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Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum

A catalogue of the Ashmolean’s collection of Indian art by J. C. Harle and Andrew Topsfield (published Oxford, 1987).

Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum by J. C. Harle and Andrew Topsfield

History of the Indian collections

The Ashmolean Museum first opened in its original building in Broad Street in 1683 and is thus the oldest public museum in England, and some claim, the world. The Founder’s Collection presented by Elias Ashmole to the University was a traditional Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammer, comprising a universal miscellany of rare or exotic objects and artefacts which had been largely accumulated by the Tradescants, John I and John II, the royal gardeners, in the first half of the 17th century. Along with rarities such as the remains of the Dodo and the American Indian chief Powhatan’s “mantle”, there were from the beginning a number of artefacts from the East Indies, mainly bows and other weapons which East India Company officials had no doubt brought back as curiosities[1]. Ashmole himself gave a fine pair of carved ebony chairs, said to have belonged to Charles II’s queen, Catherine of Braganza, of a type made in Ceylon and South India under Dutch influence[1]. Other Indian donations occurred from time to time, notably Sir William Hedges’ gift in c.1686-87 of a Pala image of Viṣṇu [LI894.12] which he had obtained on a visit to Sagar island in the Ganges delta. This is the earliest identifiable acquisition of a piece of Indian sculpture by any Western collection, just as the album of Indian paintings presented by Archbishop Laud to the Bodleian Library in 1640[3] is similarly the first known accession of its kind.

There was, however, never any attempt to collect or display Indian art in a representative manner. When in the late 19th century, after a long period of stagnation, the Ashmolean was regenerated and moved to its present site on Beaumont Street under the Keepership of Sir Arthur Evans (1884-1908), the inevitable rationalisation of the collections saw the transfer of the Indian material (including the Hedges Viṣṇu) to the ethnographical collections at the newly founded Pitt Rivers Museum. From this time the Ashmolean gained eminence as a museum of Western art and archaeology, mainly Greco-Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Egyptian, while the art of Asia found little place in it as yet. The neglect of Indian art is hardly surprising in a period when even most Indologists, who had long lost the pioneering, humanistic sympathies of Sir William Jones and his late 18th century colleagues, denied the existence of any Indian fine art worthy of the name. Sir Monier Monier-Williams, Boden Professor of Sanskrit (1860-99), only voiced the received opinion of his age when he wrote, “…not a single fine large painting, nor beautiful statue is to be seen throughout India. Even the images of gods are only remarkable for their utter hideousness”[4]. (He elsewhere gave conventional praise to the handicrafts of India, which since the Great Exhibition of 1851 had excited wide admiration.) It is ironic, therefore, that most of the Ashmolean’s Indian collections, including a number of important sculptures[5], were eventually to come to it from a museum founded by Monier-Williams as part of his Indian Institute, when the latter was in the post-imperial climate of the early 1960s. An account of the development of the present Indian collections must tell of the rise and fall of the institution.

The story of the Indian Institute, and particularly of its museum, is one of the high-minded, even sanctimonious, late Victorian ambitions of its founder over-reaching themselves and being gradually nullified by the inertia or sheer lack of funds of his successors[6]. The building itself, by Basil Champneys, with a gold elephant weather-vane and exterior carvings of an elephant, bull, lions and demi-gods, still commands the eastern end of Broad Street, though it now houses the History Faculty (earlier, the first English coffee house is believed to have stood on the same spot). It was erected by public subscription, much of the money coming from the princes and businessmen of India, which Monier-Williams had twice visited in 1875-76. The foundation stone was laid by the Prince of Wales in 1883, though shortage of funds was to prevent completion of the building until 1896. Its purpose, as reported by British and colonial newspapers, was “to house a complete collection of specimens of the products of India and a library of Indian literature and of books relating to India, as well as to be a centre of Oriental study and a meeting place for all who are interested in that portion of the Empire”. The museum, an integral part of Monier-Williams’ design, was to “present to the eye a typical collection of facts, illustrations and examples which … will give a concise synopsis of India – of the country and its material products – of the people and their moral condition”[7]. As a museum of economic products, crafts and other artefacts viewed in an ethnographic light, it was clearly modelled to some extent on the vastly larger Indian Museum in South Kensington. The latter had recently been reconstituted through the amalgamation of the old East India Company museum in Whitehall with the growing collections of Indian craft objects at the South Kensington (later Victoria and Albert) Museum. A consolidation of these collections took place at the beginning of the 1880s when Caspar Purdon Clarke, a future Director of the Victoria and Albert, was sent to India on a buying expedition which yielded 3,400 acquisitions of almost every type and quality[8].

Monier-Williams himself made a third fund-raising and collecting tour of India in the winter of 1883-84, arriving at Calcutta in time to take advantage of the International Exhibition then being held there, with its comprehensive displays of Indian products and artefacts. Besides obtaining some items from the Exhibition, he secured the help of the various regional authorities in assembling collections of local productions and shipping them to Oxford[9]. In each part of the sub-continent civil servants and museum officials carried out this commission as they thought best. The surviving lists of objects collected between 1883 and 1885 vary from compendious surveys of regional arts made by the most knowledgeable experts of the day to patchy and eccentric miscellanies[10].

The Indian Institue Museum with its original display, c. 1898-99. © Ashmolean Museum The Indian Institue Museum with its original display, c. 1898-99.

The Madras Museum dispatched several hundred selected examples of southern domestic and ritual metalwares, ornaments, textiles, lacquer and woodwork etc. From Bengal came a similar representative collection of handicrafts, devotional images, folk paintings and economic products, scientifically catalogued under fifteen headings by Babu T.N. Mukharji[11]. A further wide selection of objects, including the Umā-Maheśvara [see EAOS.70] and a good collection of musical instruments[12], was presented by Sir Sourindro Mohun Tagore of Calcutta. In Rajputana the Jeypore Museum Committee (Hon. Sec. T.H. Hendley) organised the collection of over four hundred objects at a cost of Rs. 2000, including some contemporary Jaipur paintings and a quantity of arms and armour presented by the Maharaja. From the Punjab it was reported, “Baden Powell is making collections.” The Municipalities of Moradabad presented a range of local metalwares. From the Central provinces came saris and textiles, female ornaments and weapons “used by wild tribes in the Chhatisgarh hills”. From Dacca came muslin, from Ajmer a model cobra, from Travancore three blown crocodile eggs, three tailor-bird nests and a granite stone used in scrubbing elephants.

It must have been realised early on that this ambitious accumulation would present display problems in the limited gallery space proposed for the uncompleted Institute building. When Babu T.N. Mukharji was commissioned to catalogue the collections in 1886 (a job he was unable to finish)[13], he described the eventual aim of the collection as “to convey instruction” rather than to “make an effective show”. Ten years later the Institute was finally opened and, with the aid of a grant from the University, the installation of its Museum was carried out by Dr. H Lüders, assisted by Mr. Long of the Pitt Rivers Museum, and completed in 1898. A series of contemporary photographs of interior views of the Institute must have been taken soon after[14]. The main Museum hall, on the first floor of the building, and its ambulatory with colums supporting an upper gallery with jālī-work balustrades (fig. 1) are shown chockablock with heavy wooden cases crammed inside and below with exhibits (a concentrated mode of display still happily preserved today at the Pitt Rivers). The cases are arranged by region and prominently labelled with names of individual and corporate donors. Rugs and darīs cover the floors, diverse weapons are fixed to the walls and columns, and life-like Indian costumed dummies stand guard. An entrance corridor contains several small stūpas from Bodhgaya [see EAOS.59] as well as other sculptures and rugs, a model of the emperor Humayun’s tomb (presented by the Maharaja of Alwar) and what appears to be a stuffed yak.

In 1899 Monier-Williams died and to his less enthusiastic successors the Musuem became, one suspects, something of a white elephant. The main problem was that no financial provision had been made for its proper running by a full-time curator. Its keeper was ex officio the Boden Professor of Sanskrit. This was hardly satisfactory, since apart from their natural distraction by other duties, those individuals with the advanced philological aptitudes required by such a position proved (with the single exception of Prof. Johnston) to be impervious to the visual arts of India. At the regular meetings of the Curators of the Institute the problems of the Museum took second place to discussions about the state of the Library[15]. Nevertheless a wide range of objects offered by ex-I.C.S. officers and other India hands continued to be accepted in most cases. These included a collection of antiquities given by Mr. Robert Sewell (1899); 23 Gandhara sculptures from the Rev. Murray-Aynsley (1911) and others from Miss Barlow (1912-25); a group of Kashmir knitted gloves and stockings, said to have belonged to Warren Hastings, from Mr. J.R. Harris (1933) and the Luard collection of brass images in 1936 [see EAOS.108, EAX.279, EAX.280, EAX.281, EAX.283, EAX.284, EAX.287, and EAX.292]. Occasional loans of objects were made to exhibitions in London and elsewhere.

There was little steady policy concerning the Museum, but sporadic reappraisals of its aims were usually followed by dispersals of unwanted parts of the collections. This process had already begun in 1899-1900 with the transfer of the entomological and zoological collections to the University Museum and the sale of some sets of animal horns. In 1909 a most trenchant critique of the Museum was made by Lord Curzon, then Chancellor of the University, whose Viceroyalty had been distinguished by his keen interest in the upkeep of India’s monuments and museums[16]. Recommending the removal of the Museum from the overcrowded Institute, he criticised Monier-Williams’ “too grandiose conception”, which bore no real relation to the needs either of the Institute or of Oxford. No Indian student who comes to Oxford requies to see a meagre and ill-assorted collection of some of the commonest objects in his native country; to him the display must appear mean and contemptible. But equally can no English student – or candidate for the Indian Civil Service – gain the remotest idea of India by an examination of the scanty models, fabrics, carvings or products here displayed. If the English student of India wishes to study either her ethnology or her art in an exhibition, he must go to South Kensington … [The Museum collection] has remained almost stationary for a number of years, and, as the figures of admission show, is visited annually by more women than men – a sufficient condemnation of its continued retention here, and a pathetic commentary upon Sir M. Monier-Williams’s assurance that it was not intended to attract “mere sight-seers, curiosity-hunters and excursionists.”

It is scarcely a coincidence that the following month the Curators resolved on a policy of gradual dispersal of the collections “by transference, so far as possible, to other University Institutions”. But little was done about this at the time. Instead, for several years after 1912 an active Museum Committee led by Mr. Vincent Smith, the author of standard histories of India and its art, supervised the improvement and relabelling of the display. In 1922 a short handbook to the Institute by Prof. Macdonell, with a summary catalogue of the Museum by Mr. A. Rost, was prepared but never published[17]. Then in 1926 a peevish note reappeared in the Curators’ deliberations. It was remarked that in one quarter “167 persons (for the most part school children and Americans) had visited the Museum” and it was further decided to get rid of certain “positively injurious” stuffed animals. Later the entire contents of the Museum were offered for transfer to the Pitt Rivers but were refused for lack of space. Nevertheless many objects, including the Jaipur arms and armour, did pass to the Pitt Rivers during the next few years.

Under the Keepership of Prof. E.H. Johnston (1937-42) a brief Indian summer occurred. Unlike his predecessors he appreciated the qualities of Indian art and purchased examples of Mathura sculpture, including the superb Śiva head [see EAOS.38]. He arranged a new display of sculpture in the Museum’s main hall (fig. 2), discussing the problems he encountered in a published article[18]. Almost at once, however, the outbreak of war and the appropriation of the Institute for other purposes caused the Museum to close. In 1945 the Curators once again questioned the purpose of the Museum and decided against its immediate restoration. But a solution appeared in the following year when they approved a proposal made by Dr. William Cohn, a distinguished war-time refugee from Berlin, that the Indian collections should be amalgamated with the Ashmolean’s Chinese ceramic collections in a new Museum of Eastern Art. This Museum opened in the Institute in 1949 under the direction of Dr. Cohn and later of Mr. Peter Swann (1955-66). A number of Indian acquisitions were made in this period, including the purchase in 1960 of some Mughal and Deccani paintings. In 1957 further “useless and unnecessary” Indian material was disposed of.

By this time the Indian Institute was already under threat. With the disappearance of its imperial and I.C.S. connections, it was regarded by the powers within the University as a redundant and moribund institution, occupying a desirable site for the erection of a new administrative block (this was eventually built elsewhere). In the early 1960s the Institute was abolished and its Library was later reincarnated above the New Bodleian building, where, merged with the Bodleian Indian holdings, it is now one of the finest Indological libraries in the world[19]. The Museum collections had meanwhile moved in 1962 to their present home at the Ashmolean in the newly established Department of Eastern Art.

The Indian Institute Museum after arrangement after rearrangement by Prof. E.H. Johnston in 1939. © Museums Association The Indian Institute Museum after arrangement after rearrangement by Prof. E.H. Johnston in 1939.

During the last twenty-five years, despite the scarcity of funds available to a University museum, there has been a steady flow of acquisitions of Indian sculpture, painting and decorative arts, and the overall balance of the collections has been consolidated and improved. Major purchases of recent years include the Mathura coping [EA1983.24], the Gupta makara [EA1971.13], the Harwan plaque [EA1980.65], the post-Gupta ceiling slab [see EA1985.5] and the Mughal floral carpet [EA1975.17]. For many acquisitions, however, the Department has been indebted to a number of generous donors, including Mr. Oswald J. Couldrey, Mr. E.M. Scratton, Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Barrett and the late Mr. Gerald Reitlinger, who along with his munificent gift of Eastern ceramics presented a small group of important and beautiful Indian paintings [see EA1978.2596, EA1978.2591, EA1978.2597, EA1978.2568, and EA1978.2595].

Andrew Topsfield


[1] A. MacGregor ed., Tradescant’s Rarities, Oxford, 1983, nos. 33-35, 51-52, 60-62, 68, 79-83; R.F. Ovenell, The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894, Oxford, 1986.


[2] Also at Batavia: see J. Veenendaal, Furniture from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India during the Dutch period, Delft, 1985, p.22. Ashmole’s chairs are now displayed in the Founder’s Room of the Museum.


[3] H.J. Stooke and K. Khandalavala, The Laud Ragamala Miniatures, Oxford, 1953; R. Skelton, “Indian art and artefacts in early European collecting”, The Origins of Museums, O. Impey and A. MacGregor eds., Oxford, 1985.


[4] Sir M. Monier-Williams, Brahmanism and Hinduism, or Religious thought and life in India, 4th ed., London, 1891, p.469; for a history of Western appreciation of Indian art see P. Mitter, Much Maligned Monsters, Oxford, 1977.


[5] Distinguished by accession number with an “OS.” or “X” prefix. Unfortunately no satisfactory records or register of accessions were kept in the Indian Institute Museum.


[6] For an account of the Indian Institute and of Indian studies at Oxford see R. Symonds, Oxford and Empire, Oxford, 1986, ch.6; also R. Gombrich, On being Sanskritic, inaugural lecture, Oxford, 1978.


[7] Album of the Indian Institute newspaper cuttings etc., Indian Institute Library F.a.4(9). See also Record of the Establishment of the Indian Institute, Oxford, 1897.


[8] R. Desmond, The India Museum 1801-1879, London, 1982; R. Skelton, “The Indian Collections: 1798 to 1978”, Burlington Magazine (Victoria and Albert Museum issue), May 1978, pp.297-304.


[9] Record of the Establishment of the Indian Institute, pp.31, 33, 45-46: Monier-Williams acknowledges the help of the Viceroy (Lord Ripon), the Governors of Bombay and Madras and many officials, including F.S. Growse, Capt. R.C. Temple and Lockwood Kipling. For the Calcutta exhibition, see Official Report of the Calcutta International Exhibition, 2 vols., Calcutta, 1885.


[10] Indian Institute Museum: Original Lists, MS volume in the Department of Eastern Art, Ashmolean Museum.


[11] Babu T.N. Mukharji, List of Articles collected for the Oxford Institute under the instruction of T.W. Holderness Esq. and Dr George Watt, Calcutta, 1884 (36 pp.), bound in the Original Lists MS volume (n.10 above). In the paintings section of this consignment are listed many of the Kalighat pictures which are still held by the Indian Institute Library (see H.J. Stooke, ‘Kalighat Paintings in Oxford’, Indian Art and Letters, n.s.XX, 2, 1946, pp.71-73; also W.G. Archer, Bazaar paintings of Calcutta, London, 1953, pls.16, 17, 20-25).


[12] Some of these are now displayed in the new musical galleries of the Pitt Rivers Museum.


[13] T.N. Mukharji, Catalogues of Articles at the Indian Museum, Oxford, MS volumes, 1886, in the Department of Eastern Art, Ashmolean Museum, Murkharji subsequently wrote Art-manufactures of India, Calcutta, 1888, a very useful survey compiled for the Glasgow International Exhibition of that year.


[14] Monier-Williams papers, Bodleian Library. I am grateful to Mr. Jonathan Katz, Indian Institute Librarian for bringing these photographs to my attention and for much other information; also to Mrs. M. de Goris for a guided tour of the Indian Institute in which she formerly worked.


[15] Minutes of the Curators of the Indian Institute, 3 MS vols., University Archives, Bodleian Library. I am grateful to Miss Ruth Vyse for making these available to me, and to the Keeper of the Archives, University of Oxford, for permission to quote from them.


[16] Lord Curzon, “The Indian Institute”, printed Confidential Note, 25 March 1909, bound in Minutes, vol.2 (n.15 above).


[17] Kept with the Murkharji’s MS volume (n.13 above) in the Department of Eastern Art.


[18] E.H. Johnston, “Methods of displaying Indian sculpture”, The Museums Journal, vol.39, Dec. 1939, pp.389-93.


[19] J. Katz, “The Indian Institute Library, Oxford, and its Bodleian hosts”, South Asia Library Group Newsletter, 26, June 1985.


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