In 1855, Colonel Thomas Biggs, an army officer of the East India Company, took on a short-term appointment as the Company’s photographer. His mission: to photograph old monuments in western (and later southern) India. Biggs concentrated on Ahmedabad (an area beyond the present-day city precincts) using a technique he had learnt in London: developing photos using “post-waxed paper negatives”.
Biggs’s photographs were published in a book, titled Architecture in Ahmedabad: The Capital of Goozerut, which appeared ten years later in 1866, and is now at the British Library. The book includes photos of Palitana’s old temples, medieval shrines, such as the 16th century Sidi Saiyyed mosque, and more contemporary structures, such as the Jain temple constructed by the entrepreneur-philanthropist, Kesarisinh Hutheesing.
Biggs’s fascination with Ahmedabad’s architectural riches would be echoed a few years later by the American interior designer and landscape painter, Lockwood de Forest, when he was in the city in early 1881. De Forest’s eye was caught by the intricate stone inlay work, the minute carvings on the minarets and the wood decorations adorning most houses in Ahmedabad.
De Forest combined his aesthetic sense with a sound business head. With Maganbhai Hutheesing (Kesarisinh’s son), Lockwood de Forest set up the Ahmedabad Woodcarving Company in 1881. Its objectives were to employ traditional craftsmen called mistris to copy and carve the old designs, the inlay work, the wood ornamentation and carvings on buildings, into decorative items like wall brackets, mouldings, screens and even furniture, to cater to the tastes of a discerning American clientele.
For the love of art
Lockwood de Forest was born in New York in 1850, to an old established family descended from immigrants from the Netherlands in the 17th century. His siblings, including two brothers, were to distinguish themselves not only as lawyers but as art patrons and collectors.
De Forest’s interest in the arts of the Near East was first fuelled by his uncle, Ferdinand Edwin Church, an artist influenced by his travels in the South Mediterranean and West Asia. De Forest stayed at his uncle’s estate Olana, in New York, where he had access to the library. He was also taught by his uncle for some time, though later, following his travels to Italy, Greece, Turkey and Syria in the 1870s, he would be tutored in Rome by the painter Hermann Corrodi.
There were other influences at work too. In her book on Lockwood de Forest, Roberta Mayer writes of the reaction against the century’s rapid industrialisation and mechanisation, which led to the Aesthetic Movement, with its belief in “art for art’s sake”. From the 1860s onward, the movement found adherents in Western Europe and the US.
It included critics and artists such as William Morris, Augustus William Pugin, John Ruskin and others, who, while not Luddites, bemoaned the end of the artisanal life, which was a consequence of the assembly-line production then increasingly in vogue. William Morris set up his own workshop, which favoured the artisan’s approach of bestowing unique attention and painstaking care upon every product. Morris’s trellis wallpapers with popular eastern motifs soon became popular in the US.
Marketing the East
Commensurate with this, almost as a kind of “penitent Orientalism”, there was an interest in the traditional craftsmanship of the East, especially India, championed by the likes of Lockwood Kipling, William Terry and Caspar Proudhon Clarke. The newly established South Kensington Museum in London housed several traditional Indian wares and crafts. De Forest’s aesthetic eye was drawn to Eastern craftsmanship.
Three years before, De Forest had been roped in by the designer Louis Tiffany to form part of a firm named Associated Artists in 1878. This firm sought to build on the interest in Oriental crafts by making them widely available.
It was Tiffany who, impressed with the Indian artisanal wares at London’s British Museum, urged De Forest to scout for similar items during his honeymoon in India. The search had elements of competition, since the British collector and curator Caspar Proudhon Clarke was on a similar hunt.
Despite his short trip of a few months, De Forest’s Indian sojourn left a lasting impression upon the 31-year-old. It was his popularisation of India’s unique crafts traditions in the US, especially of wood-carving – the fusion of Indian decorative elements into his own designing style, which brought De Forest considerable acclaim.
De Forest’s initial stays in Bombay were at the Byculla hotel, where as cited by Roberta Mayer in her book Furnishing the Gilded Age with a Passion for India, he picked up a knack for killing roaches with an accurately aimed slipper and registered his amazement at the numbers of crows in the city: a fact echoed by Mark Twain who visited the city 15 years later.
De Forest and his wife weren’t too impressed by the Bombay Blackwood furniture that was popular at the time. He found the designs terrible and the finish hideous. The De Forests were, however fascinated by the jewellery and fabrics favoured by the local women. Lockwood was drawn to the artistic frontispieces he observed on several houses in Byculla.
Ahmedabad’s everyday charm
Perhaps it was this that made the De Forests travel to Ahmedabad, now more accessible, as the railways ran regular services between the two cities. Here, Lockwood made the acquaintance of the city’s important government functionaries, including the deputy collector, JF Fernandez. The latter was a resourceful and conscientious official, whose work on preserving Ahmedabad’s monuments and helping the city’s many artisans and craftsmen had won him praise among peers and contemporaries.
Things moved quickly for De Forest thereafter. Not only did Fernandez take him on a tour of the city, he also introduced De Forest to one of Ahmedabad’s most prominent entrepreneurs and philanthropists, Maganbhai Hutheesing. The latter came from a family which had secured its fortunes in the textile and opium trade, but was also known for its patronage, especially of a Jain temple built by Hutheesing’s father.
De Forest accompanied Fernandez and his men during the first census exercise in 1881. This gave him the pretext to look at and enter old homes without causing suspicion or inconvenience to the residents. As Mayer tells it, in the light of the oil lamps held up by Fernandez’s assistants, De Forest could see for himself the delicate and complex wood carvings, mouldings, and decorations on every column, door and house front. Later, on his tour of the city, a glimpse of its many monuments convinced him of the many promises this city with its architectural riches held.
Some of De Forest’s photos of Ahmedabad’s houses and the other places he visited – Ajmer, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Multan, Lahore and Amritsar, would appear in a short book he wrote in 1895, titled Indian Domestic Architecture. Later, the De Forests also visited Kashmir and Nepal, but Lockwood remained unreserved in his praise for Ahmedabad. The city was architecturally rich, he wrote to his father, there was “no single magnificent building” such as the Taj Mahal, but it made up for this with the profusion of its carvings. “It had no rival for the beauty and variety of its design, and delicacy of workmanship,” he said.
Soon after that, De Forest and Hutheesing set up the Ahmedabad Woodcarving Company, with capital invested by De Forest, and the mistris who set up their workshop in the compound of Hutheesing’s two-acre mansion in the city. Among the first designs that De Forest wanted carved were the two arched stone windows with their careful inlay or jaali work in the Sidi Saiyyed mosque – the finest inlay work he had seen anywhere. Next, he wanted the finely detailed work on the minarets in the mausoleums of Rani Rupamati, the wife of the Sultan Mahmud Begada (in the mid-15th century) and Rani Sipri, views that were borne out by Thomas Biggs’s earlier photos of these structures. De Forest also admired the brass plates on the doors of the tomb of Azam and Muazzam.
As soon as the Ahmedabad Woodcarving Company saw some success, with the well-coordinated partnership between the two men – De Forest invested capital and supplied the designs, while Hutheesing ensured the logistics of supply and transport of finished products – the employers gave the mistris a free hand with some of the design work.
De Forest would, for instance, as Mayer writes, give them specifications of length and the kind of mouldings needed, and the mistris would work their skills accordingly. The company soon moved on to making traditional Indian furniture, such as hanging chairs, wooden bedsteads, chairs, and carved screens. In an article written in 1910, for the magazine Handicraft, De Forest remained unstinting in his praise for the “ancient Indian traditions of wood-carving and techniques well preserved over the years”.
De Forest the painter
Though Associated Artists dissolved in 1882, De Forest and the Ahmedabad Woodcarving Company remained functional and successful for more than thirty years. He also incorporated Indian features in his own interior designing schemes. His house in New York, with its bay windows decorated with traditional Indian brackets and other accoutrements won praise as the “most Indian house in America”. He designed several other houses, securing influential patrons, and his last and largest work was the Dean’s house at Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College.
Though he painted assiduously during his travels (as the story goes, he painted by moonlight), it was from 1910 onward that his interest in landscape painting returned in full measure. He continued designing houses, even his own house in California’s Santa Barbara, where he lived for the rest of his life till 1932. De Forest began to be described as a seacoast hermit, though it is believed, his growing deafness prompted his search for isolation.
In 2011, an exhibition of 80 of De Forest’s paintings, mainly landscapes showing his experimentation with aspects of light and colour, was organised by Sullivan Goss, an art gallery, who have made it their mission to track down De Forest’s artistic creations now dispersed among his family.