“Director – It is my duty to report the breakage of a Glass Huqa-bowl on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum for the Royal Academy Exhibition of Indian Art.”
So begins a letter dated November 21st 1947, explaining a tragic accident that took place while an object was being prepared for exhibition.
“At the time, I was being assisted by Mitchell in preparing the objects for photography. The objects were being removed from glass cases and placed on a table where the photographer was working, and when the accident occurred I was arranging a group-photograph of three Glass Huqa bowls. I had already placed one bowl on the table, and in lifting the second bowl from the case (with one hand holding the top and the other hand supporting the bowl from below) it grazed a metal book-stand standing immediately beside. Before I realised it had touched any other object, the whole bowl suddenly disintegrated in my hand.”
If you groaned aloud reading this, you are not alone – I couldn’t help but tense up myself as I imagined the panic the writer must have felt at that moment. Thankfully, he was cleared of all blame, as on further investigation the bowl was determined to have arrived at the RA already severely cracked – it reportedly gave a “scrunching sound at the least touch”. In fact, it had “obviously been near collapse for some time and was cracked with a portion missing” when it first arrived at the V&A in 1921.
But what do inherently unstable glass huqqa bowls have to do with Indian textiles, you ask?
For this week’s blog I’d like to share with you some of the incredible stories I have come across in the V&A’s archives while researching the objects we’ll be showing next year in The Fabric of India. For every object in the exhibition (and in the whole of the V&A) there is paperwork – piles of it. Standing in a gallery and admiring the beauty of the objects on display, it is easy to forget just how much paperwork goes into getting them there. As visitors, we often daydream about the tiny-waisted woman who first wore that chintz dress, or the boy whose mother devoted countless hours to the embroidery of his jacket (who we hope appreciated it). But between the original makers of objects and the display of those objects in an exhibition, there are untold numbers of stories to tell – though thankfully very few related to epic object disintegration.
Part of the V&A’s job is to record as many of these stories as possible, and so for every object you will see on display in The Fabric of India there is a file of paperwork detailing as much of its history as we can find, both before and after its arrival at the V&A. These are called Registered Files (RFs) and hold documentation about each object going back to the earliest days of the V&A, including original correspondence between donors and staff.
It was while I was researching one of our exhibition objects, bequeathed by Sir Michael Sadleir in 1948 (see if you can spot it in the gallery – you’ll know it by its label), that I found the above letter in its RF. Although it wasn’t about the object I wanted, but another of Sir Michael’s donations, I was completely engrossed. Reading through that initial letter and the responses that followed, I felt I was reliving the drama of this 67 year old tragedy.
But the breaking of the glass huqqa bowl was nothing compared to Mr Baker’s disaster. Mr G. P. Baker was an extremely generous donor of whose objects three will be on display in the Fabric of India (first to spot all three wins hearty congratulations). A textile printing firm owner by trade, Mr Baker collected hundreds of antique Indian printed and painted cottons over 50 years, resulting in an incomparable collection. The RF for his donations tells us that many were bought from Indian “treasure houses” during the First World War. “The stuff which I then saw were such that I had never dreamt of in my life,” wrote Mr Kendrick, an admirer, of his visit to Mr Baker’s collection. Then, during the Second World War, catastrophe struck.
In an effort to secure the textiles’ safety, as Mr Codrington at the V&A wrote later: “[the] objects were put into tin cases [by Mr Baker] and buried at Mr Baker’s house. The pit flooded and the tin rusted through before the objects could be saved. There were in all something over a hundred pieces […]”
Mr Kendrick wrote to Mr Baker with his deepest sympathies: “It is most distressing to learn the extent of your loss […] There is not only the spoilation of your beautiful things, but the personal labour of years apparently thrown away.” On this compassionate note, he then made a suggestion: “Why not pass the injured pieces to the Indian collection at the VAM? Commercially they would not be worth the long, tedious labour of preservation. But the Museum has a staff which can tackle such tasks gradually […]”
Mr Codrington agreed: “There is no doubt that the collection is the largest and most important collection in existence, our own coming second […] I do not think there can be any doubt that the collection should be accepted and that everything possible should be done to restore the objects.”
Eventually, (despite a staff member developing a severe case of the mumps and significantly delaying the whole process) the whole of Mr Baker’s collection made it to the V&A. The thick registered file for his donation records the drying out and careful packing of the textiles for future conservation – conservation they are still receiving today.
Finally, an important 1920 donation was initiated by a short, cryptic letter to the V&A’s Director beginning:
“Dear Sir, – A client of ours, a very wealthy lady, has been in possession of a number of carvings, collected by her late husband, who spent many thousands of pounds in this way. She is now leaving her present home and does not wish to take away some of these things, which, by the way, have never been unpacked since they were brought from Japan. She is anxious they should go where they might be useful, and has asked our advice as to what to do with them. […] We should be glad to know if these could be of any use for art students and others.”
This intriguing yet humble missive commenced what was to be a tremendous donation from Lady Ratan Tata, from whom the V&A received 80 pieces of sculpture, glass, and textile from across Asia, including an embroidered garment which will appear in The Fabric of India.
Reading through these files takes me right back into the first moments of the V&A’s introduction to what would become some of the most valued and well-known pieces in the collection. As I come to recognise their handwriting – and their personalities – through the records they left in these RFs, I am getting know the curators and directors of the V&A’s past. And I am ever more grateful to the donors whose generosity made the collection possible. They gave of themselves not only financially, but also emotionally, as is evident from the many letters detailing the devotion and care that went into creating their collections. Now when I look at an object in the galleries, I don’t just think of its origin, but of all the people in between who got it into its case.