11391 AN EXCEPTIONAL SOLID EBONY AND TROPICAL WOODS OCTAGONAL CENTER TABLE Ceylon. Third Quarter of the Nineteenth Century. Measurements: Height: 26 1/4″ (66.7 cm) Width: 25 1/4″ (64.1 cm Depth: 20 1/4″ (51.4 cm).
Of ebony and various tropical woods. The octagonal segmented top divided into nine tropical wood botanical specimens. The table edge with repeating pierced V pattern apron. The base of four turned and fluted legs with a pair of recessed paneled rectangular blocks at the top and bottom. The legs untied by two staggered ‘X’ stretchers centered by a tazza-form upstand. The whole raised on plain turned tapering feet. Minor restorations.
Stamped to the underside:
This exceptionally well drawn example of a Ceylonese center table, composed of a solid carved ebony base and a hexagonal top inlaid with various indigenous tropical woods, was produced in the British colony of Ceylon (today Sri Lanka). Furniture production centers there included the major coastal city of Galle and the capital city of Colombo, where the Native Industrial School was located. The present table was executed in Colombo, and bears such a stamp to the underside.
While much colonial furniture is familiar in terms of form and style, it is distinguished by the use of native timber, ornament and construction methods. “Most furniture made in Sri Lanka during the British occupation was intended for local consumption by officials, planters, merchants and high status Sinhalese. However, evidence of a healthy furniture making industry on the island is shown by the recording of ‘cabinet ware’ in the Ledgers of Exports From Colonies—Under Countries“1 sent to places like Great Britain, Mauritius, the African ports in the Red Sea, and British and French possessions in India.
Ceylonese items also appeared in various International Exhibitions in Europe, particularly “carved ebony tables of mid-nineteenth century British form whose tops are inlaid with a wide range of tropical woods.”2 In the Ceylon Court of the 1855 Paris Exhibition for example, a “large round inlaid table” was an important attraction, accompanied by a list of the various exotic timbers used in the construction if its top. The preceding catalog entry also records “2 small ebony tables inlaid.” Articles of furniture, cloth, pottery and so on, sent from the colonies for exhibition in Europe, were intended to represent the diversity and abundance of commodities available to the colonizing power from those colonies.”3 In many cases, the items of furniture served as the vehicle for display of the local cabinet woods.
There was an abundance of exotic timbers available in Sri Lanka, and several 19th century books catalog this resource. In James Sykes Gamble’s Manual of Indian Timbers (1881), the author provides a description of the Indian and Ceylonese species of ebony stating “This, the chief ebony-yielding tree, and the only one giving a black wood without other streaks or markings, is very little cut and exported in India…but in Ceylon it is one of the chief woods.”
The design of Sri Lankan furniture appears to owe much to British designs of the 1830s and 40s, and pattern books may have been circulating on the island prior to 1850.4 For example, a collection of designs by upholsterer Thomas King published in his 1829 work The Modern Style of Cabinet Work Exemplified appear to be the direct source for a group of Sri Lankan carved ebony and inlaid hexagonal top tables.
Whereas there is a tendency for nineteenth century cabinet makers to heavily embellish furniture with profuse carving, in the present table a distinctly more geometric, linear approach is the keynote, with no florid ornament, giving rise to a more austere aesthetic somewhat in line with furniture of the Arts & Crafts movement.
- Jones, Robin. Nineteenth Century Carved Ebony Furniture From Sri Lanka: Suggested Methods of Interpretation. Regional Furniture, Volume X, 1996. 35.
- Ibid., 29.
- Ibid., 35.