ivory Furniture
The Afterlife of Objects: Anglo-Indian Ivory Furniture in Britain
The term ‘ivory’ describes the teeth or tusks of elephants and other mammals, including the Asiatic and African boar, the Artic walrus, hippopotamus, warthog and whale. Ivory is a dense material that can be carved, engraved, turned, pierced and painted, and it has the strength and elasticity required for use both as a solid material and a veneer. In the Indian context, hunters removed ivory from the upper front tusks of the elephants found across the subcontinent, from the foothills of the Himalayas to the southern tip of Ceylon. This case study explores the objects made from these tusks. It particularly focuses on the furniture pieces, made by skilled craftsmen in the subcontinent during the eighteenth century. Although Europe had a long tradition of ivory goods, often made from African and Asian elephant ivory (which was imported to Europe in greater quantities from the 1500s onwards), the skills Indian craftsmen used to make ivory furniture presented European consumers with new and desirable aesthetic options. Ivory furniture can thus act as a lens through which to examine how individuals in the modern period related to objects from the subcontinent. More particularly, ivory furniture is useful in considering a question central to The East India Company at Home project: wereobjects purchased by East India Company (EIC) families understood as distinct from those traded more generally by the EIC? If so, how? This analysis seeks to show that although these objects were increasingly made to European forms, contemporaries in Britain understood that ivory furniture represented a family’s link to the subcontinent and more particularly signalled the gains of an EIC career. Furthermore, it demonstrates that ivory furniture continued to act as a prompt for retelling EIC family narratives long after the family members with links to the Company had died. Like Company families, Company objects played important roles in British cultural and social life. Like the families who bought, collected and retained them, Company objects experienced complicated and global biographies, which shaped British material cultures long after the initial point of exchange. To read Kate Smith’s study, click here.