Ivory furniture case study: Sale


(c) British Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Figure 8. ‘Warren Hastings (1732-1818), Governor-General of Fort William, Bengal, 1774-85’, George Romney, 1795. © British Library Board, F1.

Throughout the late eighteenth century Warren Hastings (1732-1818) and his wife Marian (1744-1837) held an important place in Britons’ imaginings of empire. The press and the public used the Hastings as an important conduit through which to understand empire broadly and Britain’s relationship to the subcontinent more particularly. They did so in three key ways: first, through Hastings’ career, second, through his marriage to Marian and finally, through his estate – Daylesford.

Warren Hastings’ career path mirrored Britain’s increasingly imperial role in the subcontinent and ended with his promotion to serve as the first Governor General of India in 1772. Hastings joined the East India Company in 1750 after his guardian Joseph Creswicke secured him a writership in Calcutta. Twenty-two years later in 1772, Hastings rose to the position of Governor General. Although in many ways successful, his long tenure as Governor (thirteen years in total) was also marked by war and accusations of corruption.[1] As Britain’s control of the American colonies became weaker during the course of the Wars of Independence, the British public’s interest in India increased. When Hastings resigned in 1785 and returned to Britain, his impeachment and trial (1787-95) had a ready audience.

At the same time, as Tillman Nechtman has shown, interest in Hastings’ personal life further consolidated and shaped the public’s desire to understand the nature of Britain’s empire.[2] Warren Hastings first met Marian von Imhoff (née Anna Maria Apollonia Chapuset) while sailing to India in 1769. At the end of the journey Marian went with her husband to Calcutta, while Hastings went to Madras to take up the post of second-in-council at Fort St George. Once appointed Governor in 1772, Hastings moved to Calcutta, the seat of the Company’s government, where Marian and her husband Baron Carl von Imhoff remained resident. In 1773 Marian remained in India when the Baron returned to Europe.  Her husband divorced Marian in 1776, and a year later she married Hastings. Their marriage underlined how the social rules structuring life in the metropole were worryingly indistinct once abroad.[3] When the couple returned to Britain in 1785, Marian was subject to further criticism because she both wore and distributed the fruits of empire. She supposedly appeared at court decked out in diamonds and offered up rich and elaborate gifts to the Royal family – including ivory armchairs from Murshidabad. Critics, such as Fanny Burney, feared that Marian would undermine the morality of court, bringing it under the influence of empire and imperial riches.[4]

The Hastings’ country house, Daylesford, also acted as important part of the family’s myth. During his trial, for example, the press used Hastings’ purchase of Daylesford variously as a means to reaffirm his morality and immorality. The Hastings family had been linked to the Daylesford estate since the thirteenth century, but as they came to experience reduced circumstances during the early years of the eighteenth century, the lands were sold off. Both Hastings’ father and grandfather continued to live near the estate and Warren Hastings’ desire to re-acquire it and re-establish the family fortune acted as a compelling part of his life narrative. As the trial wound on, writers explored Hastings’ desire and motives for different ends. For example, articles in both the St James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post and the World discussed his purchase of Daylesford in terms of his family’s long attachment to the estate. An anonymous letter published in the St James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post on 29 September 1785 (after Hastings had returned to England) noted that although Hastings had been linked to several houses, he never had any intention of purchasing anything other than Daylesford.[5] The writer went on to the note that Daylesford had been in the possession of his family from ‘1281 to 1715’ and that in reacquiring it Hastings sought to return to the status of ‘respectable Country Gentleman’.[6] Similarly a biographical sketch published in the World at the height of his trial in 1792 noted that Hastings’ grandfather had been forced to sell the Daylesford estate, ‘which had been possessed by the family of Mr Hastings from 1280 to 1715’.[7]

In contrast to using Daylesford to make claims regarding the respectability and longevity of the Hastings family, other publications used Daylesford (and more particularly its rebuilding) to suggest Hastings’ duplicity. On 6 October 1795 (long after the final acquittal), for example, rather than take pity on Hastings and the high costs he incurred as a result of the lengthy trial, The Morning Post and Fashionable World took umbrage at the Indian profits he was seen to retain. They particularly noted the money Hastings had spent on ornamenting his gardens. Its writer quipped that ‘To throw away [£]50,000 in making Shrubberies and Gravel Walks is an unquestionable proof of poverty.’ It further asked When a man throws away [£]90,000 in merely ornamenting the grounds about his Country House, what may we calculate his whole fortune to be?’[8]

By examining how the Hastings family were described in the press and other print forms, it is possible to understand the role that objects, such as ivory furniture, played in consolidating links that others perceived as existing between individuals and empire. That Daylesford was an important site through which the public could discuss Hastings (and by implication empire) becomes doubly apparent during its sale in the 1850s. In this instance, ivory furniture was of particular importance in providing signifiers that clearly linked Hastings to empire.

The sale of Daylesford in the early 1850s and the subsequent sale of its contents in August 1853 attracted the attention of newspapers across Britain. Such was the perceived public interest in these events that following the sale, on 10 September 1853 the Oxford Journal republished an article that had appeared in The Times, which proposed that:

It is scarcely possible to read this announcement of the sale of Daylesford without emotion – so much of hope and feeling had been bound up with the trees and pastures of that pleasant spot … Well did he [Hastings] keep his word [to reclaim Daylesford] … He did purchase the estate – he did build upon it a mansion suitable for the Inhabitants of an English country gentleman.[9]

Why was the Daylesford sale such an important event? Cynthia Wall has drawn our attention to the importance of understanding auctions and house sales as ‘dismantlings’. For Wall ‘The auction is the site for the disassembling of one instance of the existing world and the promise of the reconstruction of a new one.’[10] As The Times article reprinted in the Oxford Journal demonstrates, the attention that the sale of Daylesford and its contents attracted, focused specifically on the house’s relationship to Warren and Marian Hastings rather than its most recent owner (Marian’s son by her first marriage) Charles von Imhoff or its purchaser, a finance man called Mr Grisewood.[11] The catalogue and its later dissemination constructed and consolidated this focus. It too primarily understood Daylesford House as ‘The Seat of the late Right Hon. Warren Hastings’, while the sale itself was framed as occurring ‘By orders of the Executors of the late Mrs Hastings’.[12] Playing to the connection between Warren and Marian Hastings and Daylesford, the frontispiece of the sale catalogue hints at the end of such connections and the dismantling of their lives. Its wording suggests that overspending on ‘valuable’ and ‘costly’ items from Asia, the Caribbean and Europe (as well as their deaths) has led to the end of Daylesford and its present chaotic state.

Even in the 1850s, as his house and contents were sold, Warren Hastings’ connection to empire remained the key frame through which he was understood. Such connections were, I argue, significantly underlined through material manifestations of empire – such as ivory furniture. In its first few lines, the frontispiece to the Daylesford sale catalogue highlighted the ivory furniture belonging to the Hastings. It described itself as ‘A catalogue of the valuable contents of the mansion embracing a unique & costly drawing room suite of solid ivory, finely carved and gilt, and finished in the Richest Style of Oriental Magnificence, comprising Two beautifully formed Sofas, Nine Chairs, Two Ottomans, a Table, and a pair of Screens’.[13] Ivory furniture, brought from the subcontinent, was the first type of object that any potential purchaser was asked to consider.  Inside the catalogue ivory furniture was further highlighted, this time through the use of typographical techniques, rather than hierarchical positioning. Other pieces of furniture in the Daylesford collection were described through a standardised font of the same point size. In contrast, bolding, capitalizing and italicizing marked out the ivory furniture pieces as distinctive, important and (it could be assumed) valuable – here there were important things to see that required special billing. In employing typographical strategies to emphasise certain goods, the catalogue reimagined the sale as spectacle and show.[14] For instance the catalogue listed the drawing room contents as:

A SOFA OF SOLID IVORY, in the richest style of Oriental magnificence, superbly carved and richly gilt, the elbows finished with tiger heads, stuff seat and two bolsters, covered en-suite with curtains, and extra Indian dimity cases – 6 ft. 6 long


A PAIR OF ELBOW CHAIRS, IN SOLID IVORY, of corresponding style, and of equal magnificence with sofas





ONE DITTO (damaged)

A SOLID IVORY TABLE, of elegant form, on shaped legs, beautifully carved and gilt, fitted with two drawers with silver locks and handles, and covered with fine green cloth, edged with silver lace

A SQUARE FOOT OTTOMAN, OF SOLID IVORY, gilt, stuffed and covered en-suite with sofas


A PAIR OF CARVED IVORY ORIENTAL OFFICIAL STAFFS (5ft. long), ornamented with silver gilt bands and wire, mounted in ebonized and gilt frames and silk mounts to form fire screens, and white Indian dimity covers

Despite little significance being placed on the material qualities of other items, in promoting the ivory objects, the catalogue was at pains to highlight the importance of ‘solid ivory’ furniture. In nineteenth-century Britain, as understandings of ‘veneer’ shifted from skilled practice to false and cheap rendering, claims of ‘solid ivory’ would have been quickly understood as holding higher value.[15] As noted earlier, underlining this quality might have also made certain purchasers aware that these items were likely to have come from a particular part of the subcontinent – Murshidabad. For those with an understanding of the subcontinent, the catalogue provided grounds on which to establish a connoisseurial engagement with the auctioned items.

While the catalogue imagined the ivory furniture within the expected space of the drawing room, it also destabilized the idea of a domestic setting by listing out the pieces. As with other auction catalogues, lists here also create a productive tension between the idea of plenty (something for everyone) and exclusivity (particular objects are of special import). At the same time, by using the convention of newspaper articles, which artlessly itemised many goods, auction catalogues underlined that these objects were for sale and could sell themselves.[16] Rearranging the items for sale both by randomising their location in the lists and giving importance to some over others, the Daylesford catalogue reordered the Hastings’ possessions and allowed them to be reimagined within other homes and lives.[17] 

Alongside the dismantling Hastings’ home, articles appearing in newspapers across Britain in 1853 used the event to re-examine Hastings’ life and legacy. Central to these re-examinations was (perhaps inevitably) Hastings’ imperial career. The importance of imperial connections in shaping what Daylesford (and Hastings) was and meant, was further confirmed through the way in which the objects were arranged for sale. The subcontinent loomed large in the contents sale, through the presence of a collection of ivory furniture. It was this and not the mahogany and satin-wood furniture that received top billing. As such this example reminds us of the important role furniture played in representing the subcontinent and Britain’s imperial ambitions there.    

The sale of the contents of Daylesford also reminds us that by the nineteenth century an active market arose that enabled the recirculation of goods originally linked to East India Company families in the eighteenth century. The dismantling of collections, such as that belonging to the Hastings family, also offered up an occasion upon which to dismantle their family narrative. Yet as the Hastings example shows, it also reified the Hastings drama, allowing others to purchase pieces understood as important to the imperial story. Chief amongst these, as the sale catalogue promised, was the ivory furniture largely bought from skilled craftsmen in Murshidabad. What happened to pieces such as these as they entered new settings and new narratives? How were they presented an understood? What position did they hold? 

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[1]P. J. Marshall, ‘Hastings, Warren (1732–1818)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/12587, accessed 19 May 2014]

[2] Nechtman, ‘Nabobinas’, pp. 8-30.

[3] Tillman W. Nechtman, Nabobs: Empire and Identity in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 197.

[4] Nechtman, Nabobs, p. 190.

[5] The Hastings landed at Plymouth on 13 June 1785.

[6] St James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post (London), 29 September 1785.

[7] World, (London) 16 July 1792.

[8] Morning Post and Fashionable World (London) 6 October 1795.

[9] Oxford Journal, 10 September 1853.

[10] Cynthia Wall, ‘The English auction: narratives of dismantlings’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 31:1 (1997), p. 3.

[11] Information regarding Mr Grisewood taken from the Dundee Courier, 14 September 1853.

[12] Catalogue of the valuable contents of Daylesford House, Worcestershire, the seat of the late Right Hon. Warren Hastings (London: J. Davy and Sons, 1853).

[13] Catalogue of the valuable contents of Daylesford House, Worcestershire, the seat of the late Right Hon. Warren Hastings (London: J. Davy and Sons, 1853).

[14] Barbara Benedict, ‘Encounters with the object: advertisements, time, and literary discourse in the early eighteenth century thing poem’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 40:2 (2007), p. 196.

[15] Peter Betjeman, ‘Craft and the limits of skill: handicraft revivalism and the problem of technique’, Journal of Design History, 21:2 (2008), p. 189.

[16] Benedict, ‘Encounters with the object’, p. 198.

[17]  Wall, ‘The English auction’, p. 14.