Lockwood de Forest’s Indian Inspired Design

by Ibn Warraq (September 2009)

Lockwood de Forest in India and Nepal, continued from
Part I.

De Forest was able to establish a workshop with the help of Muggenbhai Hutheesing in Ahmadabad by Spring, 1881, and continue his tour northwards to
Jaipur, Amber, Agra and Delhi. Lockwood never ceased to admire the craftsmen he encountered on the way – carpet weavers, jewellers, stone cutters, and others.

On his arrival in Lahore, Lockwood met and befriended John Lockwood Kipling, curator of the museum, head of the art school and father of Rudyard, and from whom Lockwood learnt much about the arts of the Punjab. With the help of the Kiplings, the de Forests organized their trip to Kashmir, arriving at Srinagar where they were to stay until October, 1881. Again Lockwood admired the local workshops and industries. On their way back to the Gujarat, the de Forests passed through Lahore where they helped Kipling make preparations for an exhibition of Indian arts and crafts. From Ahmadabad, Lockwood was able to send Kipling several items his Ahmadabad workmen had finished in his absence. The tireless Lockwood and his wife made an eventful trip to Nepal where he admired the architecture, and collected examples of Nepalese metal work which he was later able to exhibit at the Lahore Museum.

At Christmas, the de Forests were back in Lahore for the exhibition, where they met C. Purdon Clarke, the curator of the India section of the museum now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum. Clarke, much to Lockwood’s delight and pride, bought for the South Kensington museum, a number of pieces that Lockwood had commissioned from his workmen in Ahmadabad.

Their subsequent travels in India included trips to Calcutta, steamers to Madras, sojourns in Tanjore and Madura. Back in Ahmadabad, de Forest purchased an old house front for the South Kensington Museum, and another one for a London carpet dealer.
On his return to New York in the summer of 1882, de Forest installed himself in a loft at the Associated Artists building, 333-335 4th Avenue, where he held an exhibition in the autumn. He was able to sell many of the textiles and nearly all the furniture he had collected. 

Associated Artists were commissioned to redecorate or simply decorate many interiors between 1881-1882. It is clear that de Forest and his Orientalist tendencies had a major influence on the decoration of many houses: Indian carving is evident in the interiors of houses of James Taylor Johnston, Hamilton Fish, and W. S. Kimball; “Indian brass and stencils appear in the [Samuel] Clemens house and on the ceiling of the East Room of the White House”.
[1] Nonetheless, by November 1882, the partnership broke up because its members, including de Forest, failed to agree as to how to “reorganize” Associated Artists, more precisely because each of the three partners had developed different goals and interests which they were eager to pursue unhampered by legal ties.

After the dissolution of Associated Artists, de Forest moved his office and show rooms to 9 East 17th Street as he began to establish hmself as an independent decorator, all the while keeping his Indian projects running smoothly. De Forest’s Indian Domestic Architecture came out in 1885 reproducing some of “the carved house fronts from Ahmadabad, Lahore, and other sites, as well as the ‘Bhudder’ windows and two views of his ‘rooms’ at 9 East 17th Street. In 1886 de Forest’s exhibits from Ahmedabad –‘a door and other things’- were awarded the prize medal at the London Colonial Exhibition”.

Also in 1886, de Forest purchased two lots on East 10th Street, sold one and and on the other built a house which we have already described – with its carved teak balcony copied from a house in Ahmadabad- in Part One. De Forest also seems to have contributed much at this period to the interior decoration of his friend Church’s house at Olana, overlooking the Hudson valley. De Forest received many commissions to decorate “complete rooms” and was able to keep his Indian workshops, employing more than fifty craftsmen, busy well into the 1890s. By 1892, de Forest was ready to tour India again, to, as he put it, “refresh my memory,” and probably to supervise an important commission for the Columbian Exposition of 1893.

On the 1892 trip, de Forest and his wife collected jewelry, having first come to an agreement with Tiffany and Co. India continued to fascinate the de Forests, and their journey took them to cities and sites not visited on their honeymoon, sites such as the caves at Ellora and Ajanta, and towns of Daulatabad and Aurangabad, before heading back to Ahmadabad. After many days of touring the Gujarat, Rajasthan, and N.W.India, including a visit to Lockwood Kipling in Lahore, the de Forests headed to Mathura, Agra, Gwalior,  and back North to Alwar. They got back to New York by June 1893.

Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in the world at the time, had a sumptuous, Georgian-inspired, brick and limestone mansion, with Beaux-Arts ornamentation, built on Fifth Avenue. When the major works had been finished by the end of the 19th Century, Carnegie and his wife Louise asked de Forest to decorate one of the rooms, the Family Library- it is now known as the Teak Room. It is not clear as to why the Carnegies asked de Forest to contribute to their mansion, since they had never shown any particular interest in Indian motifs, decoration or architecture before. The wall panels, bracketed cornice, and even the ceiling, shelving and built-in cabinet are all in the Ahmadabad style we are familiar with; all in carved teak executed by de Forests team of Indian craftsmen. The walls and ceiling also have Indian-inspired stenciled designs. The house became the property of the Smithsonian Institution in 1972, and was converted into the National Museum of Design, and is known as the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

In 1894, de Forest embarked on one of his most ambitious projects, the decoration and expansion of the Deanery at Bryn Mawr. He seems to have contributed stenciled ceiling designs, much of the furniture, some inlaid Damascus chests, five oil sketches of the Grand Canyon, and had a hand in designing the garden.

By the time de Forest returned to India in 1913, there was an almost total lack of interest and demand for Indian motifs and decor in the United States. So when he returned to New York in May 1914 from his last trip to India, de Forest began winding down his Ahmadabad operations, and selling off the objets d’art that he had collected in India, and the Far East. He began spending more and more time on the West Coast, in Santa Barbara, where he built a house in 1915, in many ways similar to his Tenth Street house in New York. The façade carried the familiar Ahmadabad carved teak balcony.

He devoted more time to painting, whose style was greatly influenced by Frederic Church, and after 1918 to writing.


Orientalists, India, and Lockwood de Forest


Roberta A. Mayer in an important, well-researched, documented and illustrated book on de Forest[4] has given us the necessary backround to understand de Forest’s admiration for and desire to preserve Indian Arts and Crafts. In what follows I have drawn on Ms. Mayer’s scholarship.

Ms. Mayer’s account begins with the East Indian Craft revival movement in the 1850s. But of course one should really begin much earlier in, at least, the Eighteenth, and possibly even the Seventeenth Century encounter of Europeans with the arts of Indian Civilization. As Ms. Ketaki Kushari Dyson has pointed out, in the Eighteenth Century, “men like Edmund Burke, Warren Hastings, Sir William Jones, and the historian William Robertson perceived the essential viability of Indian institutions. These had evolved without European intervention, had survived and served their purpose for centuries with reasonable adequacy, and therefore had to be respected. Burke ‘defended the constitution, laws, and traditions of a people wherever he found them’; Jones and Robertson insisted that ‘the civilized achievements of India had to be preserved, not only because these were notable contributions, but also because these were prerequisites to the future development of India’.
[5] These men could be said to have been fired by an impulse to conserve rather than destroy the cultural heritage peculiar to India.”[6]     

With this legacy of nearly a century of sympathetic appreciation of Indian institutions and culture, it is easy to understand the emergence of the Indian Craft Revival Movement in the Nineteenth Century. But we also need to know as much as possible of the European and American background – the intellectual and social currents – which helped form the attitudes and opinions of Eighteenth Century and, in this case, of early Nineteenth Century Westerners.

The first proper art school in India was founded by Frederick Corbyn in 1839, the Calcutta Mechanics’ Institution and School of Arts to improve the morals and knowledge of artisans. While in Madras, Dr. Alexander Hunter opened the first art school in 1850, and “ran it at his own expense, with the object of improving native taste, through the ‘humanising culture of the fine arts.’ ”
[7] In 1851 he founded a second school, a school of industry to produce better domestic articles. The two schools were combined in the hope of improving the quality of the manufactures, and thereby stimulating commerce. Hunter was well aware of the difficulties faced by Indian artisans, but did not feel the way out was to imitate Western models and designs. He wrote, “We need not engraft European Art upon Eastern, for much of the latter is as fine, and there is no scarcity of subjects upon which to employ the native artists. Much of the talent of the artists of India remains in the country, but it is languishing for want of encouragement; and unfortunately it is being misdirected into doubtful channels, often by our own countrymen, in their attempts to graft European industries and taste of the second or third quality upon what was better and purer in India.”[8]

Meanwhile back in England, the Great Exhibition of 1851 organized by Prince Albert and Henry Cole and other members of the
Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce was meant as a celebration of modern industrial technology and design. The exhibition revealed “the poor quality of England’s manufactured wares”[9] leading cultural, social and art critics of the stature of Thomas Carlyle, Augustus W. N. Pugin, John Ruskin and William Morris to denounce industrialisation, and the conditions that had led to the demoralisation of England’s artisans.

The Great Exhibition also housed an Indian Court which displayed high quality textiles, metal work, and woodwork. William Whewell, philosopher and scientist, praised them, declaring they were superior to anything produced in England. Further boost for Indian wares came in the form of illustrations to a book, Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century by Matthew Digby Wyatt who included examples from the Indian Court of enamelled weapons, painted lacquerware, jewelry, illuminated manuscripts, and an ivory throne. However, Wyatt chose to explain the high quality of the goods by reference to two factors: first, the “Indian artisans were committed to trades they studied from birth”,
[10]and second, the caste system that functioned like the medieval guilds, and that encouraged excellence in the arts. Wyatt, like Pugin, clearly favored handmade goods; what mattered was craftsmanship. Design theorist Owen Jones also promoted Indian designs in his book, The Grammar of Ornament, and in a series of lectures in which he extolled the Indian artisans for “creating everyday, utilitarian objects that were beautifully designed and crafted”.[11] Finally, the Great Exhibition and the success of the Indian wares inspired Parsi philanthropist Jeejeebhoy to open a school in 1856 in Bombay that could help improve the arts and manufactures of the middle and lower classes. Its English instructors included John Lockwood Kipling.

The Great Mutiny of 1857 was a set back to lovers of India and her civilization. But by the 1870s a reawakening of positive interest was on the way. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 made the export and import of goods to and from India so much easier. The visit of the Prince of Wales in 1875-1876 to India encouraged an intelligent curiosity about her civilization.


[1] Anne Suydam Lewis. Lockwood de Forest. Painter. Importer. Decorator. Heckscher Museum, Huntington, New York, 1976. p.17.

[2] Anne Suydam Lewis. Lockwood de Forest. Painter. Importer. Decorator. Heckscher Museum, Huntington, New York, 1976. p.22

[3] Ibid.,p.26

[4] Roberta A.Mayer. Lockwood de Forest. Furnishing the Gilded Age with a Passion for India. Newark:University of Delaware Press, 2008.

[5] Ketaki Kushari Dyson. A Various Universe. A Study of the Journals and Memoirs of British Men and Women in the Indian Subcontinent 1765-1856, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978. p.20. Dyson is quoting George D.Bearce. British Attitudes Towards India, 1784-1858, London, 1961, pp. 18 and 26.

[6] Ketaki Kushari Dyson. A Various Universe. A Study of the Journals and Memoirs of British Men and Women in the Indian Subcontinent 1765-1856, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978. p.20. Emphasis on “conserve” and “destroy” in the original.

[7] Partha Mitter. Art and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1850-1922. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.31.

[8] Quoted in Roberta A.Mayer. Lockwood de Forest. Furnishing the Gilded Age with a Passion for India. Newark:University of Delaware Press, 2008, pp.43-44.

[9] Roberta A.Mayer. Lockwood de Forest. Furnishing the Gilded Age with a Passion for India. Newark:University of Delaware Press, 2008, p44.

[10] Ibid.,pp.44-45

[11] Ibid.,p.46.

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