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Rare Indian Textiles Exhibition at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The textile trade between Great Britain and India flourished in the 17th century, and the influence of India and Southeast Asia upon British interior design could be found in a wide range of household objects, from soft goods such as bed hangings and wall coverings, to ceramics, toilette services, and decorative screens. While few examples of these textiles imported from India to Europe during this period have survived, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), owns two rare late 17th-/early 18th-century bed hangings, one of Indian embroidered cotton, and the other of hand-painted Indian callico or chintz. These bed hangings from Ashburnham Place in Sussex, England––which possibly hung in a bedroom––serve as the focal point for ‘And So to Bed’: Indian Bed Curtains from a Stately English Home, an exhibition on view in the Loring Gallery of the MFA from November 5, 2008, through June 21, 2009. The exhibition draws its name from the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, who often ended his entries with the phrase “and so to bed.” The exhibition is made possible by the Loring Textile Gallery Exhibition Fund and The David and Roberta Logie Fund for Textile and Fashion Arts. Additional support for the exhibition is provided by The Coby Foundation, Ltd.

“The 17th century was a period of great change in Great Britain, which evolved from an insular country to a world power,” said Katie Getchell, Deputy Director at the MFA. “The increasing material wealth of the people and the growing awareness of the world around them are revealed by the exotic bed-hangings and decorative arts found in this exhibition.”

The exhibition––which includes approximately 40 objects––will begin with a look at the impact of Eastern goods on English life. It will examine how the Ashburnham hangings, with their depiction of a fantastic Eastern landscape, might have found a place in a British home, as well as show how they reflected British perceptions of the then relatively unknown East. Using the two curtains as a starting point––one of hand-painted chintz (one of the few existing English domestic textiles of the period still in its original form), and the other embroidered––the exhibition explores four themes: the influence of India on interior decoration and the growing importance of private spaces in 17th century British architecture, the design of the curtains, how the textiles were produced, and the textile trade between Europe and the East.

The Ashburnham family, based in Sussex, England, since at least the 12th century, owned several estates as well as a house in London. As styles and fashions changed over the years, objects that once held pride of place were tucked away in corners and attics of stately English homes, supplanted by newer and more up-to-date models. In many cases, the cast-offs were stored away for centuries, emerging in 1953, when Lady Catherine Ashburnham died, and the contents of her house, Ashburnham Place in Sussex, were auctioned to pay death duties. Among the treasures sold from the house was a group of embroidered and hand-painted textiles made of fabric imported from India, which had been in the family since at least the early 18th century. Two of these the rare bed hangings found a home in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1953.

These spectacular bed hangings reflect European fascination with the imagery of Asia during this period, which found expression in chinoiserie designs that ornamented European textiles as well as other decorative arts. Some of these European orientalized designs reached India, and local artisans copied them using intricate hand-drawing and resist-dyeing techniques, producing fabrics known at the time, and even today, as chintz. Chintz was first used for bed curtains and wall hangings, particularly in the decoration of bedrooms and small cabinets or dressing rooms. It later became popular in men’s and women’s fashions.

“There was a great desire for dyed textiles from India, as the technique, profusion of color, and fastness were unlike any found elsewhere in the world,” said Pamela Parmal, David and Roberta Logie Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts, and curator of the exhibition. “These fabrics from around 1700 provide us with a glimpse into English society during this time and the forces that shaped English taste. They tell a story about interior decoration, the growing trade with India, and the impact of contact with Asia on English design and social customs.”

The British developed an interest in private domestic spaces during the 17th century, when bedrooms, dressing rooms and attached studios or cabinets became retreats for the members of the household. The rooms’ informality meant their decoration could be more experimental, and goods from the “Indies” became popular. Because of the private nature of these rooms, exotic trade goods from India were often used to furnish them: lacquer screens and chintz design on the walls, Chinese and Japanese ceramics on mantle pieces and cabinets, and oriental motifs on toilette services and bed hangings. Lacquer cabinet and stand (1680-90) portrays a distinctly European form, but has been decorated by the application of lacquer panels from a Chinese screen. Women showed a particular fondness for these chambers and used them for socializing with intimate friends and relations, often over a cup of tea, newly introduced from the East. Objects in the exhibition such as Teapot (probably 17th century, marked by Shi Dabin), an example of the earliest Chinese teapots introduced to Europe, and Tea kettle and stand (1717-18, marked by William Archdall), an example of hollowware developed specifically for the taking of hot drinks, illustrate new forms of decorative arts introduced to English society.

‘And So to Bed’ offers several other examples, including Twelve-piece toilet service and two candlesticks (1680, designed by Jacob Bodendeich), a silver toilet service chased with Persian and Chinese scenes, Coromandel screen with European hunting scene (about 1700) a Chinese lacquer screen depicting European ships, and a fragment of English crewelwork with the exact same design as the Ashburnham curtains, all which might have been proudly displayed in an English woman’s bed chamber.