Palampore or bed hanging, 'Tree of Life', cotton calico, mordant painted and dyed kalamkari (pen work), Palakollu, Andhra Pradesh, Coromandel Coast, India, 1740-1780
This palampore, or bed curtain, was made in Palakollu, Andhra Pradesh, on the Coromandel Coast of India in the mid 1700s. It is made of cotton which has been painted by hand with mordants and natural dyes. The central field displays a single, dominant tree rising from a rocky mound on which stand two peacocks and six deer. The graceful lines traced by the tree branches support a variety of fantastic flowers and fruit, including chrysanthemums, peonies, tulips and pomegranates.
The tree of life motif is a hybrid form, which in the course of its evolution appears to have drawn on the diverse visual and artistic traditions of India and Europe as well as Persia and China. The white ground and symmetrical design reflect the taste and style of the Western client for whom the palampore was intended. The sinuous lines and pleasing floral display catered to the 18th-century fashion for Chinoiserie and the rococo style.
The palempore was purchased from a country house sale in Devon in the 1960s and is thought to have been in the house since its arrival in England in the 1700s. The curtain would have been part of a bed furnishing set, comprising curtains which hung from the frame of a large four-poster bed, valances and a coverlet. Its use as a bed curtain perhaps accounts for the missing top border.
The increasing prosperity of the English middle class during the 17th and 18th centuries brought about a change in lifestyle and an upsurge in consumer demand. Household furnishings became increasingly elaborate and the choice of fabric for bed curtains, wallhangings, quilts, valances and curtains became a matter of fashion and taste.
Between 1600 and 1800 India dominated the world market as an exporter of textiles. Indian mordant-dyed, hand-painted, cotton fabrics known as chintz were admired for their brilliant colours. Unlike contemporary European and English fabrics, which were handpainted and block printed, Indian textiles used dyes that were not fugitive.
Chintz was one of the commodities handled by the British East India Company. In the early 17th century the company bartered chintz in the Malay archipelago to obtain much sought-after spices. It wasnÂ?t until the mid 1600s that a direct trade in chintz occurred between India and England. Modifications, however, were sought to existing designs so that the fabrics would accord with Western tastes and complement English interiors.
In 1643 the Indian agent was advised by the company: 'Those which hereafter you shall send we desire may be with more white ground, and the flowers and branch to be in colours in the middle of the quilt as the painter pleases, whereas now the most part of your quilts come with sad red grounds which are not equally sorted to please all buyers.'
So popular was chintz as a dress and furnishing fabric that imports to France were banned in 1689, and in 1720 a law was introduced in England to forbid the use and wearing of apparel in imported chintz. Despite these restrictions chintz continued to enter these countries.
Claire Roberts, Curator Asian Decorative Arts & Design, 1991
'Decorative Arts and Design From The Powerhouse Museum', Powerhouse Publishing, p.39
This palampore was made in India between 1740 and 1780
Hand painted Kalamkari (kalam - brush, kari - work) on cotton calico, which was the traditional method of dyeing and colour patterning used by Indian Master dyers for centuries.
For the blue dyes Indian dyers used natural indigo (an indelible dye) and for reds and related shades, madder with various mordants such as alum, which gave pink and red, and iron which gave violet. The design for the palampores was first drawn on paper, the outline perforated, then transferred to the base cotton cloth by dusting through the perforations with charcoal powder.
Acquired from Mr Clive Moore, purchased by him from a London dealer in antiquities and ethnographies, who in turn bought it from a country house sale in Devon in the late 1960s. It had probably been in the house since reaching England. Formerly used as a bed-hanging, it is now missing its top border which would have been attached to the bed. Its conditiion is otherwise intact with a number of holes and tears in the hanging which are reparable and to be expected given the age and fragility of the piece. These classic examples of India's expertise in textile production were exported to England in the 17th and 18th centuries for use as furnishing fabrics by the British East India Company.
From the beginning traditonal Indian designs were popular, particularly the 'Tree of life' design with its animals, peacocks and trailing flowers. As the trade and interest developed orders for specific designs which would complement English interiors were relayed back to the Indian makers. Gradually, elements from English and Indian cultures combined to produce designs that reflected the close trading contacts between the two countries and the effect of cross-cultural influences.
Unfortunately, the textile industry in India which produced the hand-painted and later hand-blocked fabrics was to be severely affected by the decision of the English-French governments to ban the import of the fabrics. This was to protect their own textile printing industries which were struggling against the influx of the superior and popular Indian product. However, an illicit trade in such fabrics continued for some time though the output was severely reduced.
The major attraction of the Indian fabrics or 'chints' (Hindu for 'spotted' or 'variegated') was the fastness of the dyes. It was Indian methods of plant dyeing with mordants that produced the world's original fast dyes. European products soon faded with use but the Indian colours, apart from yellow, enriched in tone with time. The importance of this encouraged Europeans to resort to all types of intrigues to discover the dyeing secrets but they were unsuccessful in reaching the same quality.
The actual process of painting an early 'chints' was involved and detailed requiring careful attention and the skilful application of the various techniques. The standards achieved were never quite reproduced either by European copyists or by the later revived Indian industry when the original secrets had been forgotten.