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by Titus M. Eliëns

The exhibition Domestic Interiors at the Cape and in Batavia, 1602–1795 is the first to examine the domestic interiors and furniture of the Dutch adventurers and fortune seekers who settled in Batavia (today’s Jakarta, Indonesia) and at the Cape in South Africa during the time of the Dutch East India Company (1602–1795). Being held at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, the exhibition and accompanying publication mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the 350th anniversary of the establishment of a Dutch settlement at the Cape, and offer an unprecedented opportunity for an overview of the development of the domestic furniture in expatriate Dutch communities at the most southerly tip of Africa and in the Far East.

Fig. 1: Settee, Batavia, Indonesia, 1680–1720. Red sandalwood and rattan. H. 82, Seat H. 38.5, W. 118.8, D. 68 cm. Courtesy of Gemeentemuseum Den Haag; donated by Mr. M. L. Andrée Wiltens. Cat. no. OHO-1936-0003.
The Collections
The Gemeentemuseum in The Hague boasts the most important collection of colonial artefacts of any museum in the Netherlands. This is due in large part to the major collections formed by some of the colonial administrators in the Dutch East Indies who chose the Netherlands’ traditional seat of government, The Hague, as the place for their retirement destination. Centuries later, the Gemeentemuseum, because of its location, became the recipient of many of these possessions, most of which were received as gifts or donations during the first half of the twentieth century. In the 1970s, the museum started to expand its collection through selective purchasing. Together with the Gemeentemuseum’s unique collection of colonial silverware and large holdings of Oriental ceramics, this furniture collection now conveys a clear impression of the manner in which Dutch colonial homes were
furnished in Batavia.

Although South Africa’s Cape was an important staging post for merchant ships on their way to the Far East, no attention has previously been paid in the Netherlands to the subject of the domestic interiors of the VOC outpost there. So extreme is the neglect that no Dutch museum possesses a single example of Cape furniture. The present exhibition and publication constitute a serious attempt to correct this indifference. Some fifty exemplary pieces of Cape furniture from public and private collections in South Africa have been shipped to the Netherlands especially for the exhibition, allowing for a virtually complete overview of the development of Cape furniture.

Fig. 2: Cabinet on stand, Sri Lanka, 1650–1700. Ebony on teak, silver fittings. H. 133, W. 78, D. 47.5 cm. Courtesy of Gemeentemuseum Den Haag; purchased from Beeling & Zn., Leeuwarden. Cat. no. OHO-1967-0001.

The Dutch presence at these two strategically important points in trade with the Far East led to the development of two completely disparate styles of domestic furniture in both form and decoration.

Domestic Interiors in Batavia
The first VOC trading posts in the Far East were established in the early seventeenth century on the Indonesian Moluccas and along the Coromandel coast of South East Asia. The location of present-day Jakarta was chosen because it was strategically placed on the island of Java, and met the need for a harbor where Dutch and Chinese ships could easily rendezvous without being subject to surprise attacks. In 1619 the trading post was named Batavia (the Latin name for Holland) and thereafter, because of its growing economic importance, the settlement gradually became home to a prosperous Dutch community that enjoyed flaunting
its wealth.

In the eighteenth century, this taste for ostentatious display led to such excesses that the indigenous population came to refer to the wealthy citizens of Batavia as baren, a term derived from the Malay word baru (a newcomer or ignoramus). Although the truly rich were only a small minority of the native population, they did indeed behave like parvenus, tending, for example, to own dozens of slaves who might have no other task than to light lamps or feed caged birds. This wealthy elite lived in the large houses lining the canals of Batavia, similar in size and appearance to the canal-side houses of Dutch cities like Amsterdam. Research on the interiors of these homes shows that some household inventories listed no fewer than 400 chairs—the norm was closer to 100, still a rather staggering number.

One of the most immediately striking characteristics of Batavian furniture is the use of tropical timbers: primarily gleaming black ebony, but also other hardwoods such as kaliatour, a type of dark red sandalwood from southern India. The decoration on this furniture typically features high- and low-relief carving, generally consisting of floral and foliate motifs.

Fig. 3: Table, Batavia, Indonesia, circa 1700–1725. Gilded teak with marbled top. H. 80, W. 119, D. 78 cm. Courtesy of Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, purchased from H. Schlichte Bergen, Amsterdam. Cat. no. OHO-1978-0002.
An example from this early period is the charming little settee (Fig. 1), which was made in Batavia between 1680 and 1720. Dutch settlers in the Orient used two sorts of benches: the divan or daybed and settees of the type shown here. A distinctive feature of all types of seating designed for use in the tropical heat of the Indies is the deep seat frame filled with cool open-work rattan. This kaliatour settee is decorated with carved half-relief floral and foliate motifs, and the stiles are topped by lotus bud finials.

The exact source of inspiration for the decorative carving on the furniture is still being debated, but it is generally agreed that a number of the floral motifs betray a Dutch influence. This may have reached the Indies by way of Dutch furniture brought with the elite, or from Dutch publications containing engraved illustrations of flowers, such as Crispijn de Passe de Jonge’s 1614 book Den Blomhof and E. Sweert’s earlier Florilegia, both of which were taken out to Asia by VOC employees and soon after their publication became widely available there. Oriental craftsmen interpreted these decorative motifs in their own way, as demonstrated by the fine ebony cabinet with silver fittings, dating from the latter half of the seventeenth century (Fig. 2).

Originally from Japan (with which Holland was for a long time the only Western trading partner), cabinets of this type were especially popular in Holland, where they were usually placed on stands and used to house curiosity collections reflecting the European fascination with the exotic Orient. The high quality of the low-relief carving on this particular cabinet suggests that it was most likely executed in Sri Lanka, famous for its skillful ivory workers and also the site of a VOC trading post; the cabinet was probably brought to Batavia on a trading ship, either as a custom-order or purchased en route to Holland. The delicately carved tendrils of flowers and leaves shelter small birds. The silver fittings, which provide a splendid contrast with the glossy ebony, are attached by silver rosettes and engraved with acanthus leaves.

Fig. 4: Desk on stand, Cape of Good Hope, 1740–1760. Stinkwood and brass. H. 100.5, W. 91.5, D. 70.5 cm. Courtesy of Mr and Mrs John McCormick Collection, Pretoria, South Africa.
An absolutely outstanding example of furniture made in Batavia is the gilded teak table supported by sculpted putti (Fig. 3). Dating from the first quarter of the eighteenth century, this table bears comparison with the finest surviving baroque examples from the reign of Louis XIV. It illustrates the extent to which the settlers continued to be influenced by European fashions, despite the length of the voyage from Holland. The beautifully carved putti supporting the tabletop are linked together by an X-shaped cross-member constructed of S-shaped scrolls and bearing in the center an urn containing fruit and flowers. As if this wealth of decoration were not enough, the acanthus-leaf carving on the two long sides of the apron under the tabletop incorporates a female head. A 1738 print by Johann Wolfgang Heydt (dates unknown) shows similar tables in use in the reception room of the Castle, the administrative headquarters of Batavia, and it would not be surprising if the table now in the collection of the Gemeentemuseum actually came from that location.

Fig. 5: Settee, Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, 1700–1740. Stinkwood and rawhide thong. H. 98, Seat H. 43, L. 153, D. 55 cm. Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. John McCormick Collection, Pretoria, South Africa.

Domestic Interiors at the Cape
It was in 1652 that an ambitious and enterprising Dutchman named Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape in South Africa to set up a staging-post for the VOC. Its purpose was to reprovision passing ships with fresh foodstuffs. The earliest Dutch settlers in this relatively rough and inhospitable area must have been true pioneering spirits. For the first few years they can have had little time to devote to domestic comforts. They improvised rough-and-ready forms of seating from the barrels and chests in which their few possessions had been shipped to the Cape, and it was only towards the end of the seventeenth century that proper chairs began to be made in the colony by local craftsmen.

The community at the Cape, initially occupied in farming rather than trade, was much smaller than the one in Batavia and life there was comparatively simple and rustic. Accordingly, interiors were less ostentatious than those in Batavia. But even at the Cape there was clearly some inclination towards unnecessary domestic show, since sumptuary laws were passed in the mid-eighteenth century to halt the excessive flaunting of wealth by some families.

Fig. 6: Müller family portrait, Anonymous French artist, village of Graaff Reinet, circa 1812. Courtesy of Stellenbosch Museum, the Netherlands.

Unlike Batavia, the Cape had no previous indigenous furniture-making tradition and Cape furniture continued throughout the period to be very closely inspired by contemporary developments in the Netherlands. An essential difference, however, was the type of timber used: while Dutch-grown oak was the main material used in the Netherlands, furniture-makers at the Cape relied on African timbers like yellowwood and stinkwood, and on ebony imported from the Far East.

A fine example of Cape furniture is the desk on stand shown (Fig. 4). Although made around 1750, its design is entirely based on seventeenth-century Dutch furniture. This piece illustrates not only the use of indigenous stinkwood, but also the way that traditional styles lingered on at the Cape long after they had become outmoded in the Netherlands. A household inventory taken in 1752 following the death of the first wife of Johannes van Sittert, overseer at the company hospital, lists a similarly old-fashioned lessenaar & voet (desk on stand) amongst the furniture in the left-hand voorkamer (reception room). It also mentions the presence of 1 grt bybel & knaap (large Bible and guéridon) in the right-hand voorkamer. Possibly the first was intended for use as a writing desk and the second as a lectern for the family Bible.

Fig. 7: Bureau cabinet, Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, 1750–1760. Stinkwood, chestnut, and silver. H. 252, W. 133, D. 70 cm. Courtesy of Iziko Museums of Cape Town, South Africa, Koopmans-De Wet House. SACHM no. 641.

A characteristic form of Cape furniture is the rusbank or riempiesbank (Fig. 5). The name riempiesbank comes from the inter- woven rawhide thongs (riempies) used as seating material in place of the rattan that was customary (and plentiful) in Batavia. In the local farming community, where stock breeding was one of the main means of subsistence, animal hides were clearly in easier supply. Despite this African note and their typical Cape style, such settees incorporate European features like the baluster-shaped legs and turning of a type familiar from Dutch armchairs of the period.

Settees of this kind are among the earliest furniture forms mentioned in household inventories, where they are recorded in reception and living rooms, usually padded out with a mattress and/or cushions. They were used throughout houses at the Cape until far into the nineteenth century and changed little over time. The painter Thomas Baines mentions one in the journal he kept of a mid-nineteenth century visit to South Africa. The interior he describes sounds rudimentary, but included a riempiesbank. “The furniture consisted of a couple of tables, a couch frame with a seat of leather thongs interwoven in the manner of a cane bottom, and a number of chests, barrels and folding stools.”1

Few pictures of Cape interiors are known to have survived. One of the rare examples is the portrait of Carel Theodorus Müller and his family (Fig. 6) dating from around 1812. Although the interior in which Müller’s family is portrayed is predominantly neoclassical in style, it includes on the far right a bureau cabinet dating from 1750 to 1760. Archival records such as inventories indicate that only a small number of these bureaux were made at the Cape. Figure 7 shows a splendid example featuring an unusual combination of indigenous stinkwood and European chestnut. Made by a local craftsman, this piece bears witness to cabinetmaking skills of a high order. The use of locally made silver keyplates is typical of Cape furniture, although these particular plates were actually added later and date from around 1800.

The pieces discussed above demonstrate the high standard of craftsmanship possessed by furniture-makers both at the Cape and in the Indies. Though these two Dutch communities were far from their native land, and distinct from one another, the quality of furniture rivalled that made in the Netherlands.

The exhibition Domestic Interiors at the Cape and in Batavia 1602–1795 was made possible by the cooperation of Cape Town’s Iziko Museums and Groote Schuur, the Stellenbosch Museum, and a number of private collectors in South Africa. It continues until 9 February 2003 at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Stadhouderslaan 41, The Hague, the Netherlands. Open: Tuesday–Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. For further information: www.gemeentemuseum.nl or tel.

The exhibition is accompanied by a book edited by T.M. Eliëns and published separately in Dutch and English as Wonen op de Kaap en in Batavia 1602–1795 / Domestic Interiors at the Cape and in Batavia 1602–1795, The Hague (Gemeentemuseum)/Zwolle/Cape Town 2002. ISBN 90 400 8715 6 (English version); ISBN 90 400 8714 8 (Dutch version).

Titus M. Eliëns is Head of Collections at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag and occupies a chair in the history of nineteenth and twentieth-century decorative arts at the University of Leiden’s Institute of Art History. He was primarily responsible for the exhibition and its accompanying book Domestic Interiors at the Cape and in Batavia 1602–1795.

This text was translated by Janey Tucker.

1 Thomas Baines, Journal of Residence in Africa, 1842–1853 (Cape Town, 1961).

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