Monday, 30th October 2017

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Spoils of victory

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By 250 years after Robert Clive defeated Nawab Siruj-ud-Daulah in the Battle of Plassey, Swagata Ghosh takes you on a journey through the Englishman's spectacular collection of Indian artefacts
  • Published 28.01.07
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On June 23, 1757, Robert Clive, commander-in-chief of the East India Company’s army, defeated the last independent Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, and his vast contingent of about 40,000 men with only 3,000 soldiers, aided by the treachery of some of the Nawab’s key generals.

On the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey (and the 150th anniversary of the 1857 Uprising), attempts will be made to re-read and revisit history from every possible perspective. What will perhaps escape notice are the innumerable artefacts — armoury, jewellery, furniture, carvings, paintings and sculpture — that Robert Clive collected and took home with him when he finally left India in 1767.

After Plassey, as Clive began his climb up the English social ladder, going on to secure a seat in Parliament and an Irish peerage, so grew his collection, which now resides in Powis, a medieval castle in Wales.

In his introduction to Treasures from India: The Clive Collection at Powis Castle, Robert Skelton writes: “When British power in India was expanding in the last part of the 18th century it was natural for a cultivated Englishman to approach other cultures in a spirit of enquiry, and to bring home collections of artefacts in which the artistic and intellectual achievements… of remote lands were exemplified.”

As Clive left India for good on February 1, 1767, he sent to England ‘a Chest full of Shawls, Pictures and Swords & other Curiosities’. As Christopher Rowell notes in Treasures from India, “within two days of his arrival in England on 14 July, he was summoned to a royal audience. ‘Lord Clive is arrived and has brought a million for himself, two diamond drops worth twelve thousand pounds for the Queen, a scimitar, dagger and other matters covered with brilliants for the King,’ wrote Walpole… Clive’s fame was now at it’s height and in July he calculated that he was worth £401,102…”

Clive now lavished his fortune on his estates and houses and bought property in Shropshire and Surrey. His vast collection of art and artefacts was meant to be displayed in Claremont, in Surrey, whose construction and furnishing occupied him in his final years. But Claremont was never completely finished.

After Clive’s death in 1774, his entire collection passed on to his eldest son Edward (1754-1839). In 1786, Claremont was sold and subsequently the Clive collections moved to Powis.

In the former billiard room of the castle, I found myself looking at a curiously shaped large glass cabinet in which lies a palanquin. Made of carved wood, with a cane bottom, it is painted with green lac and gilding. About 5.4 feet long, with a cusped head board and low side rails, the Powis palanquin is believed to have been abandoned by Siraj-ud-Daulah as he fled from the field of Plassey. The canopy and curtains are no more and the furnishings — a bolster, cushions and a quilted mat — have long since been replaced. Yet, wrapped in history and looking regal, with an almost emerald-like finish, the palanquin seems untouched by age.

Across the room stands a tall glass cabinet containing what seems like a series of small circular placemats. A closer look reveals that these round discs are a set of exceptionally large ivory Ganjifa playing cards. Painted in delicate colours with court scenes in the Mughal style, these thin ivory discs were associated with the court of Nawab Alivardi Khan of Murshidabad.

But Clive did not restrict himself to card games alone. The next display — a set of exquisitely carved ivory chess pieces — reveals his passion for chess. The assortment — soldiers with swords and shields, elephants, horses and camels — are of a maximum height of 6.3 cm. Painted mostly in red and black, these are mentioned in the 1775 inventory of the collection as a set of 94, of which, sadly, only 47 survive.

Clive’s collection is also unique in the range and magnificence of its hookah collection. One particular hookah set is described in the 1775 inventory as ‘a blue enamelled Hooka, consisting of five pieces set with Topazes and Rubies’. Partly gilded and enamelled and encrusted with diamonds and rubies, the silver hookah set is believed to be from Lucknow.

When Clive brought back a rich haul of high quality Indian silk and cotton textiles, such garment export was prohibited in England due to the competition it posed to indigenous textile manufacturers. When in 1767, the items were seized by the customs and sold at an auction, he paid handsomely and bought them back.

The Clive collection eventually came to rest at Powis Castle because his son Edward Clive was married to Lady Henrietta Antonia Herbert (1758-1830) who was the daughter of the Earl of Powis. In 1798, Edward Clive was appointed the Governor of Madras.

In March, 1798, Lord and Lady Edward and Henrietta Clive set sail for the east with their two daughters. Five months later, they reached Madras. Forty-two years after Robert Clive trounced Siraj in the Battle of Plassey, Edward now found himself in charge of the preparations against Tipu Sultan. On May 4, 1799, Tipu fell in battle and Srirangapatnam — described as the richest city in southern India — came into British possession.

It is possible that this momentous event and the fact that they already possessed the formidable artefact collection of Robert Clive, sparked Edward and Henrietta’s interest in collecting Indian curiosities. Between 1799 and 1800, Henrietta travelled extensively with her daughters, to see and to collect. Apart from various artefacts, her collections at this time were mostly botanical and geological. When she left India in March 1801, her baggage was substantial. Back home, in the midst of all her treasures, she described herself as an ‘Eastern Princess’.

Upon the death of Henrietta’s brother, then Earl of Powis, her husband, Edward Clive, was made Earl of Powis, in recognition of his ‘services’ in India and his inheritance. Thus two generations of the Clive collection came to live in Powis. Edward’s contribution to the collection include Tipu Sultan’s tent and armoury, and a pair of richly embroidered leather, canvas and velvet shoes. One of the shoes bear Henrietta’s writing: ‘Tippoo’s Slippers’.

But perhaps the most symbolic of all the displays is a little tiger head ripped from the throne of Tipu Sultan. According to an account by Major David Price, who was part of the team in charge of distributing the contents of Tipu’s treasury, Tipu never sat on the throne. He was expected to use it only after he defeated the English in Srirangapatnam. Overlaid in gold and encrusted with rubies, diamonds and emeralds and engraved with the tiger streak motif, it had eight tiger-head finials around it. The throne was ripped apart, the gold stripped and distributed to soldiers as prize money after the fall of Tipu. Of the eight finials, only two survive to date.

If you happen to visit Wales, do make some time to drop in at Powis. In the former billiard room of this medieval castle, one of the two surviving tiger-head finials from the throne of Tipu Sultan will be the first to greet you and take you on an incredible journey of discovery of a tumultuous period in the history of both India and Britain.