The Raffles Chair, ii

A 1812 illustration that shows the swept-back legs and heavy cross-braces that form the "Empire" style.

There is one item of furniture that sums up the impact of the neoclassical more than any other: the Raffles Chair. Its name is generally explained by the idea that its use was popularized during Raffles' brief rule as Lieutenant-Governor over Java, from 1811 to 1816. So prevalent is the Raffles chair, in surviving images and photographs of the second half of the 19th century, (and in today's homes) that there can be little doubt that it was manufactured in Java at an early date.

The inventory of 1779 for the estate of the Madurese Prince Panembahan Tjakraningrat mentions there being 24 "Jepara chairs", for the front gallery. As "high-backed chairs" and "round men's chairs" are described elsewhere, the conclusion is that these chairs were clearly recognized as being made in Jepara, a Pasisir town that had long been known for the quality of its woodcarving. But we can only guess at the design of these chairs.

The basic design of the Raffles chair is usually credited to the brilliant English designer Thomas Sheraton who published his most influential designs between 1794 and 1803. A chair which has a similar profile to the Raffles chair does appear on plate 33 of Sheraton's Drawing Book of 1794. The basic shapes is of thin arms arching down, forming a scroll that sits above a vase-shaped dowel. The line continues down to the straight, tapering reeded front legs. The shapes are heavily ornamented, but Sheraton wrote "the mere outlines of any of htem will serve as patterns either for painted or mahogany chairs, by leaving out the ornaments for the mahogany."

But there are striking differences between Sheraton's chairs and the Raffles chair so common in Java. Sheraton's designs have thin and elegant top rails, with vertivally oriented decoration joining a low horizontal stretcher. The Raffles chairs typically have a strong horizontal back rail, with horizontally oriented cross bars usually quite high above the back of the sear. Most importantly, the broad rail usually projects beyond the sides of the seat, and takes a concave form to welcome the sitter's back. Importantly too, the rear legs are swept sharply backwards.

It is clear that the Raffles chair is a later development; its curving, extended back and swept-back legs reflecting the explicit influence of designs revived from ancient Greece.Outside of Java, the models most similar are American designs of 1815 and the heavier English-Regency work of 1810 to 1820.

Interestingly, a watercolor portrait of the Thackeray family of Calcutta, dated 1814, by George Chinnery clearly depicts a Raffles chair. (William Makepeace is shown as a child of four or five here).

Calcutta was the base of the English presence in Southeast Asia during this period, and Raffles did proceed from Calcutta to occupy Java in 1811. This lends credence to the idea that Raffles did indeed popularize the design in Java. If so, the style was current in Java at the very moment we first see it in Europe and America. And is the specific design original to Java? Or to India? It does not matter: through longevity, through use, Java has claimed it now.


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