Winterthur Sojourn

At the Winterthur Estate

I have always been intrigued by the designs of Indian furniture of the traditional kind. Cabinetmakers in this country when asked to make traditional pieces follow designs that have a commonality, not just in terms of looks but also in the kind of joinery employed. This, it seemed to me, suggested a shared set of customs and the question that naturally arose is from where did they originate?

A little research suggested the origins of most so-called traditional Indian furniture designs are Western, specifically English. For, traditionally in India, as in most Asian societies, furniture of the kind we use today was entirely unknown.

Writing about the "Manner of Life" in India during the height of Mughal Rule (Emperor Jahangir), the Jesuit traveller Francisco Pelsaert writes: "They have no furniture of the kind we delight in, such as tables, stools, benches, cupboards, bedsteads, etc.; but their cots, or sleeping places, and other furniture of kinds unknown in our country, are lavishly ornamented with gold or silver, and they use more gold and silver in serving food than we do, though nearly all of it is used in the mahal, and is seen by scarcely anybody except women. Outside the mahal there is only the diwan-khana, or sitting-place, which is spread with handsome carpets, and kept very clean and neat."

This is excerpted from the "The Remonstrantie of Francisco Pelsaert" Translated from the Dutch by W. H. Moreland in 1925. Other European travellers too remarked on the lack of furniture and Europeans travelling to India in the 17th and 18th centuries had a hard time sourcing furniture of their kind. Gradually over time, English cabinetmakers settled in the principal British Indian cities and brought with them their designs, methods of works and cabinetmaking traditions. These were passed on to Indian artisans who carried on the trade.

Winterthur Museum, Delaware, USA

For some years I have been trying to identify the styles and types of furniture common to our past. This process was greatly accelerated following a grant from the Winterthur Museum and Library at Delaware, United States. Four glorious summer weeks at this idyllic location were spent pouring over volumes of wonderful books on various furniture styles and discovering the trove of antique American furniture of various styles housed in the Museum.

Here I found a way to make sense of Indian furniture of the colonial period by comparing them with those made by English cabinetmakers of the same period in other former British colonies, including the United States. English cabinet makers, renowned for their skills in the late 18th and early 19th century, were sought after in many parts of the world and many had emigrated to the United States as well.

Empire Hall: One of the Many rooms in the Museum

The Museum was stock full of works by various cabinetmakers including several famous ones who had emigrated from England. Studying their work was fascinating. The Museum, it seemed to me, was designed for researchers like myself and all those who delight in great furniture.

The Museum is the legacy of the late billionaire Henry Francis du Pont. The 1,000-acre estate on which it is situated and the magnificent chateau which houses the collections was once home to the du Ponts. Henry Francis du Pont, during his lifetime, began converting it into a Museum, lovingly purchasing some of the finest examples of American decorative arts objects. Today, the Museum holds the world's largest collection of American decorative art objects, including furniture.

Accessing that treasure with the help of the curators and professors of the Museum was an opportunity of a lifetime. They were eager to help me learn and gave as much time as I wanted to take tours and examine the many fabulous pieces of the best furniture the world has ever produced.

I will remain forever indebted to Dr Catharine Dann Roeber, Professor Thomas Guiler, Director Gregory Landrey, library director Emily Guthrie and Susan Newton of the photographic services office for their warmth and constant assistance during my sojourn.

Winterthur Estate

Not only did I learn an immense amount about furniture, its history and traditions but I also enjoyed the vast estate with its rolling landscape, towering oaks and poplars, and its picturesque walks.

Winterthur is testimony to the vision of a man who believed that beautiful objects, the masterpieces fashioned by artisans long gone are worth preserving as is the landscape that attracted the du Pont emigrants escaping difficult times in their native France.

The sojourn has inspired me to learn more about the many nameless artisans in my own country who once produced magnificent furniture. Their pieces might not be lovingly housed in any museum in this country but at least we could honour their memory and trace their unwritten history.

Indranil Banerjie
20 September 2019