Articles

Spanish Colonial Furniture of the West Indies

17By Michael Connors, Ph.D.,

The Magazine Antiques


Spanish Colonial Furniture of the West Indies

During the great age of discovery Christopher Columbus stopped at the island of Cuba on his first voyage to the new world in 1492 (see Pl. IV). His ship anchored on the island’s northeastern coast, where he recorded in his journal in October:

The banks of the rivers are embellished with lofty palm trees, whose shade gives a delicious freshness to the air; and the birds and the flowers are uncommon and beautiful. I was so delighted with the scene that I had almost come to the resolution of staying bere for the remainder of my days; for believe me, Sire, these countries far surpass all of the world in beauty and convenience.

With the establishment of the Spanish viceroyalties, the era of European colonization began. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas divided the new world between Spain and Portugal. Consequently, Spain stood at the forefront of Catholic strength and monopolized new world wealth not only in the Americas but also in Europe. With the rise of Protestantism in the sixteenth century and in efforts to erode Spain’s power, the Protestant nations of England and Holland repeatedly attacked the Spanish West Indies, claiming and gradually settling their own island colonies.

After England defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, Spain’s domination of the West Indies ceased, and the Spanish concentrated their Caribbean settlements in the Greater Antilles, which comprises Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica (which came under British role in 1655), and Hispaniola. The latter, which name is a corruption of Espanola, is today made up of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The Spanish islands and their natural harbors became vital hubs of shipping and trade for the galleons that carried the wealth of the new world to Europe. The first structures the Spanish built were fortifications, many of which still stand. As directed by the mother country, the settlers adopted the grid plan around a central plaza for their island towns.

Santo Domingo, founded in 1496 on Hispaniola, was the first seat of Spanish government in the new world until 1552, when the government was moved to Havana. The cathedral of Santo Domingo was completed about 1540 and given cathedral status in 1546 by Pope Paul III, who named it Catedral Primera de America. Indigenous mahogany was used in its construction and for some of the ecclesiastical sculptures inside it, which date to as early as 1514. there was a surge of ecclesiastical and private construction. As Maria Luisa Lobo Montalvo has described the city:

In the beginning, Hispaniola’s economy was based primarily on the export of gold, and it soon became the staging base for the conquistadors. From there Juan Ponce de Leon (1460–1521) sailed for Puerto Rico in 1508; Hemando Cortes (1485–1547) left to discover Mexico in 1518; and Diego Velasquez (1465–1524) departed in 1511 to colonize Cuba.

In the sixteenth century the new towns on the Spanish islands were a compilation of mixed styles dominated by the plateresque style, although there were also many Gothic and Romanesque elements. An example is the Alcazar Palace in Santo Domingo, sometimes called Alcazar de Colon, which was built between 1510 and 1514 for Christopher Columbus’s son Diego Colon (c. 1480–1526), the viceroy from 1509. By the mid-seventeenth century the first buildings in the colonial Spanish baroque style were being constructed with modifications for the tropical climate–high ceilings, heavily shuttered windows and doors, and verandas (see Pl. VI). By the end of the seventeenth century Spain discovered that, even though the supply of gold and silver was disappearing, the agricultural potential of their West Indian islands was extraordinary. Coffee and sugarcane plantations and refineries were established, and houses came to be built on a more palatial scale with patios, upper galleries (see Pl. I). double arcades, and balconie s that were clearly influenced by the Mudejar style then popular in southern Spain, especially in Seville. The name is given to a fusion of Moorish and Spanish Christian influences and is characterized in architecture by arches, intricately carved woodwork, and balconies. There are also numerous examples of Mudejar style churches, cathedrals, and municipal buildings in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Mudejar style furniture features similar ornamentation and incorporates Moorish construction methods (see Pl. III). The combination of all the elements that make up the eclectic Spanish colonial architectural style of the Caribbean islands is known as mestizaje.

In Maria Luisa Lobo Montalvo’s description of Havana, exotic tropical hardwoods were an important commodity:
Around this port, shipyards became established and renowned, making shipbuilding one of the town’s major economic resources. Cedar, mahogany, sabicu, and other precious timbers, felled in the island’s woods, were prodigiously used in the industry and hewn into majestic, shapely galleons, destined for the various Spanish armadas.

It was in these forests along Cuba’s coast that mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) was found and became the wood of choice for furniture makers throughout Europe, North America, and the West Indies. Legend has it that the first European furniture made of West Indian mahogany was crafted in the baroque style in seventeenth-century Spain from wood taken from a Spanish galleon built in the Greater Antilles.

Robert Wemyss Symonds describes West Indian mahogany from Santo Domingo, Cuba, and Jamaica as:

Extremely hard with a smooth surface which allows it to be easily polished. Although much of this wood is plain, it is also found with a fine figure which adds considerably to its value. Logs of San Domingo mahogany are not of such large dimensions as those obtained from the mahogany trees of Cuba. (3)

Other tropical woods used in furniture making are ausubo (Manilkara bidentata), often referred to as bulletwood; satinwood (Zanthoxylum flavum); cedar (Cedrela odorata); sabicu (Lysiloma latisiliqua); and jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia).

From the establishment of the first Spanish colonies until the late sixteenth century the majority of furnishings in the new world came from Europe. It was this imported furniture that was subsequently used as templates for locally made pieces (see Pl. VI). Other than the furniture itself, a few written journals, wills, and inventories, and even fewer eighteenth-century drawings and paintings survive to document early Spanish colonial furnishings.

Most surviving sixteenth- and seventeenth-century island-made furniture is ecclesiastical (Pl. V) and includes sacristy cupboards, or armoires, chests, and chairs (Pl. VIII). The earliest known reference to furniture on the Spanish islands is to sixteenth-century “Spanish stools” (taburetesm), which had leather seats and backrests secured to the wooden frame with copper or brass studs. All furniture forms were plain in design with simple or no surface decoration.

One particularly interesting feature on the earliest Spanish colonial cedar chests are the elaborate exposed dovetails, commonly referred to as step dovetails (see Pl. III), which are very similar to the dovetails on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Bermudian cedar chests. In his discussion of the origin of this construction feature on Bermudian chests, Bryden Bordley Hyde theorizes that it developed from Mudejar chests. (4) The step-dovetailed chest was probably brought to Bermuda from the Spanish islands. Indeed, the Spanish captain Juan de Bermudez is believed to have discovered Bermuda in the first decade of the sixteenth century.

During the eighteenth century, with the growth of the sugar industry the Spanish colonies became more than military and commercial outposts and began to prosper economically and socially. Unlike the French, Dutch, Danish, (5) and English islands, the most luxurious houses on the Spanish islands were built in the towns, away from the plantations from which their owners earned their livings. (6) Initially the Spanish sugar plantation owners filled their houses with imported furniture, some of which was inevitably copied by local craftsmen (see Pl. VII). Along with the sugar barons were the Spanish merchants who also acquired great wealth and whose houses (see Pl. XVI) were described in the nineteenth century as follows:

 

 

The entrances are very spacious, the staircases as regal as those in Stafford House in London [known today as Lancaster House], the floors are marble, the walls are covered in azulejos or small glazed tiles and the banisters are made of iron. The rooms are twenty feet high, with exposed beams, the doors and windows are huge, the furniture is elaborate and solidly made. Here the merchant or banker sits, in white trousers and elegantly shod. He undoes his white jacket, loosens his tie and smokes cigars, surrounded by luxury.

During the eighteenth century Spanish Caribbean furniture was influenced by immigrant craftsmen, by enslaved and freed African West Indian craftsmen, and by imported European furniture. The latter inspired what became a distinctly Cuban baroque style (see Pl. XI). The proportions are bolder and the carving deeper, giving the Cuban furniture a more exotic look than that of the European prototypes. While the Spanish tradition is the most obvious, there are traces of English and French influence as well. By the nineteenth century the baroque was succeeded by the more fashionable symmetry of the neoclassical style (see Pl. X). This evolution was mirrored in architecture. As the nineteenth century progressed late neoclassical and Empire furniture became heavier and the use of mahogany and mahogany veneer became more prevalent. A history of Puerto Rico noted that.

Up to the 1830’s, the parlor would be equipped with heavy furniture of solid mahogany, all elaborately carved: marbletopped pedestal tables, chairs upholstered in horse hair or leather; and folding game tables. For the bedrooms enormous mahogany double beds with four turned posts were imported from Curacao, or field beds were fitted with wooden frames above for curtains or mosquito nets; later metal beds were imported from Europe. Large mahogany wardrobes and chests of drawers matched the bedsteads. Other amenities acquired in the first third of the 1800’s include glass hanging lanterns and table lanterns, brass and silver candlesticks and hurricane shades, shelf clocks, Sevres porcelain vases, silver tableware, large framed mirrors, books, and keyboard instruments.

 

 

With the industrial revolution came the development of machines capable of mass-producing furniture in the many fashionable revival styles that were imported both from Europe and North America. Examples in Puerto Rico and Cuba show the direct relationship between nineteenth-century imported pieces and island-made copies. One example of the existence of this market is the 1881 illustrated catalogue of J. W Mason and Company, 375 Pearl Street, New York City of which the preface addressed “To Merchants and Dealers” is in English and Spanish. (9) As a result of the cross-fertilization, the origin of Spanish colonial nineteenth-century furniture is often difficult to determine, and depends less on style than on the identification of secondary woods such as mahogany and cedar, and hand turning and carving as opposed to decoration created by machine (see Pl. XIV).

From the second quarter of the nineteenth century suites of mahogany and caned furniture in the Gothic, rococo, and Renaissance revival styles were produced in Cuba and Puerto Rico (see Pl. XVII). However, as the century progressed, and the Spanish islands prospered, the demand for ever more luxurious furniture increased, and eventually the widespread importation of revival style furniture from North America and Europe essentially ended the demand for furniture in the Spanish colonial style.

By the beginning of the twentieth century the representative symbols of luxury and ostentation had come full circle. The wealthiest families of the Spanish Antilles were again importing luxurious furniture from abroad, including carved and gilded furniture in the baroque style; gilded, marble-topped tables in the Louis XVI style (see Pl. XX); boulle work objects in the style of Napoleon III; and Second Empire revival furniture with brass inlay and gilt-bronze mounts. Although local furniture makers continued to make variations on the imports (see Pl. XVIII), their output was far less grand than the prototypes and thus more suited for the growing middle class (see Pl. XIX), who, with the decline of the sugar economy, became the primary consumers of furniture.

 

 

(1) Robert Wemyss Symonds, “English Eighteenth Century Furniture Exports to Spain and Portugal,” Burlington Magazine, vol. 78, no. 455 (February 1941), p. 58.

(2) Maria Luisa Lobo Montalvo, Havana: History and Architecture of a Romantic City, trans. Lorna Scott Fox (Monacelli Press, New York, 2000), p. 72.

(3) Sherry Johnson, The Social Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Cuba (University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2001), p. 10.

(4) Symonds, “English Eighteenth Century Furniture Exports,” pp. 57, 59.

(5) Rafael Domenech Gallissa and Luis Perez-Bueno, Muebles antiquos espanoles/Antique Spanish Furniture, trans. Grace Hardendorff Burr (1921; Archive Press, New York, 1965), p. 20.

(6) David B. Warren, “The arts of viceregal Mexico, 1521-1821: A confluence of cultures,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 161, no. 4 (April 2002), p. 126.

(7) R. Peter Mooz, “The origins of Newport block-front furniture design,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 99, no. 6 (June 1971), p. 882.

(8) Quoted in “Speculations on the Rhode Island block-front in 1928,” comp. Wendell D. Garrett, ibid., p. 891.

(9) Mooz, “The origins of Newport block-front furniture design,” p. 886.

MICHAEL CONNORS is an adjunct professor of arts at New York University and also teaches courses in furniture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. His Caribbean Elegance has recently been published by Harry N. Abrams.