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The empire of things

The Empire of Things: Engagement with the Orient

Partha Mitter and Craig Clunas

Recent studies of the role of museums in nineteenth - and twentieth-century British culture have addressed these institutions as complicit in sustaining British rule in Asia and elsewhere. Their activities of collecting and cataloguing have been viewed as analogous to the acquisition of territory and the classifying of populations necessary to maintain British supremacy in a political and economic sense. This might seem particularly apt in the case of museums with especially close ties to the imperial state, such as the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. These recent views must now be tested against the empirical facts of museum history covering a period of more than a century and a half. And if this exercise provides plenty of evidence to implicate the museum in the enforcement (or maintenance) of colonial rule itself, there is no single pattern, no master model that can articulate the distinction between politics and culture in museology.1

The history of the Eastern art collection of the V&A represents a complex network of interactions between official policies and the individual attitudes of different curators. But it also reflects the way in which imperial ideology assigned a marginal and subordinate, and yet essential, role to such material within the “universal” Western canon. A national institution such as the Victoria and Albert Museum was an important adjunct of the empire, classifying and displaying the art of non-European nations in an assertion of political control over them. The displays of Indian, Persian, Chinese, and Japanese art in the “East Cloister” were meant to highlight the “racial” character of the people who produced them. Imperial policy varied from country to country: thus, the display of Indian arts underscored the Raj trusteeship of the races, tribes, and castes of India. Since China and Japan were not British possessions, Britain had to compete for advantage with other European powers in those regions. Hence, the Far Eastern collection assumed great symbolic and diplomatic importance.

The public perception of the Eastern art collection was linked with a categorization of non-Western art as ethnographic in earlier so-called cabinets of curiosities, in which the arts of other cultures had been collected in the same vein as specimens of natural history. With nineteenth-century public museums applying taxonomies of fine and applied arts to all artistic traditions, non-Western sculpture and painting were classified as decorative arts, which further confirmed their “ethnographic,” rather than aesthetic, status. The situation was more complex at South Kensington. In an institution founded to foster the decorative arts, the distinction between fine and applied arts was more ambiguous, especially with regard to Eastern art.

The Imperial Collections: Indian Art

Partha Mitter

The indian collection of the v&a served as a perfect tool for constructing cultural difference and reinforcing racial hierarchy. The evolution of the collection and its display reveal—to a degree that few Western collections can—the British ambivalence toward India, especially Hindu India, as evoked by E. M. Forster in A Passage to India. India’s size and complexity, its extremes, and its seeming lack of understatement have both fascinated and repelled the West. Just when one felt confident that India was under control, it suddenly reverted to its true nature: eluding understanding, escaping into its own world of disgusting cults, weird customs, and lascivious fakirs. And no other aspect of India evoked more fascinated horror in the West than the sculptures of Hindu “monstrous” gods.2

The nucleus of the Indian collection, the rich array of Indian applied arts, goes back to the Great Exhibition of 1851, where Indian textiles (see cat. 4) and other applied arts were admired for preserving a traditional sense of design and used as exemplars for students. Owen Jones pointed out that in “the equal distribution of the surface ornament over the grounds, the Indians exhibit an instinct and perfection of drawing perfectly marvellous,”3 while Richard Redgrave used Indian design to challenge the Victorian weakness for illusionist patterns, agreeing with Jones that decoration should not be constructed but construction should be decorated.4

Paradoxically, this new appreciation only helped reinforce the prevailing antipathy toward Hindu sculpture and architecture. Sir George Birdwood, a great champion of Indian decorative arts and an advisor to the Museum, spoke for the educated Victorian when he declared that the “monstrous shapes of the Puranic deities are unsuitable for the higher forms of artistic representation; and this is possibly why sculpture and painting are unknown, as fine arts, in India.”5 Hindu art could, however, be of antiquarian interest. The commissioning of the model of Tirumal Nayak’s Pudu Mandapa (cat. 87) and related drawings—among the earliest examples of Hindu art to arrive in Britain—illustrates not only the curiosity shown by antiquarians but also the burgeoning interest in Hinduism prompted by the Enlightenment.6 Another “mirror of Hindoo life held up to Englishmen,” showing India’s “venerable civilisation and native artistic genius,” was a group of Mughal hard stones (cats. 94–97), among the finest objects from the imperial household. This impressive collection was assembled by Colonel Seton Guthrie, a wealthy officer in the Bengal Engineers, and included Shah Jahan’s exquisite white nephrite wine cup, which was shown at the Paris exhibition in 1867. Part of the collection was acquired by the Museum the following year, although the Shah Jahan wine cup remained with Guthrie and, in fact, did not reach the Museum until 1962.7

Both the model and the Guthrie hard stones came to the V&A with the contents of the India Museum, formed by the East India Company.8 From the early nineteenth century the India Museum, located in the nation’s capital, had been a showcase for the manners and customs of India, “the jewel in the imperial crown.” Fig.94 Tipoo's TigerThe busts of British conquerors and the spoils of the Indian wars were proudly displayed alongside art manufactures and natural products of India. Tipoo’s Tiger, an organ in the form of a tiger mauling an Englishman (fig. 94), originally belonged to one of the great adversaries of the Raj, and its display vindicated Britain’s “civilizing mission” by emphasizing the sadistic nature of an Oriental despot. In this museum of curiosities, religious sculptures, Richard Johnson’s fine collection of miniatures, and other art objects jostled for attention with wood and metalwork, textiles, carpets, furniture, and assorted crafts. Even Hindu sculptures were included on the grounds that they were “the idols [that were] given up by their former worshippers from a full conviction of the folly and sin of idolatry.”9 Finally, the display of artificial and natural products of India was meant to underline the protective role of the British Raj in shielding traditional India from the threat of Western progress. The India Museum was essentially an ethnographic one, paralleled by the Royal Danish Cabinet of Curiosities with its fourteen Chola bronzes acquired in 1799, or the collection of Indian paintings in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, used by Denis Diderot in his Encyclopédie (1751–72) to illustrate the manners and customs of mankind.10

The India Museum drew large crowds to the pageant of empire. Yet, despite its importance and popularity, it had a checkered history, shunted from the premises of the East India Company to Whitehall and then to the galleries opposite the V&A on the other side of Exhibition Road in South Kensington. From the 1860s, many of the objects in its collection were loaned to international exhibitions periodically held in South Kensington. In 1878–80 the collection was broken up, for it could no longer be maintained on the premises of the India Office. Following a power struggle within the British Raj, the objects were divided between the British Museum and the South Kensington Museum (fig. 95).Fig.95 The New Indian Section Significantly, the magnificent early Buddhist reliefs from Amaravati were sent to grace the hallowed portals of the British Museum rather than transferred to South Kensington, even though the reliefs had already been displayed in the latter’s Eastern Galleries in 1875. Mistakenly identified as “marble” sculptures, though in a “debased” Hellenistic style, the British Museum accorded the Amaravati reliefs a place adjacent to the Elgin Marbles.11

In 1880 the holdings of the India Museum were formally transferred to the Cross Gallery in South Kensington, although many objects from the collection had already been moved there. With the addition of Near and Far Eastern art, the Cross Gallery became a showcase for Oriental art. Indian textiles, metal and wood objects, and carpets exhibited at South Kensington had already been used for the teaching of design. It is ironic that while these same Indian industries had been fatally damaged by mass-produced goods from Britain, they were then extolled as the product of Indian “village republics,” ideal communities untouched by modern technol-ogy.12 Two other key institutions on the South Kensington site propagated this same image of the Indian collection: the Imperial Institute and its close ally, the Society for the Encouragement and Preservation of Indian Art—together acting as Victorian guardians of the “authentic” Indian tradition.

If the India Museum was intimately bound up with colonial imperatives of power and control, we may learn much about that imperial ideology through the ways the collection was presented to the English public and described in contemporary guidebooks. Murray’s 1874 guide, for example, recommended the India Museum, just before its move to South Kensington, “not only [for its] antiquities and historical relics, but also as an assemblage of the chief and natural productions of India, with specimens of the arts and manufactures, and illustrations of the industry, manners and customs of the various races.”13

In the Eastern Galleries of the South Kensington Museum itself, the most striking exhibit was a massive plaster cast of the Eastern Gateway of the Great Buddhist Stupa at Sanchi (fig. 96).Fig.96 The Eastern Gateway Henry Cole’s son Henry Hardy Cole, the writer of the first “history of Indian art,” arranged the Indian collection into three different periods—Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic—to indicate the contributions to Indian art attributed to the different races, although such a racial classification is not supported by evidence.14

Public response to the Eastern Galleries at South Kensington can be sensed from a report in the American journal Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1875). Seeing the displays as a triumph of Western rationality and order over Oriental superstition and chaos, the writer commented that it “is wonderful indeed that it should be left to this age and to England to appreciate the romance of the East, and to revise, correct and estimate the traditions of the Oriental world concerning its own monarchs.”15 In a further paean to Western science, the writer continued, “[T]he large casts of Oriental objects which occupy a grand building to themselves . . . will probably be of paramount interest to an American. It is here shown that the most notable and interesting objects in the world can be copied with the utmost exactness and in their actual size, [and] brought within the reach of the people of any country. . . . Here we have the grand topes of India . . . brought before us in full size.”16 Accompanying photographs showed how the casts were made and transported with the “aid of astonished Orientals.”

In 1880 the newly opened India Museum in South Kensington attracted huge crowds, and the curator, Caspar Purdon Clarke, set about augmenting the collection with thousands of additional items imported from India. As the 1885 Baedeker guide indicates, the display was once again based on an ethnographic taxonomy that explicated the cultures of alien races. Apart from eye-catching objects like the Sanchi Gateway and Tipoo’s Tiger, fragments of architecture ranging from residential buildings to Mughal public monuments and palaces were featured (figs. 97 and 98), along with a wide variety of fabrics and objects of everyday use, as well as information on Indian mores provided by models of domestic scenes and festivals.17 The arrangement in the nine rooms and the landing continued ethnographic convention by burying Gandharan sculptures among the applied arts.18

When the V&A’s Committee on Re-arrangement reported in 1908, this whole display was threatened by the recommendation that the India Museum be abolished and its collections transferred to the main building. Following a vigorous press campaign and the intervention of Lord Curzon, the former viceroy of India, the India Museum was left intact until the 1950s, although the Islamic and Far Eastern collections were incorporated into the V&A. But a grand Oriental Museum combining the resources of the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum never ceased to be the dream of the old India hands—most of whom were former members of the imperial civil service, many of whom took up academic or cultural posts upon their return from India, and who became an informal lobby of paternalists deeply committed to preserving traditional Indian culture as they defined it.19

The same period also marked a watershed in Western perceptions of Indian art. A small group of influential writers, led by E. B. Havell and Ananda Coom-araswamy, aimed at undermining the sacrosanct character of the Western fine arts by arguing that all “true” artistic traditions (i.e., medieval European and Indian) were decorative, the function of other arts being to serve architecture. Havell turned to Indian art as the ideal product of a traditional society. He influenced nationalist artists of Bengal during his tenure as an art teacher in Calcutta (1896–1906). After a stormy meeting at the Royal Society of Arts in 1910 at which Sir George Birdwood made disparaging remarks about Indian art, William Rothenstein, a founder of the New English Art Club, joined with Havell and Coomaraswamy to found the India Society, which, with the support of cultural nationalists such as the poet Rabindranath Tagore, propagated the merits of Indian art.20

A shift of attitude was signaled by a 1918 guidebook’s reference to the “important and varied collection of Indian antiquities and modern art in the India Museum,” as well as by the clear separation of fine and applied arts in the display of the collection.21 Sculpture, pictorial art, and calligraphy were assigned separate rooms in the museum, and the elegant Sanchi Torso (mistakenly identified as Gandharan) was given pride of place (fig. 99).Fig.99. The Bodhisattva However, despite the prominent display of Indian paintings from 1918 (fig. 100), Coomaraswamy’s reevaluation of Rajput and Pahari miniature painting (cat. 93), the expansion of the sculpture section in 1923, and the eloquent pleading for Hindu art by Havell, pieces such as the Nepalese Bodhisattva, Padmapani, the Lotus Bearer (cat. 89), still hardly qualified as art. The archaeologists continued to carry the day.

In 1935, K. de B. Codrington, historian of ancient art, took charge of the collection, inaugurating an archaeological approach to Indian art that brought to an end the dominance of decorative art. The thirties were crucial in that under Codrington’s influence, Buddhist art was thematically displayed, and, as photographs show, many of the aesthetically important objects were clearly on view. In the same decade, a Chola bronze (cat. 88), an important piece of Hindu sculpture, came to the Museum as part of the Ampthill bequest. Lord Ampthill was governor of Madras in the last century. Among the objects acquired in the 1930s, the large Fremlin carpet (cat. 98) is especially significant for its association with colonial history. Produced probably in Lahore for William Fremlin, an official of the East India Company between 1626 and 1644, the carpet was identified in 1882 by its owner as Fig.100. The Mughal RoomSpanish. Indeed, identifying Indian carpets has been fraught with difficulties.22

Indian independence in 1947 was marked by an ambitious exhibition of Indian art at the Royal Academy (1948–49), in which the V&A played a major part; with the Museum’s appointments of W. G. Archer and the textile scholar John Irwin in 1949, the Indian art collection began a new life. As a district officer in Bihar in India in the 1940s, Archer had published on primitive Indian sculpture, collected Indian miniatures, and translated Indian poetry. He had also met modern Indian artists in Calcutta. He set about transforming the Indian Section into “a true art museum” by getting rid of ethnological material accumulated from industrial exhibitions over the years, which, he felt, obscured the art Fig.101.  Hamsa's Son Rastamobjects. To make the art objects intelligible, Archer initiated a regime of specialization, with John Irwin investigating Indian textile styles and their relationship to European designs, and he himself working on miniatures (fig. 101). The latter could be studied particularly profitably at the V&A which, with the acquisition of William Rothenstein’s collection in the 1950s, had exceptionally rich material.23

In 1955 the India Museum was transferred to the main Museum premises, and by 1965 the collection attained virtually its present status and shape, with the best-known objects prominently displayed. The latest twist in the dream of a separate Oriental art museum was the St. George’s Hospital site proposed in the 1980s, but this too fell by the wayside.24 During the heyday of the Raj, the preservation and display of Indian traditional arts was deemed to be an obligation owed to its Indian subjects as part of the imperial trusteeship. With the loss of empire and the ensuing economic decline, that motivation no longer existed.

The Imperial Collections: East Asian Art
Craig Clunas

Though sharing certain assumptions, the practices of British rule in Africa, in South Asia, and in East Asia were experienced (and resisted) quite differently by the peoples who had to deal with them. The length of British rule, its direct and indirect nature in different parts of the globe, and the involvement of its agents with cultural work all varied greatly. Such variety is visible too within the Victoria and Albert Museum’s East Asian collections (fig. 102),Fig.102. North Court just as within the Indian collection. The very differential practices of racism in nineteenth-century Britain also need to be borne in mind, especially to explain the absence of African art from the collections at South Kensington. Although included in Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament, African art was implicitly categorized, even more consistently than the Indian works, as “ethnography” rather than as “art,” and as such was collected far more extensively by the British Museum than by the V&A.

In East Asia, particularly in the states of China, Japan, and Korea, full British rule was never imposed, although territory such as Hong Kong was seized, and political and economic concessions were extracted by force. However, in contrast to parts of Africa and South Asia, local rule was never extinguished or fully subordinated to British control. It is possible to argue that in this situation, in which Britain was in competition for economic and political advantage with other imperialist powers (including the United States), the symbolic importance of comprehensive art collections was even greater than it might otherwise have been. In this interpretation, objects from China, Japan, and Korea have played a central role within the Museum’s larger mission of cultural self-definition. Precisely by acting as the “margins,” these arts have been crucial in defining the center, the normal, the familiar—in allowing the V&A to function fully as a “national” institution. These arts are the marginal others that allow the centering of the self.1

British merchants exhibited both Chinese and Japanese material at the Great Exhibition of 1851, although neither China nor Japan assembled a display to represent itself in an arena of international competition. An East Asian presence was, however, of major symbolic importance in Hyde Park. Britain’s imperial possessions in India certainly received great prominence,2 while Henry Selous gave a highly visible role in his large canvas commemorating the Exhibition’s opening (cat. 1) to a figure in Chinese official dress. This figure was not an accredited ambassador (which is how he is sometimes described) but, rather, seems to have been appropriated by Selous for his painting from an individual on display in another exhibition of Chinese people then on view in Hyde Park. (The public exhibition of humans to demonstrate “foreign” types and lifestyles was common in Britain and on the Continent, as well as in the United States, from the mid-nineteenth century well into the twentieth century.) Almost all of the Chinese and Japanese material shown at the Great Exhibition was of contemporary manufacture. However, very shortly after the 1850s a sharp divergence began to be noticeable in the way these two nations were treated, and in what their artifacts were made to signify in Museum displays.

The acquisition of Japanese material, which was very sporadic up to about 1865, continued to be characterized thereafter by currently manufactured goods, including major pieces made for the international exhibitions (cats. 10, 11, 112), in which Japan very quickly became an active participant.3 This mirrored the position of Japanese art as a central focus of nineteenth-century debates about “art” and “craft” that swirled around the new Museum at South Kensington. In discussions of the period, admiration for the technical skill of Japanese makers is never without racist condescension about the supposed “semi-barbarous” nature of the decoration. As was standard in this period, the character of objects is taken in Museum publications as a direct reflection of the essential “character” of the people who made them. Thus, the 1872 Catalogue of Chinese Objects in the South Kensington Museum is thick with statements about “the Chinese character” where “art [for the Chinese] has to a large extent supplied the place God holds with us [the English].” Even more extreme judgments were made:

It would hardly be supposed that an effeminate race like the Chinese should have a taste for working in metal; but it must be remembered that they have not always been a degenerate race, softened by luxury and by too great facility for enjoyment, but that on the contrary, they are still a hardy race, delighting in contending with resisting Nature.4

Such racist attitudes were not created by the South Kensington Museum, but its role, along with that of other similar institutions, in putting before a middle-class public “physical evidence” of such theories in the form of actual artifacts makes these institutions of some importance to the Victorian imagination’s grasp on “the East.”

This “East” was a coherent physical presence at South Kensington in its earlier years. Between 1864 and 1865 a section of the building known as the East Cloister was decorated in elaborate “Oriental” designs by Owen Jones and used to house “objects of Indian, Persian, Chinese, Japanese and Oriental Art generally.”5 The contents of this area were initially made up primarily of loans from the private collections of Asian art, such as that of George Salting (cat. 107), which were increasing in number and size in late-nineteenth-century Britain. Through the 1870s in particular the space allocated to Japanese art increased (fig. 103),Fig.103. The South Court as the Museum acquired from these private collections elaborate display pieces such as the iron sea eagle from the Mitford collection (cat. 113). But perhaps the most significant expansion of the Japanese collection in this decade was the large quantity of ceramics, both historic and contemporary, acquired for the Museum in Japan by Sano Tsunetami and displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876.6 This group was designed to be “an historical collection of porcelain and pottery from the earliest period until the present day, to be formed in such a way to give fully the history of the art.”7 Including both modern pieces and some very significant earlier ones (cats. 114–116), the collection served not only to make manifest the Museum’s program of a series of “complete” taxonomies of the arts, but also to confront Britain’s main commercial rival in Japan, the United States, making evident Britain’s willingness to spend resources to “acquire” Japan on a symbolic level.

The acquisition of the collection was not matched by the development of professional scholarship on the subject of Asian art at South Kensington, and the catalogue of the ceramics from the 1876 Philadelphia exhibition was carried out instead by Augustus Franks (1826–1897). A major collector of Japanese and Chinese art, Franks was also director of the British Museum and, as art referee at the South Kensington Museum, a formal advisor on acquisitions for the Museum. As such, he represented one kind of expertise available in the formation and study of collections in this period. Another type of expertise was provided by those with direct experience of living in Asia in a colonial or commercial capacity. Perhaps the prime example of this type was Robert Murdoch Smith, director of the British-owned telegraph company in Iran. Murdoch Smith not only acted as the Museum’s agent in Iran—buying both contemporary and historical items for the collection (cat. 99)—but he was also commissioned to write a guidebook to the material, published in 1876 as Persian Art.8

This same pattern was followed with the art of China, where from the early 1880s Stephen Wooton Bushell (died 1908) combined the post of medical officer at the British legation in Peking with the role of purchasing agent for the Museum. He too was commissioned to publish the collection; his Chinese Art of 1904 was the first work on the subject to be based on the holdings of a single Museum, equating the boundaries of the subject itself with the parameters of South Kensington’s holdings.9

Through much of the nineteenth century, the relationship between British perceptions of Chinese and Japanese art was complex but clearly connected. Most frequently, praise for contemporary Japan was bound up with a critique, often voiced in contemptuous terms, for the products of contemporary China. Com-parisons were frequently drawn to China’s detriment. As a consequence, the collecting of contemporary Chinese objects by the V&A ceased very early in the twentieth century. Likewise, there was at the Museum a degree of Japanese language expertise, as in the case, for example, of the keeper of metalwork A. J. Koop, who worked at the Museum from 1900 to 1937, devoting himself to a complex taxonomy of the Museum’s very large collection of Japanese sword fittings (fig. 104).Fig.104. Japanese sword fittings10 No one with the ability to read Chinese was employed by the Museum until the early 1970s, and until that time certain Chinese artists were catalogued in the Department of Prints and Drawings under the Japanese forms of their names; thus, the famous Chinese painter Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) appeared in the catalogue in Japanese, unrecognizably, as “Bun-cho-mei.”

The division of the East Asian collection, supposedly by “material,” took place in 1897 along with the European collections but unlike the Indian collection, which was kept together by political pressure from imperial interests within the establishment. This led to very different approaches to Asian materials within respective departments, approaches that were to influence the acquisition of and scholarship on objects of varying types. The early twentieth century saw a certain marginalization, a faltering of esteem for Japanese work generally, which went hand in hand with a growing awareness of earlier Chinese art, one of the areas that was to dominate collecting and display through the second half of this century. Koop’s assiduous cataloguing activities were never at the center of aesthetic debate in the way Japanese objects had been in the 1870s. An increased supply of goods from China, together with new currents in aesthetics that valued the supposedly “spontaneous” over the highly finished,11 led to new appreciation for types of ceramics that would have seemed unreasonably crude to earlier eyes.

Throughout the twentieth century until 1970, the Department of Ceramics was at the forefront in displaying East Asian objects at the V&A. It was in Ceramics that advanced aesthetic theories, associated in Britain with names like Roger Fry and Herbert Read (the latter a curator in the department, though never publishing on Asian art) were most explicitly applied to Chinese, Japanese, and (for the first time) Korean ceramics. When the keeper of ceramics, W. B. Honey (1891–1956), wrote in 1947 of Korean ceramics (cat. 111), praising the “hard but immensely vital linear fantasy in scroll work . . . vital and rhythmic brushwork, with an authentic life of its own,”12 his stress on “vitality” led directly back to the enormously influential ideas of French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941), as interpreted by Fry and Read, among others.

It was this philosophy of “vitality” that also drove the formation of major private collections of early Chinese art such as that of George Eumorfopoulos (1863–1939), subsequently sold to the state and divided between the V&A and the British Museum (cats. 108–109). The difference between the two Chinese ceramic pieces from the Salting and Eumorfopoulos collections (cats. 107–108) was interpreted in the advanced circles of British culture—for example, those around the British potter Bernard Leach (cat. 175)—as one between “sterile” decoration and “vital spirit.” It would be wrong, however, to see the Museum as simply a reflection of cultural trends happening elsewhere, or as being totally in thrall to the universalist modernism seen in the writings of Herbert Read. While some of its staff certainly responded to a degree to such intellectual currents, the Museum continued to display and acquire the types of art that were fashionable in earlier times, a bias that grew even stronger in the twentieth century.

Fig.105. The new Primary Gallery

This retrograde tendency was particularly true of objects with an “imperial” provenance (cats. 105-107). Indeed, as British political hegemony in East Asia waned, the fascination with objects from the imperial court of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) only intensified.13 The looting of the imperial Summer Palace outside Beijing, carried out by British and French troops in 1862 in the course of the “Second Opium War” of 1858–62, an event that arguably marked the acme of British imperial power in East Asia, actually brought fewer goods onto the art market than did the “Boxer uprising” of 1900–01 and the collapse of imperial rule in 1911. The acquisition of many of the most “imperial” objects in the V&A can in fact be dated to the years after 1920. The famous throne of the Emperor Qianlong (cat. 105) was purchased in 1922, a time when taste in ceramics was swinging decisively away from works of the eighteenth century to the less finished products of earlier dynasties.14 (It was the year after the founding in London of the Oriental Ceramic Society, with Eumorfopoulos as its first president.) Only in 1952 did the throne, together with the robes from the Vuilleumier collection (cat. 106) and the Museum’s much-published enameled ice chest (V&A 255–1876), which is part of the Summer Palace loot, finally form part of a new Primary Gallery of Far Eastern art (fig. 105). The throne retained that focal role until the 1980s, alongside the ceramics, bronzes, and sculptures of the Eumorfopoulos collection, and other objects more palatable to critical taste of the period (cat. 110). The main figure in the creation of this centralized focus for Chinese art was Sir Leigh Ashton (1897–1983), who rose (significantly) from the Ceramics Department to be director of the Museum from 1945 to 1955 (fig. 106).

Japan and Korea had only a very marginal presence in the new gallery in its initial stages and, indeed, the story of Japanese art in the Fig.106. Leigh AshtonV&A is one of increasing marginalization from the prominence it once enjoyed, until the 1970s saw a revival of interest and commitment. Hostility to Japan after Britain’s defeats in World War II played a part in this attitude, at least according to oral history within the Museum. The founding of a Far Eastern Department in 1970 began the rehabilitation of Japan within the Museum, as well as marked the beginning of scholarship on China, which was able to draw on the extensive historical record and research on the recent archaeological discoveries in China. Nevertheless, economic as well as cultural forces led to the large-scale expansion of the profile of Japanese art in the Museum in the 1980s, as the feasibility of commercial sponsorship from Japanese business made possible the creation of the Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art in 1986, followed by the T. T. Tsui Gallery of Chinese Art in 1991 (fig. 107), and the Samsung Gallery of Korean Art in 1992.

The power of East Asian companies and individuals to assert the presence of their culture in British national museums has been one of the principal influences of the last decade. These commercial interests also motivated efforts to demonstrate that Japan, China, and Korea are still artistically productive, resulting in the acquisition of large quantities of contemporary objects—and generating debates around questions of “modernity,” “tradition,” and “national style” that have in no sense been resolved (and are perhaps incapable of resolution). Curators trained within the disciplines of Sinology or Japanology have once again come to deploy the collection as signifying the cultures that produced them, trying to put the objects “in context,” as is now standard in museum practice worldwide. The Museum itself has even become the subject for exploration as “a context,” one in which the presence of Asian artifacts in particular may not stand in need of apology, but still rightly demands constant and self-critical explanation.


Fig.93. Detail of cat.109 Fig.107. The T.T. Tsui Gallery Fig.108. Drawing of a Pillar from the model of Pudu Mandapa  
For example, Mitchell, 1992; Richards, 1993.

The Imperial Collections: Indian Art
Mitter, 1992.
Jones, 1856, p. 2.
Cole, 1874, pp. 219, 241, passim.
Birdwood, 1879, p. 125.
Guy, 1990; Mitter, 1992, p. 233.
Stronge, 1993, p. 11.
It is variously called the India Museum, the East India Museum, and the East Indian Museum.
Desmond, 1982, p. 35.
Mitter, 1992, appendix I; National Museum, 1950; Wulff, 1966, p. 327.
See especially Desmond, 1982, Chs. 11, 12,13, and 14; Skelton,1978, pp. 301-4.
Birdwood, 1879, pp. 134-43; Dumont, 1970.
Murray, 1874.
Cole, 1874, p. 88.
Conway, 1875, p. 658.
Ibid., p. 657.
Baedeker, 1885, pp. 278-80.
V&A, 1901, pp. 2-3.
V&A, 1908; Museums Journal 8 (1908-9), p. 435; Desmond, 1982, p. 201.
Mitter, 1992, ch. 6; Mitter, 1994, chs. 8 and 9, for discussion of Birdwood's remarks. See also "The Purposes and Functions of the Museum;' proof of confidential memorandum dated 5 November 1912, National Art Library, V&A.
Muirhead, 1918, p. 278
See cat. 98.
Archer and Archer, 1994; Rothenstein, 1932, pp. 229-31. My forthcoming work documents Rothenstein's role in the India House mural project.
Skelton, 1978, pp. 301-4.

The Imperial Collections: East Asian Art
This interpretation follows Bhabha, 1994, especially p. 5, where he writes, "...the boundary becomes the place from which something begins its presencing….” See also Coombes, 1988.
Breckenridge, 1989.
Faulkner and Jackson, 1995. This article is the major piece of scholarship on early collecting of Japanese art at South Kensington, and I am indebted to it for both facts and interpretations.
South Kensington Museum, 1872, pp. 2, 57.
Faulkner and Jackson, 1995, p. 158.
Philip Cunliffe Owen, Minutes to the Lords of the Committee of Council on Education, 23 July 1875: Public Records Office, Education 84/30.
On Murdoch Smith and South Kensington see Helfgott, 1994, pp. 125-43.
This work has been astonishingly successful, remaining in print some ninety years after its original appearance, though no longer published by the V&A. Clunas, 1994, p.334.
On Koop, see Earle, 1986b, pp. 867-8.
Gotlieb, 1986.
Quoted in McKillop, 1992a, p. 74.
Hevia, 1994.
Clunas, 1991; and Clunas, 1994, pp. 336-8.


Catalogue Images
cat.87. Model of Tirumala cat.88. Sambandar, the Child Saint cat.89. Padmapani, the Lotus Bearer cat.90. Head of the Buddha
cat.91. Nandi, Shiva's Sacred Bull cat.92.1. Portrait of Mirza Abu'l Hasan 'Itiqad Khan cat.92.2. Panel of Calligraphy cat.93. Shiva and His Family at the Burning Ground
cat.94. Dagger and Scabbard cat.95. Pen Box and Utensils cat.96. Cup cat.97. Mirror
cat.98. The Fremlin Carpet cat.99. Frieze Tiles cat.100. Bowl cat.101. Table
cat.102. Mosque Lamp cat.103. Table Carpet cat.104. Box cat.105. Imperial Throne
cat.106. Imperial Dragon Robe cat.107. Vase cat.108. Northern Chinese Vase cat.109. Chinese. Head and Partial Torso of a Horse
cat.110. Figure of a Luohan cat.111. Jar cat.112. Vase cat.113. Incense Burner in the Form of an Eagle
cat.114. Fresh-Water Jar with Lug Handles cat.115. Teabowl cat.116. Incense Burner in the Form of a Conch Shell cat.117. Writing Table