The East India Company at home

Model in ivory of a Chinese pleasure barge, mid-eighteenth-century, at Osterley Park, London. ©NTPL/Dennis Gilbert

I was talking to Dr Kate Smith yesterday about a project she is involved in called ‘The East India Company at home’. The project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and aims to place country house interiors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in a wider global context.

Chinese lacquered chair with the Child coat of arms, at Osterley Park. It is part of a suite of hall furniture made for Sir Francis Child the Younger, a director of the East India Company, in the 1720s. ©National Trust/Christopher Warleigh-Lack

The Warwick University project team, led by Professor Margot Finn, will explore the routes by which Asian luxury goods ended up in the homes of the propertied classes in England, Scotland and Wales in the Georgian and early Victorian periods.

Embroidered Indian silk on an eighteenth-century bed at Osterley Park. ©NTPL/Dennis Gilbert

The team welcomes collaboration with individuals and groups engaged in research into country houses, material culture and the history of colonialism and empire. This is an interesting attempt to incorporate ‘crowd sourcing’ into a research project – of which there have been recent examples on this blog as well, including the card-racks at Attingham and the portrait of the Chinese page at Knole.

Plate showing a Chinese duck in 'Portraits of Rare and Curious Birds and their Descriptions from the Menagery of Osterley Park' by William Hayes, 1794. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The aim is to weave together a series of case studies of places, objects and people that illuminate the way in which trade and colonialism shaped British material culture and identity. Some National Trust colleagues, including members of the team at Osterley Park, have already expressed an interest to contribute.

Chinese porcelain side plate with the Child arms, commissioned by Francis Child the Younger in the 1720s, at Osterley Park. ©National Trust/Christopher Warleigh-Lack

The project website already hosts bibliographies and other research tools, and it will gradually become a portal for research and information about the global context of the British country house.

8 Responses to “The East India Company at home”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    Do you know whether this project compares the Chinese objects which ended up in English country houses with the types of objects that would have been owned by equivalent Chinese merchants and politicians? They were often not the same, but I am not sure of the degree of crossover.

    By the way, I wonder if curator Kate Smith gets lots of interesting reactions to her name. As when you mentioned her in connection with Way of the Dragon, I cannot read the name without envisioning the famous 2-300 pound singer belting out God Bless America.
    –Road to Parnassus

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, this project is more about the effect of East Asian objects on British interiors, rather than about comparing ‘export’ style with Chinese indigenous taste – although the latter is actually an extremely interesting and developing research area. Jonathan Hay has recently published an excellent study into Chinese Ming-Qing interior design called ‘Sensuous Surfaces’.

    I wasn’t aware of Kate Smith, ‘the songbird of the South’, thank you for enlightenting me – she even has her own postage stamp! I wonder whether Kate Smith, the scholar, will be embarrassed or delighted by the coincidence… :)

  3. artandarchitecturemainly Says:

    ohhh I love this stuff! Many many years ago, I tried to visit some country homes that had Huguenot silver from the 1690-1720 period. I would have emigrated in a heart beat :)

    Now I am much more involved in history of the empire. And I wonder how the collaboration with researchers into country houses, material culture, colonialism and empire will manifest itself. You noted that bibliographies have already been created, but will the objects ever be photographed in situ then brought together in a travelling road show?

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Helen, yes as I understand it the aim is to bring together the historians and the art historians. There will be workshops and conferences as part of the project, and it may also be possible to organise an exhibition or two, perhaps at one of the country houses that will the the subject of the research.

  5. KDM Says:

    Dr. Kate Smith is a delight – we were lucky to have her here for a while when she worked with Chipstone – what an exciting project. KDM

  6. style court Says:

    Fascinating, Emile. I’m thrilled to learn about this. And the ivory model is stunning!

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Keith, Courtney, thank you.

  8. little augury Says:

    One of my favorite influences, as we have discussed I think, a most noble pursuit. pgt

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