Lockwood de Forest, Ahmadabad, and American Orientalism
by Ibn Warraq (August 2009)
One of my great pleasures is exploring cities, the larger the city, the greater the surprises and serendipitous discoveries. However much you may think you know London, or Paris, or New York, there are, I wager, parts that you have never visited, little associated histories that you were unaware of, aspects you promised yourself to explore one day but never did.
I have only lived in New York for just over a year, and the city retains that freshness yet, that sense of excitement and flurry one feels at the beginning of a romance; I have not had time to become dulled or bored. I am writing a veritable dithyramb to New York in my next book: New York as a synechdoche for all that is best in the West. I have been reading and buying as much I can on New York: Wallace and Burrows’ Gotham A History of New York City to 1898; E.B.White’s Here is New York; Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days. I have just acquired, through Abe Books, fourteen sundry, secondhand, volumes of Damon Runyon’s Broadway Stories, and reportage. I must have a dozen tourist guides to New York. For architecture, the extraordinary service that Nikolaus Pevsner, a non-Englishman, rendered to all lovers of architecture with his comprehensive guides to every single structure, house or building worthy of aesthetic interest in England including London, has been mirrored in the equally astonishing and encyclopedic guide to New York’s architectural heritage by Norval White and Elliot Willensky’s AIA Guide to New York City, which records every single building of architectural worth in witty, erudite and terse fashion. Here is a sample:
“Unique in New York is the exotic, unpainted, and intricately carved teakwood bay window that adorns No. 7 [10th St.]. Its infectious forms influence the other East Indian details of this town house as well as those of the apartment building to the east, designed the following year. Note how the exterior teakwood here has withstood the rigors of the city’s atmosphere better than the brownstone of neighbouring row houses. De Forest (1850-1932) was an artist who worked in the Middle East and India and founded workshops in Ahmadabad to revive the art of woodcarving.”
I was born in Rajkot, some 145 miles SW of Ahmadabad.
One has to see the house in situ to appreciate the details; from the low relief teak carved casings of the exterior doorways, to the perforated, arched teak screens of the windows on the upper floor. The most striking feature is the bay or oriel window on the second floor: intricate filigree and astonishing relief carvings of plants, flowers and birds.
All the teak wood carvings are in pristine condition. The interior was, it seems, equally striking, though I was unable to visit it in late July. I shall have to wait until September for students to show me around, as it is now a part of New York University’s Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. However, William Henry Shelton, in an article, entitled, The Most Indian House in America, for the journal The House Beautiful written in 1900, gives us a vivid description of the original interiors: large expanses of teak panelling and screens some carved and some plain; Indian-style furniture and trim details like red sandstone from Agra, deep blue tiles from Damascus, and a patterned brass ceiling in the parlor, the room with the oriel window.
Lockwood de Forest, painter, architect, interior designer, and collector, was descended from a Walloon family, but his immediate relatives were the de Forests of Connecticut. Lockwood’s grandfather moved from New Haven to New York in 1815, where he fathered fourteen children. Lockwood’s father, Henry Grant de Forest married Julia Mary Weeks in 1847, and they had four children, Robert Weeks (1848-1931), Lockwood (the artist, our subject: 1850-1932), Julia Brasher (1853-1910), and Henry Wheeler (1855-1938). Lockwood’s brother Robert Weeks became a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1889 and President of the Museum in 1913.
Lockwood’s parents were energetic travellers, often taking their children on European tours, during which Lockwood acquired a passion for art. One of the de Forests’ travelling companions was Frederic Edwin Church, the American Orientalist.
Soon, Lockwood was going on sketching expeditions to the Acropolis with Church, and also taking painting lessons in Rome. Lockwood was to take up formal studies with Church in 1870, and began to associate with other landscape painters.
In 1875, the de Forest family undertook a long voyage, going to Egypt for the first time. We have a vivid record of Lockwood’s impressions since he wrote regularly to his friend Walter Palmer. As anti-Orientalists make much of the putative contempt of the “other”- both peoples and culture - of Western painters abroad, it is worth dwelling on de Forest’s descriptions and reactions. Here is how he registers his arrival in Alexandria in December, 1875: “You can’t tell what a contrast it makes to come from Italy to here. My great wonder is how many artists have been here and how they could have returned and done so little. Everything you see is a perfect picture and you can’t even look out of your window without seeing four or five things you want to make studies of. Most however of the things you see in the cities are in the figure painters line.” He also admired the “wonderful breadth” of the landscape on either side of the Nile.
Like so many Orientalist painters, de Forest was full of wonder at the quality of light and the climate while making many sketches on the de Forests’ slow boat up the Nile. He adored the temple at Karnak where he found his “camera of great use in all the architectural sketching as I could draw the most difficult perspective drawings in a few minutes which would have taken days otherwise”.
The family returned to Cairo, and moved onto Jerusalem where Lockwood admired the Dome of the Rock very much, though it seems Muslims forbade him from making any sketches of it. The Dead Sea, Damascus, and then Palmyra all conspired to make Lockwood a lover of the East, and a foe of those European nations that had been, according to him, an unfortunate influence, “It does seem strang(e) what a curse Europeans have been to every nations (sic) they have had anything to do with. Just look at Peru, Mexico, Japan, China, India, &c. I don’t understand it at all.” On his way back, Lockwood wrote of his feelings about returning to the West: “The fact is one is spoilt for Europe after the East and one always feel (sic) hurried the moment you turn your face toward home…. There is nothing new to interest one in this part of the world so there is very little to tell you….”
Lockwood’s early travels evidently kindled his romantic yearnings. Anne Suydam Lewis usefully summarises the development of his feelings on the East:
“The attitudes that emerge from de Forest’s letters are by no means unique- the nineteenth century knew scores of artists, writers, and thinkers who were revolted at the tawdriness of industrialization and attracted to the “romantic” and “unspoiled” East. De Forest’s aesthetic starting point was that of a third-generation Hudson River School landscape artist. What was initially a largely pictorial fascination with the East, however, later developed within the context of the late nineteenth century crafts movement into a pronounced advocacy of the East (especially India) as the sole remaining repository of values and traditions which made it possible to achieve quality in the industrial arts.”
Lockwood returned to Greece and Egypt in 1877-78. His painting Pyramid of Sakkara was exhibited at the National Academy in 1877, and then selected as part of the American exhibition for the Paris exposition, the following year.
THE ASSOCIATED ARTISTS AND THE FIRST JOURNEY TO INDIA, 1879-1882.
Lockwood gives this account of his involvement with Louis C. Tiffany [1848-1933], designer, artist best known for his stained glass windows and other works in the decorative arts, and Candace Wheeler [1827-1923], the interior and textile designer:
“In 1878 I became interested with Mr. Louis C. Tiffany and Mrs. Wheeler in Architecture and Interior Decoration, doing some important work. In 1880 I made up my mind that more could be learned from the East than anywhere else, so I started to make a study of the Architecture and all the arts and crafts of India.”
In 1879 Tiffany suggested that Mrs. Wheeler, Lockwood de Forest, and Samuel Colman join him in founding a professional decorating firm; a proposal that resulted in the creation of The Associated Artists. Lockwood seems to have worked on several commissions of the Associated Artists, such as the Union League Club of New York.
It was Tiffany, it seems, who first suggested that Lockwood travel to India to study, in situ, Indian carvings examples of which Tiffany had recently seen in the British Museum. Lockwood married Meta Kemble in 1880, and set off to India for his honeymoon. He made inquiries about carvings on his arrival in Bombay, but was disappointed to learn that the traditional products which interested him the most were no longer being made.
“Bombay, Nasik and Yeola north of it, and Surat, Broach, Baroda and Ahmedabad [Ahmadabad] north-west of it all have wonderful examples of carved houses in their streets. Ahmedabad is the finest as well as the largest city. The detail of the carving differs in the districts to the north, but the general construction is the same. I made an attempt to get some carved panels made in Surat but it was rather unsuccessful. When I reached Ahmedabad, however, and saw street after street of carved houses and the many beautiful mosques of yellow sandstone, also elaborately carved, with their wonderful tracery windows, I made up my mind to have copies made of some of them no matter what difficulties I had to meet. Fortunately I was able to first interest Mr. Ritchie the collector (this is the chief magistrate in an Indian district often with a population of from one million to three million). He introduced me to Mr. Fernandez, the deputy collector and also chairman of the municipality. I explained to him that one of my objects in visiting India was to study all the native industries, and get such things as I thought might be used to advantage in the decorative business which Mr. Samuel Colman, Mr. Louis C. Tiffany, Mrs. Wheeler and I had started in New York in 1878 in an endeavor to improve the taste. Mr. Fernandez was very much interested and thought that the only way to get anything in India was to establish a workshop, a plan I had already thought of as I found I could not buy a single piece of carving. He introduced me to Mr. Muggenbhai Hutheesing a member of one of the leading Jain families in Ahmedabad,whose father had built the Jain temple there some fifty years ago at a cost of over a million dollars. It is, though modern, one of the finest Jain temples in India. I could not have found any one better suited to undertake the direction of such work as I wanted to do and the entire success has been largely due to his energy and the facilities which his position and high caste enabled him to bring to bear. This hereditary carpenter was put in charge and found the other workmen. I had to advance the money to buy everything in the way of tools and material.
The first work I planned to have done was to copy some of the examples of carving on the houses and above all the tracery windows of the mosques. In no other place has this art been brought to such perfection. The most important of them are the two windows of the Bhudder or Palace mosque. They are a pointed arch in shape, seven feet six inches high and twelve feet on the base line. (Click here to view.) One of them is illustrated in Ferguson's Indian Architeflure. The examples in the other mosques though much smaller and different in design are quite as beautiful. I took Mr. Muggenbhai about the city, accompanied by the head carpenter, and we made a list of the things I wanted to have copied and the head carpenter drew most of the examples out on paper. He undertook himself the copy of the windows of the Bhudder mosque which were not only the largest but the most difficult. There was no way of getting a good view of them so he built a scaffold from which he made a full-sized drawing which he transferred to his wood, after framing it together the exact size of the originals. The wood for the openwork was two inches thick so you can imagine the difficulty of cutting it entirely with a chisel.
The Indian tools are I believe mostly of native make, entirely of steel with no wooden handles. The logs are still sawed into planks and boards with a cross cut saw of semi-circular shape worked by two men, one standing above and the other below the log, which is raised from the ground high enough for the man to stand under it. The workmen sit on the ground to work and hold the wood which they are carving with their feet, or where the pieces are large they sit on them. This enables them to use both hands freely and often both feet in guiding their tools and to put their whole weight on where needed. It brings into full play every muscle in the body. The result is a cleanness and directness in the cutting impossible in our method of bench work. I have never seen such masterful skill in the use of tools or such knowledge of design.
The carvers are all of the mistre or carpenter caste and their children begin to learn the trade at three years old. The boys of 8 to 12, many of whom I had, were able to carve nearly as well as the men; all could draw designs and what to me was even more surprising, was that every one of them could model with their tools the most intricate forms of birds, animals, scrolls of flowers and leaves and even human figures from only a rough chalk outline drawn on the block of wood. In no case that I can remember did they have a model to work directly from in doing the more than a thousand different designs they made for me. Even in the case of the copies they were all made from a drawing of the original and not a cast. The windows of the Bhudder mosque and other traceries were as accurate in every detail as a cast could have made them. As the originals were in stone the wood carving came out a little finer in texture.
The head carpenter who made the large Bhudder windows carved a fine ivory miniature of Mr.Hutheesing which he presented to me. This gives some idea of the range of their ability. It has been and is a constantly increasing wonder to me in these nearly thirty years that I have had the work going on at Ahmedabad how these men could understand, as they have done, rather intricate plans and never seem to come to the end of their ability to make new designs.
I regret very much now that I did not keep a complete photographic record of all that I have had done. I have some hundreds of designs only now. In looking them over lately it seemed to me that they would make a very useful book on design. They cover a very wide range of both scrolls, squares, and rosettes and most of them would be applicable to color and embroidery as well as carving. One of the qualities of the finer teak is that it will not disintegrate under the tool and it can be carved with nearly the same minute detail as ivory. I have some examples fully as fine as the most delicate ivory carving. The wood has so much oil and silica in it that you cannot use a band or scroll saw for any of the open work. It has to be cut out entirely with the tool, as you would metal. Some of the lines in the tracery were no wider than a heavy pencil line though the wood was over one inch thick. The final finish was done with a file. Many of the brackets are cut against the grain on the ends of beams and blocks, the plain ends being built into the walls exposing only the carving to the weather. The front of my house at 7 East loth Street, New York, is nearly a copy of an Ahmedabad house. The wood has never had anything of any kind put on it. There is not a single one of these end pieces which have even checked in the twenty-two years that they have been exposed to our baking sun in summer and our frosts in winter. Many are in open work so it has been the best of tests.
Mr. C. Purdon Clarke (now Sir Purdon) was collecting for the India Museum at South Kensington and we met in India at the first exhibition of Indian art at Lahore in 1881. I told him then I thought that as fine carving could be done as had ever been done in the past. He just laughed at me and said it was impossible. I had the satisfaction of sending some of the work done by my men in Ahmedabad to the Colonial Exhibition in London in 1886 to which the jury awarded the medal for the best carving. Mr. Clarke then said that he had never seen any such fine work at any time.
On leaving Gujarat, of which Ahmedabad is the largest city, you pass immediately into Rajputana where all architecture is in stone or stucco and you do not find any more wooden construction or wood carving until you reach the Punjab north of Delhi. In Am- ritsar and Lahore the wood used is mostly the deodar, a soft wood more like our cedar. It is also very durable but not so much so as the teak. The carving is far less elaborate than that I have described in the Bombay Presidency. The designs are more Moham- edan and though many of them are fine they have not the variety of the Jain. The houses are largely of stucco with only a projecting balcony or bay of carving; in addition to the doors, window frames and shutters. There is a great deal of geometrical fitted work such as one finds in Kgvpt and Syria. All the open work lattice is of this kind through Northern India.
In Cashmere you again come to a purely wooden construction in many of the houses but there is very littlecarving. Many of the ceilings, even in the cheaper houses, are of geometrical panel work made of very thin wood and put together with much skill. The fitting is very crude but when the ceiling is all in place it is very effective. It has a character of its own which is entirely lacking in any of our carefully constructed cabinet work. I often ask myself why ? It is not because of its crudeness; but because of its better fitting into its place. It carries better at the distance you have to look at it than the more finished panelling would.
Do not let any of us deceive ourselves into thinking that any work can be too well done or perhaps it would be better to say too carefully done. I believe work to be well done only when it exactly fills the place or use for which it was intended. It then becomes art.”
Continue reading part II here.
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