The recline of the British Empire: During the Raj, Indian craftsmen rose to a new challenge: furniture. Now it's up for auction, says John Windsor

John Windsor
Saturday 01 May 1993 00:02 BST

ROMANTIC films of the British Raj, Indian package tours, memories of the hippie trail and the craze for Victorian- style conservatories have all helped to create a vogue for Anglo-Indian furniture. Sotheby's is holding this country's first auction devoted to it on Wednesday (10.30am) in one of its mid-market Colonnade Sales.

Prices are reasonable compared with old English furniture, which has risen in value. For an estimated pounds 200- pounds 300 you could treat yourself to a turn-of- the-century Anglo-Indian caned verandah chair in which to recline with a gin and tonic among the potted palms, uttering the occasional command to an imaginary punkah wallah while applauding the sunset-tinged polo players wafting past your mind's eye.

It is not only Brits who have succumbed to nostalgia for the Raj. Two London dealers who buy Anglo-Indian furniture in India, Allan Beagle and David Wainwright, report that the new moneyed classes of Bombay and elsewhere are pushing up prices. Their buying power has become stronger during the past three years.

Mr Wainwright said: 'The industrial class over there is now doing exactly what new money over here has been doing for generations - buying up crumbling seats and filling them with old furniture. New money is so vulnerable: it needs the trappings of old money - that hint of faded glory, of lineage, order, steadiness - to give it status.' Indian new money had a taste for expensive hardwoods, he said: teak, rosewood, fruitwood.

The best Anglo-Indian furniture was specially commissioned by British officials, often beautifully carved and inlaid, and shipped back to Britain with pride. Examples of it crop up in Asian-week auctions - like the richly carved Anglo-Indian rosewood sideboard surmounted by a pavilion and winged makara (Hindu water monsters) of around 1900, estimated pounds 800- pounds 1,200 at Sotheby's Asian art sale on Thursday, which fetched pounds 920.

But the bulk of Anglo-Indian furniture - Indian-made to Anglo order - has the same air of impermanence as campaign furniture. Verandah chairs were collapsible, not only to enable servants to take them indoors at night, but for easy transport back to the godown (warehouse) or to auction, whenever the peripatetic British officials decamped to their next posting.

Most of this bulk-made furniture has been worn out and discarded. But enough found its way to Britain for a single collector to offer around 30 pieces, bought here, at Sotheby's Colonnade Sale. Auctioneer Arthur Millner telephoned other would-be consignors to make a proper sale of it.

Mr Wainwright cited an intermediate grade of Anglo-Indian furniture - the superior offerings of the British department store catalogues perused by every young officer newly arrived in India. Some of it was pretty sturdy. Today, beaten up and subtly weathered, it can look valuable. 'In India, it sells to the secondary and tertiary grades of new-money families,' he said.

One such middle-grade piece, a rosewood planter's chair with dense cane seat, more deeply reclined than a first- class airline seat and with swivel-arms to accommodate indolent male legs, was unsold at Sotheby's on Thursday (est pounds 700- pounds 900). Mr Wainwright offers similar pieces for pounds 290- pounds 340 and Allan Beagle for 'around pounds 300'.

Mr Wainwright refuses the overpriced pieces thrust upon him by Indian dealers who are aware of being on to a good thing. 'A small dealer in Jodhpur, usually moderately priced, asked me pounds 1,000 for a heavy, over- carved teak cupboard. It had carved on it the coat of arms of one of the ruling Indian families. The Indians never had coats of arms of their own. They were given them by the British. Clever.

'I didn't buy it, but I expect it is now owned by some movie mogul from Bombay, or some flashy fellow on the Bombay cocktail circuit with more money than style who will tell people he bought it from a maharajah.'

As for his British clientele: 'There are two types. One has inherited money and either been to India or had some connection with it. The other is people who were young in the Sixties and went to India on the hippie trail. They've now made money - perhaps in the record industry or the arts - and may be buying for their home here or their cottage in Tuscany.'

Mr Millner of Sotheby's explained that India had had little native furniture before Westerners came. Apart from low beds to protect one from vermin, rich and poor alike sat on the floor. Even maharajahs demonstrating their elevated status by mounting a dais in a pavilion would loll on carpets and cushions instead of a throne.

At the weekend I discovered that one of my favourite pieces of furniture is Anglo-Indian: a heavy rosewood deck chair with brass-mounted recliner notches in its side and upholstered seat, which I occupy when taking solace at the home of an amiable but penniless minor royal not far from Mr Wainwright's gallery. The chair bears an oval stamp 'Imam Din & Son - carpenter - Gujrat (sic) Punjab'. I have suggested to Her Highness that she flog it at Sotheby's.

Sotheby's, 34 New Bond Street, London W1 (071-493 8080). Allan Beagle, The Beagle Gallery, 303 Westbourne Grove, London W11 (071-229 9524). David Wainwright, 249 Portobello Road, London W11 (071-792 1988/1287).

(Photograph omitted)

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