The Carriage of Pestonjee Press of the Fort Coach Company Exhibited in San Francisco Museum

An ornate silver carriage, built in 1915 by Pestonjee Press of the Fort Coach Company for the Maharajah of Bhavnagar, was featured at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s “Maharaja” exhibit that closed here April 8.

By Sunita Sohrabji | India West

The exhibit — which featured the art and artifacts of India’s princely rulers — will next move to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia, where it will be on display from May 21 to Aug. 9. The Field Museum in Chicago will then host the exhibit from Oct. 17 to Feb. 3, 2013.

Image Copyrights Sunita Sohrabji

“The exhibit was a huge success,” Tim Hallman, director of communications and business development at the Asian Art Museum, told India-West. More than 115,000 people viewed the seminal display, which exceeded the museum’s initial projections, he said.

“It is the third most popular exhibit we have ever had, and we were pleased to see that so many South Asians attended,” said Hallman, adding that the museum is planning future exhibits featuring the work of Indian and South Asian artists.

Image Copyrights Sunita Sohrabji
Many of the pieces in the collection belong to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and will return there after the “Maharaja” exhibit completes its U.S. tour. But the carriage, commissioned by Bhavsinhji Takhatsinhji II — who ruled Bhavnagar from 1896 to 1919 — is owned by a private collector, who bought the opulent landau for $414,000 in 2005, when the auction house Christie’s sold off several Indian pieces of jewelry and artwork.

The Bhavnagar carriage is based on a wooden and steel frame and covered in a thick sheet of silver with areas of gold and enamel work. It is embellished with representations of animals – dogs, bulls, swans – and floral designs. The covered carriage, upholstered in olive and yellow silk, seats four people.

Press, who received several awards for his work, founded the Fort Coach Company in Bombay in 1878 to produce carriages for horse-drawn vehicles. The company soon became one of the most prestigious manufacturers of carriages, which it supplied to the British Raj and maharajahs, and later expanded to make and repair car bodies for British Daimlers and French Brazier cars.

William Mansfield – Lord Sandhurst – who served as the governor of Bombay from 1895 to 1900, was so impressed by Press’s work that he recommended to the Indian British government to use the Fort Coach Company for all their coach needs, reported the Jam-E-Jamshed weekly newspaper. He received commendations from several British administrators serving in India before Independence, and made carriages and vehicles for four successive governors of Bombay.

Rustom Vaccha, the great grandson of Press, who attended the exhibit, told India-West, “My great grandfather was one of the most successful entrepreneurs of his time, working in an era when it was very difficult for Indians to establish businesses in India.”

“I take a lot of inspiration from him for his capacity to innovate and his attention to detail. The quality of his work was his differentiator,” said Vaccha, a Mumbai native who now lives with his family in Fremont, Calif. Press’s workmanship was very intricate, noted the Indian American, adding that his great grandfather had hired some of the best artisans of his time to work on the Bhavnagar carriage.

Press passed away in 1931, at the age of 77, five years after he had passed the Fort Coach Company on to his sons.