Burgomaster Chairs

by Ayesha Abdur-Rahman, 2009

Burgomaster chairs, also called round chairs, are characteristic to the period of Sri Lanka that was dominated by the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC). These chairs were manufactured in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India, and were used in offices and homes from the early 18th century onwards. This type of chair was very popular and continued to be made into the 19th century. The main characteristics of this chair are its rounded back fitted with oval medallions, cane seat in a round frame, and six equally spaced legs supported by stretchers. From this very basic robust style with straight legs, the Burgomaster chair developed into a fashionable chair with cabriole legs ending in animal feet with carved designs on the knees. Elaborate ebony and engraved ivory models were also made.

Jan Veenendaal in Domestic Interiors at the Cape and in Batavia (2002, p. 39) writes, “The provisional assumption must be that the burgomaster chair was developed around 1700 in Ceylon by Singhalese or Tamil furniture makers. The clearly European character of the legs and stretchers suggest that it originated in Dutch settlements in Colombo or Jaffna.” Veenendaal also writes, “The burgomaster chair is an Asian chair, exclusively found in Dutch VOC settlements in Asia and South Africa. Probably it was invented in Sri Lanka. Many of them were taken to other VOC settlements (in the 18th century). They were also used on boats. Anyway, most of the surviving pieces are from Sri Lanka.” (Jan Veenendaal, email to author, 17 March 2008) “The burgomaster chair (also known as a king’s chair or shaving chair) has a round rattan seat with a semi-circular back and six legs."

The style was later to become extremely popular, especially in 19th century England. In Domestic Interiors at the Cape and in Batavia, Monique van de Geijn-Verhoeven (2002, p. 57, Pl. 6.) and Amin Jaffer (2001, Pl. 30, and 2002, Pl. 44, Revolving round chair in ivory, from Vizagapatam, India, dated 1760-1770), have numerous references in the notes to this form of chair. In one note, Jaffar (2002) says of the revolving chair shown, “[it suggests] that this form was originally used as a barber’s chair (scheerstoel).” Jaffer (2002) also says, “The form has no obvious precedent in the West, but the earliest surviving round chairs are constructed entirely out of turned components in the manner of seventeenth-century European furniture, suggesting that the translation of the Eastern shape into a Western piece of furniture occurred at the hands of European craftsmen, most likely working on the east coast of India or in the Dutch East Indies.” With the same entry for Revolving round chair, Jaffer (2002, pl. 30) shows an illustration depicting a burgomaster chair on the deck of a VOC ship (illustration by Jan Brandes, from a 1778 watercolor titled, Deck of a Dutch East India Company Vessel Bound for Java). Robin Jones in Amin Jaffer (2001, p. 379) says that, “among nineteenth-century antiquarians the ‘burgomaster’ chair was thought to be an English form, an idea propagated in Henry Shaw’s Specimens of Ancient Furniture (published in monthly parts from 1832 to 1836) which illustrates a Rococo example and alleged that it belonged to the period of William lll.”

The Burgomaster chair may not be European in origin and appears to be an Asian chair. Perhaps its origin can be traced to its use as a practical, stable and sturdy ship’s chair on early deep-hulled trading vessels, sailing from Batavia to Sri Lanka and India. Based on the above experts, it can be said that the burgomaster chair very possibly had its origins in Sri Lanka during the Dutch VOC period. It continued to be used during the British period when an elaborated style of Burgomaster chair became popular in England as well.

Below are some references to the Round chair or Burgomaster chair:

Domestic Interiors at the Cape and in Batavia, 1602-1795, edited by Titus M. Eliens, 2002. p. 38, fig. 25.

Furniture in Batavia. "Burgomaster Chairs," by Jan Veenendaal. p. 56-57, pl. 6; p. 58-59, pl. 7, 40.

Top Pieces of Batavian Furniture, by Monique van de Geijn-Verhoeven. References and back cover.

Luxury Goods from India, the Art of the Indian Cabinet-maker, by Amin Jaffer, 2002. p 75, pl. 30; also see illustration Deck of an East India Company Vessel Bound for Java, 1778 watercolor by Jan Brandes.

Furniture from British India and Ceylon, by Amin Jaffer, 2001. p. 195, fig. 89; p. 196, pl. 44.

Ceylon, Galle District. Introduction by Robin Jones, p. 362 -383; p. 364, fig. 139; and p. 379, pl. 187; and fig. 143 catalog entry on Round chair.

Furniture from Indonesia and Sri Lanka for Museum Nusantara, by Jan Veenendaal, 1985.

Furniture of the Dutch Period in Ceylon, by R. L. Brohier, 1969. pl. lX, fig. 3 and 4 (from the National Museum Sri Lanka).