Peabody Essex Museum acquires gorgeous 18th c. Indian textile collection

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts has acquired a rare collection of 18th century Indian textiles that are in such spectacular condition that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were made yesterday. Made in the early 1700s for export to the Netherlands, the cotton chintz textiles include jackets, men’s dressing gowns (banyans), women’s dressing gowns (wentkes), children’s caps and bed coverlets known as palampores both hand-painted and embroidered.

Woman's jacket, mid-18th century India. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum
Cotton, mordant- and resist-dyed, and painted. Jacket, pieced from three patterns of chintz: sleeves from a chintz with a red background and large pink flowers and leaves (lined with a European floral print), and the bodice from an Indian chintz with a white background and red flowers and vines, and a European printed cotton with small floral vines. The bodice is lined and padded with cotton. The jacket is trimmed with silk velvet and Dutch weft-patterned tape (langetband), stitched with silk thread, and fitted with brass hook-and-eye fasteners. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

There are about 170 textiles in the collection, all assembled by historian Alida Eecen-van Setten between 1927 and 1969. Some she bought from antiques dealers, others she scavenged from the trash, documenting every acquisition in her “chintz book.” She shared her collection with fabric designers who used the patterns in their creations and with other historians, keeping the chintz book current as new research suggested different dates. After her death, her granddaughter Lieke Veldman-Planten took charge of the textiles and the book. The collection is named after both women: the Veldman-Eecen Collection.

Woman’s dressing gown (Wentke), Coromandel Coast, India, ca. 1740
Constructed in Hindeloopen, The Netherlands, mid-18th century. Cotton, resist-dyed and painted; gown, lined with linen, trimmed with Dutch weft-patterned tape (langetband). Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

The textiles are decorated with vibrantly colored floral motifs that began as naturalistic garden scenes commissioned by Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India, in the 16th century but had become stylized botanicals by the reign of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, in the 17th century. They were hand-painted and fixed using mordant and resist dying techniques that ensured the bright colors of natural dyes like red madder and blue indigo held fast without fading. Nothing in Europe could compare to the intensity and durability of Indian colors.

Portuguese traders began exporting Indian textiles in the 1500s, but it was the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that began large scale exports in the 17th century. It started out as a branch of the spice trade since Indian cloth was used as currency in Indonesia and the Spice Islands. Merchants would buy textiles with European bullion, trade some of them for spices and then sell both the cloth and the spices in Europe. By the late 17th century, England, France and the Dutch Republic each imported more than a million pieces of chintz a year.

Many textile words in English are imports from India. Bandanas were Bengal handkerchiefs sold as neck cloths to sailors and laborers; chintz comes from the word “chitra” meaning “spotted.” Calico, khaki, gingham, dungarees, pyjamas, and my personal favorite, seersucker, are all Indian words for textiles and garments that became ubiquitous in Europe during the heyday of the textile trade.

Woman's breast yoke, ca. 1750, India. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum
Cotton, mordant- and resist-dyed, and painted. The front and back of the yoke are constructed from large, vibrant pieces of the same chintz in red, blue, purple, yellow, and green. The shoulders are pieced from several smaller fragments of a different chintz pattern. The yoke is lined with linen, fitted with cotton tape ties and brass rings, and possibly decorated with gold thread. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

The explosion of popularity of imported textiles sent local cotton producers into a tailspin. France prohibited the import of chintz in 1686; England followed suit in 1720, prohibiting not just its import but also its use in furniture, bedding and clothing. Demand remained high, however, and as inevitably happens with prohibitions of pretty much any kind, making the importation of Indian chintz illegal just created a burgeoning black market.

Ultimately it was duplication and industrialization starting in the late 18th century that killed the Indian export textile trade. Machine-printing and synthetic dyes made possible the speedy manufacture of large quantities of cheap fabrics. Expensive imports couldn’t compete.

Palampore, mid-18th century
Cotton, mordant- and resist-dyed, and painted. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

Alida Eecen-van Setten’s interest in collecting and documenting these textiles was unusual at the time. Formerly fashionable consumer goods weren’t popular subjects for historians, and keeping 200-year-old organic fabrics from decaying is not an easy thing. There are very few 18th century chintzes available on the antiquities market (or in dumpsters) today. Her taste, persistence and dedication saved these exquisite textiles for a time when they could be appreciated as the museum pieces they are. She collected in such depth that the collection today is pretty much ideal for museum display. There are 15 chintz baby caps, for example, so the museum will be able to rotate them in and out of public view to keep them all in optimal condition.

In 2015, the Peabody Essex Museum will partner with no less illustrious an institution than the Rijksmuseum for an exhibition about the Dutch East India Company’s vast and influential trade in Asian imports. The Veldman-Eecen Collection will feature prominently in the Asia in Amsterdam exhibition that will run in Amsterdam from October 16th, 2015 until January 17th, 2016, after which it will travel to the Peabody Essex.

Embroidered Palempore, early 18th century
Cotton, embroidered with silk and gold-wrapped threads. Veldman-Eecen Collection. Image and description courtesy the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

 

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11 Comments »

Comment by Edward Goldberg
2014-09-18 05:27:47

Salem’s Peabody Essex – a dynamic and rapidly expanding museum – is the perfect home for this stunning collection. I remember back when it was still “The China Trade Museum”. The partnership with the Rijksmuseum is certainly the right thing at the right time.

 
Comment by Emily
2014-09-18 08:24:54

Thank you for posting! Can’t wait to see the exhibit!

 
Comment by Rebecca
2014-09-18 09:56:43

I am seriously coveting those jackets. So beautiful! Thank you, Livius, for brightening a sleep deprived day.

 
Comment by dangermom
2014-09-18 11:38:24

Oh wow, those are gorgeous.

 
Comment by Annie Delyth
2014-09-18 19:25:36

Fabulous! Such delicious photos. I kept trying to peer closely, but not enough resolution. Now on my list of must-go-to-see-soons. There are some benefits to living in Vermont, and proximity to museums like this is one of them. Will take magnifying glass for study.

 
Comment by LS
2014-09-18 21:32:18

I am in love with that blue and white long gown. OMG!

 
Comment by Lapinbizarre/Roger Mortimer
2014-09-18 21:59:34

Gorgeous indeed.

 
Comment by Cordate
2014-09-19 14:12:48

Hurrah for Alida! :boogie:

 
Comment by Pam Weeks
2014-09-29 18:25:37

So wanting to see this exhibit. Might not wait for 2016.

 
Comment by Sujay Rao Mandavilli
2015-04-13 07:29:41

Dear Sirs,

Please find my new paper- historiography by objectives

http://www.scribd.com/doc/261605162/Sujay-Historiography-by-Objectives-Final-Final-Final

Sujay Rao Mandavilli

 
Comment by Arun Parmar
2015-08-06 06:56:38

Thank You for Posting such a Beautiful collection,I never use to write in any blogs..But this Fabulous textiles made me to write about them…I am also collector and Dealer but i have never seen such a Fabulous Textiles..Waiting to see this exhibition..

 
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