Englefield House Case Study: Inheriting India


Detail of ivory inlaid work.

Like Richard, Mary Benyon used objects to affirm familial ties and express affection across time and space. Before she died in 1776, she was keen to use the power she held to bequeath objects of specific importance to family members. In her will she stated that her ‘Japan cabinet’ and her ‘Rosewood Cabinet’ should go to her ‘son Richard Benyon’.[1] Although a rosewood ‘chest of drawers’ was listed in the closet that adjoined the ‘Chintz’ bed chamber in the 1741 inventory compiled on the death of her first husband Powlett Wrighte, a Japan cabinet was not listed at all. Moreover, these objects were not bequeathed to Mary in Powlett Wrighte’s will suggesting that they were not in existence before 1741. It is possible then that one or both of these objects had belonged to her late husband Richard Benyon and that Mary now chose to bequeath them to her son in order to ensure that he retained objects which had an association with his father.

Richard Benyon brought a ‘bureau’ back with him from India onboard the Duke in January 1744 and it is probably this object, which Mary bequeathed. Vizagapatam, which sits five-hundred miles north of Madras on the eastern coast of India, was a key production site for ivory-inlaid furniture in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. Kamsali caste artisans used their ivory carving skills to produce furniture in Western forms. Other East India Company officials working in Madras in the early eighteenth century returned to England with similar pieces. Edward Harrison (d.1732), for example, who served as the Governor of Madras between 1711 and 1717, brought a similar bureau to England when he returned to Balls Park in Hertfordshire. By bequeathing this distinctly Indian object to her son, Mary invested the object with familial significance and sought to stress the importance of Benyon’s previous relationship with India. Imperial connections did not necessarily simply shape the country house in one generation, but rather through the movement of objects between generations they were able to create an imperial legacy, which continued to shape younger generations and their houses.

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[1] The National Archives, Mary Benyon of Grosvenor Square, Middlesex (1777), PROB 11/1035.

[2] Amin Jaffer and Karina Corrigan, Furniture in British India and Ceylon: A Catalogue of the Collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2001), p. 182.

[3] Jaffer and Corrigan, Furniture from British India and Ceylon, p. 172.

[4] The National Archives, Richard Benyon, Grosvenor Square, Middlesex (1774), PROB 11/1001.

[5] Maxine Berg, ‘Women’s Consumption and the Industrial Classes of Eighteenth-Century England’, Journal of Social History, 30:2 (1996), p. 418.