Indian artefacts still ‘colonised’ in British country houses

London - Subcontinental links to many precious objects housed in country manors are often not acknowledged.

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Fri 15 Oct 2021, 10:58 PM

Britain’s past in colonial India is evident in London and other places in the form of statues, buildings, cultural items and people, but recent research has explored its less known links with mansions and country houses set amidst vast green pastures. Often, visitors with origins in the subcontinent find items or symbols at major attractions that remind them of their own culture or past, but these would rarely be acknowledged in brochures or site information. New research by National Trust and historian Corinne Fowler of the University of Leicester has helped establish and highlight several such links.

One such example is the Powis Castle, set in sprawling grounds in north Wales. Much of its structure was built with wealth brought by Robert Clive (1725-74) and his son Edward Clive (1754-1839): the senior Clive is credited with laying the foundation of the British Empire in India, while the junior Clive was governor of Madras when Tipu Sultan was defeated and killed in 1799 in Srirangapatna. Both carried home a large number of items, including idols of Hindu gods, hookahs, swords, paintings, textiles, gold, ceremonial armour and jewellery following their conquests — housed in the Clive Collection in the castle.

A summary by the trust at the site now acknowledges the role of wealth brought from India, among other revisions: “Some objects in the Clive Collection were looted during his, and later Edward’s, establishment and maintenance of power in the Indian subcontinent. Robert amassed a vast fortune in gold, silver and jewels as spoils of war in India and this family wealth was passed down through generations. Ultimately it was invested in renovating Powis Castle and Gardens. The Museum shows how legacies of British colonialism continue to be visible today. Furthermore, the often-violent stories of how such precious objects came to be at Powis reinforce the need for new research into our colonial histories.”

Kedleston Hall, the 18th century mansion in Derbyshire, was built for the Curzon family more as an opulent showpiece than as a family home. Lord Curzon, who was viceroy of India (1899-1905), was fascinated by the art and architecture of Asia and accumulated a collection of furniture and artefacts from related travels in Asia and the Middle East. In his will of 1925, he divided the collection between the Victoria & Albert Museum and a museum at Kedleston. This significant collection of over 1,000 objects on the ground floor of the Hall has received little investment since its installation in the 1920s with limited information on display to visitors, says the trust.

The site also has Mary Curzon’s Peacock dress, which she wore to the Delhi Durbar ball in 1903. The trust says the dress was not only highly fashionable but also subtly political. Made of fabric traditionally worn by Mughal court rulers, it appropriated the motif of a peacock feather: “The intention was perhaps to present a visual sense of continuity, aligning British rule with Indian courts of the past as a statement of dominance.”

Many residents of subcontinental origin based in Osterley in west London visit Osterley Park and House, but few are aware of the site’s links with colonial India. It was acquired by Francis Child the Elder (1641–1713). The Child family’s involvement with maritime trade and links with the East India Company increased their wealth and enabled them to furnish the house with lacquerware, Chinese porcelain and Indian textiles. Francis was a substantial stockholder in the East India Company, serving on the Court of Directors. Two of his sons, Sir Robert (1674–1721) and Sir Francis the Younger (1684–1740) also served as directors of the company.

In 2014, Osterley Park held The Trappings of Trade exhibition, which focused on the Child family’s involvement in the company.

Items linked to colonial India can be found in several country houses. Also yet to be researched substantially is the history of Indians and Asians in rural Britain over the centuries. Says historian Carla Contractor: “I strongly feel there is not anything like enough recognition of India and Indians in Britain, and much of what there is has been filtered through native British eyes to present India as an oriental Empire ruled by Britain.”

More news from Long Reads