The empire of things
: furniture of nineteenth century Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the production of British culture

  • R. Jones

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

Abstract

This thesis describes and interprets furniture produced in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) between c. 1800 and 1900 as part of a cultural 'dialogue' of everyday objects between Europe and Asia. By synthesizing the research methods of furniture history and material culture, the present work examines Ceylonese furniture within the context of the society in which it was produced and used. For the first time, the range of furniture produced on the island during the nineteenth century is categorized and defining characteristics of such furniture are outlined. In addition, and again for the first time, consumption of furniture in Ceylon during this period is examined and the place of these artefacts within the production of Western cultural practices is explained. Specifically, this thesis also contributes to an understanding of the history of Ceylon by interpreting the acquisition and use of western-style furniture by the indigenous social elite as part of the production of anglicized life-styles on the island. The present work contributes to debates centred on colonialism and culture by historicizing and localizing the furniture of the island. Such furniture, it is argued, in addition to its use value, reproduced European refinement and civility in the domestic interiors of Ceylon; in this way furniture, despite its quotidian nature, is taken to be expressive and constitutive of the colonial relationship between the British and Ceylonese. Through analysis of archival data, examination of the furniture itself and interpretation of the communicative capacities of these artefacts, explanation of the empirical and symbolic is combined in a new understanding of a substantial, but overlooked, part of the object-world of nineteenth century Ceylon. Through the process of developing and using a new conceptual framework for the interpretation of colonial furniture produced in Asia, a contribution is made to the study of furniture history and, more specifically, items of furniture from Ceylon are interpreted as materializations of human behaviour and constitutive elements in the production of culture.
Date of Award2001
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Nottingham Trent University

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