William Randolph Hearst bought a pair of chairs when the designer, Lockwood de Forest, sold up. Roberta Mayer charts the vogue for extravagant arts of India
From 1880 onwards, the media mogul, William Randolph Hearst, spent a staggering million dollars each year on art and antiques, a collection that was mainly displayed in San Simeon, his fantasy castle on the Californian coast. In November 1922, with the intention of making even more acquisitions, Joe Willicombe, Hearst's highly trusted personal assistant, attended the auction of the Lockwood de Forest Collection of Rare East Indian, Persian and Syro-Damascan Art and Curios in New York. Among Willicombe's successful bids on Hearst's behalf was lot 489: Two Indian Chased Brass Chairs. These rare and distinctive acquisitions were then added to Hearst's vast collection.
The chairs – to be offered in Bonhams Furniture and Decorative Arts sale in New York – had been created by de Forest for his own house at 7 East 10th Street in New York. The designer had been a member of the Society of Decorative Art in New York since 1876, but his interest in India had been sparked by the 1878 Paris Universal Exhibition. There he saw the extravagant Indian Court that Great Britain had commissioned to mark Queen Victoria's ascendency to the title of Empress of India. Many of the objects on display had been collected during the Prince of Wales's tour of India in 1876.
It clearly made a huge impression. In 1880, de Forest began his formal decorating career in partnership with Louis Comfort Tiffany who was, by then, gaining recognition for his own exotic interiors. The following year, de Forest travelled throughout India on a buying trip for his new venture, a trip that doubled as his honeymoon following his marriage to Meta Kemble of the du Pont family. While there, de Forest collected an array of decorative objects, textiles, and jewellery, but what most excited him was visiting Ahmedabad, a city peppered with beautifully carved Islamic mosques and tombs from the 15th and 16th centuries. There de Forest made contact with the hereditary Hindu stone carvers and wood carvers (mistri) through the prominent Hutheesing family, and he negotiated with the workshop to revive the intricate carvings that had flourished in the past. The designer then selected a wide range of architectural elements, expertly copied from the most impressive buildings in Ahmedabad, and incorporated them into designs for his own furniture which the mistri then executed in teakwood. In this initiative to preserve traditional Indian crafts, de Forest was following the same path as the English Arts and Crafts movement, his ideas dovetailing with the larger Indian Craft revival promoted by George C. M. Birdwood and Caspar Purdon Clarke (curator of the new India Museum at South Kensington in London), both of whom de Forest met during his travels on the subcontinent.
Almost as soon as he returned, de Forest amicably dissolved his short-lived partnership with Tiffany and continued his ties to the Ahmedabad workshop until 1908. His business was initially located in a commercial building at 9 East 17th Street, but when his East 10th townhouse was completed in 1888, this became his family residence and his place of business. In 1900, it was featured in The House Beautiful as "the most Indian house in America".
The chased brass side chairs that Hearst purchased in 1922 stood in de Forest's hall, a tiled space that also displayed mother-of-pearl-inlaid chests from Damascus, a Japanese tea jar, and a leopard skin. The chairs were handcrafted for de Forest from turned teakwood that was then overlaid with thin sheets of brass hand embossed with dense floral designs. These emphatically upright chairs have a throne-like quality and were based on a silver Indian chair that de Forest discovered in Jodhpur.
By 1922, de Forest had decided to retire to Santa Barbara, California. The auction that year sold all that remained from his famous 10th Street home. Hearst, who had begun building San Simeon in 1919, not only acquired the two brass chairs, but eight Syro-Damascan chests as well. Where these furnishings were displayed is unclear.
In 1932, Hearst sold the chairs – and now they are rare survivors from de Forest's home, and also link de Forest and Hearst through a shared appreciation for the decorative arts of India.
Roberta A. Mayer is author of Lockwood de Forest: Furnishing the Gilded Age with a Passion for India (2008).