Ivory furniture case study: Recirculation


Figure 9. Basildon Park, Berkshire.


By studying examples of ivory furniture situated in British country houses in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we can begin to understand the changing positions that objects such as these held for contemporaries.  This section of the case study examines ivory furniture pieces held in two specific collections – Basildon Park, Berkshire in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and Sezincote, Gloucestershire in the mid-twentieth century. Both these collections were (and are, in the case Sezincote) situated in country houses that were significantly rebuilt in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a result of East India Company money. Both sites have East India Company narratives to reclaim and explore, making them productive comparative examples. I will first explore a pair of ivory chairs owned by the Morrison family in the nineteenth century and then briefly contrast these purchases with those made by the Sir Cyril and Lady Kleinwort in the 1940s. Is it possible to recover the intention of these individuals in purchasing these items? What were the narratives told by these pieces? What did they mean and what purposes did their purchase enable or allow? What histories are revealed by the long afterlives of imperial objects?

James Morrison purchased Basildon Park in the late 1830s. Originally built by East India Company servant Francis Sykes in 1776, the mansion and estate at Basildon passed to Sykes’s son and then soon after his grandson Sir Francis (3rd baronet), who was just four years of age when he inherited. Mismanagement during his minority and the fulfilment of the expensive tastes ofthe 3rd Baronet and his wife meant that the family duly fell into serious financial difficulties. The estate was put up for sale in 1829 and after much negotiation was finally sold to James Morrison in 1838. Morrison made his wealth not through the EIC, but rather through a textile trading business based in London. His financial successes allowed him to also establish a career as a Member of Parliament and accumulate a large and prestigious art collection, which he housed at Basildon Park.

Financial difficulties had meant that the original Sykes house designed by John Carr remained incomplete. In 1839 Morrison employed architect J. B. Papworth and his team of builders to begin working on the mansion at Basildon. Within the grounds Morrison wished to create a home for his extensive family as well as space in which to display his growing collection of art and furniture.[1] Already established as a keen collector of art, Morrison continued to acquire new pieces. Alongside Papworth, Morrison created the interiors and extended his collections at Basildon in collaboration with a range of dealers including Peter Norton, Robert Hume and William Buchanan (1777-1864).[2] While different rooms often concentrated on the display of particular parts of his painting collection, such as Morrison’s collection of Dutch paintings in the green room, other more recognisable ‘themes’ were also developed within the interior scheme. For example, Papworth imagined that the family breakfast room would become a Chinese room. He soon changed his mind, however, and settled on an Indian room. Nevertheless, when Morrison died in 1857, the room was described as Chinese rather than Indian and included both ‘Chinese’ and ‘Japan’ wares, suggesting either at Papworth’s continued indecision or the continued fluidity ofterms such as ‘Indian’ and ‘Chinese’ in nineteenth-century Britain.[3]     

Basildon sale catalogue

Figure 10. Lots 769 and 769a. Two chairs, wooden frames veneered with ivory engraved in floral designs and borders. 1760-80. India.

On James Morrison’s death in 1857 the house passed to his eldest son Charles and was inhabited by Charles’s sister Ellen. On Charles’s death in 1909 the house passed to his son Archie. In straitened circumstances the house was sold in 1929 and was purchased and lovingly restored by Lord and Lady Iliffe in the 1950s. Before the sale of the estate itself, Archie Morrison sold its furniture collection in 1920. Amongst other items, the furniture sale catalogue demonstrates that the Morrison family owned a pair of ivory chairs (see figure 10).[5] The chairs do not appear in the 1859 inventory of Basildon Park or the Morrison’s London house in Harley Street.[4] It seems likely therefore, that Charles or Archie purchased them on the English or European market. Their intention in purchasing them is unclear – did they buy them to reference the earlier connections of Basildon to the East India Company? Did they purchase them because they had become a de rigour piece within British country houses? Did he purchase them because in the late nineteenth century they once again became fashionable?


Figure 11. Chair, sandalwood with ivory veneer, black lac and gilt, cane seats, maker unknown, Vizagapatam, c.1770, Sezincote. Photograph by Diane James © 2013.





The Morrison family’s intention in purchasing these intricately designed goods appears opaque in the historical record. In contrast the Kleinwort family’s intention is perhaps more available. As Jan Sibthorpe’s work on Sezincote has shown, in the mid-twentieth century the Kleinworts worked to restore Sezincote to its nineteenth-century splendour, reinvigorating its Indian elements and features. As part of this renovation, Lady Kleinwort purchased a set of six sandalwood chairs, veneered with ivory, highlighted with black lac and gilt, with cane seats at auction in the 1940s. As with the Morrison pieces, the veneering on the chairs suggests that they were made in Vizagapatam in the 1770s. Displayed in the house, the chairs did and do reaffirm Sezincote’s early nineteenth-centuryconnections to India. These objects then managed to retain a sense of connection to the subcontinent over a period of around 170 years. 

This example underlines the ways in which ivory furniture could continue to hold its East India Company connections, in more potent ways than other objects, such as armorial porcelain or textiles. Moreover these pieces continue to hold and exemplify such connections to the present day. In recent years when ivory furniture pieces have come onto the market, their provenance and thus their links to an East India Company past through reference to a particular individual, have been distinctly highlighted. When the bureau cabinet featured at the beginning of this case study came onto the market in 2011, the auction house selling the piece Christie’s highlighted its links to the East India Company generally and Edward Harrison more particularly.[6]

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[1] Caroline Dakers, A Genius for Money: Business, Art and the Morrisons (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), p. 170.

[2] Dakers, A Genius for Money, p. 184.

[3] Dakers, A Genius for Money, p. 192.

[4] Many thanks to Caroline Dakers for her help in ascertaining this.

[5] Antique and Modern English and Continental Furniture, 1920 October 26 – November 3 (London: Waring & Gillow Ltd, 1920). 608.AF.0189 (Sales Catalogue). Victoria and Albert Museum.

[6] See http://www.christies.com/features/audio-an-anglo-indian-ivory-inlaid-teak-ebony-and–1612-4.aspx. Such provenance is also helpful in showing that the piece was sold and transported prior to the regulation of the ivory trade.