Thursday, November 27, 2008

On the popularity of Louis XIV

Besides its well-known palace guilds of artists and craftsmen, Benin has many expert furniture makers. Roadside shops produce quality upholstered sofas. chairs, and beds at reasonable prices.

As the signboard here shows, aristocrats favor furniture in the Louis XIV style, full of gilt and furbelows. As a courtly style, its formality matches chiefly tastes, with necessary touches of flamboyance, yet its proportions are more masculine than later rococo work.

When did its popularity begin, and who started this trend? It certainly antedates the Internet. Did the style derive from a book? From furniture someone brought back from a London trip?

Because of the long history of interaction Benin has had with Europe, both through trade at home and embassies and travel abroad, it's impossible not to wonder if this taste was established when Louis XIV was actually on his curlicued throne. France sent many official traders to Benin, right up through the 1790s, when navy Captain Jean-Francois Landolphe attempted to establish trading posts (factories) along the Benin River. Foreign envoys always brought gifts, furniture included--the impact of Portuguese brass-tacked wood and leather chairs in Ghana and Angola was considerable, providing a starting point for Ashanti and Chokwe imaginative reworkings.
Perhaps a chair or a throne from Paris was part of the cargo...yet carpentering upholstered chairs in Nigeria presupposes the availability of foam, bringing us well into the 20th century.

Perhaps an older Edo reader can shed some light on the popularity of the style, or a younger one could pester a grandparent for information. Do you remember this style from time immemorial, or can you recall when it first became popular? Who first had furniture in this style?

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