4 January 2019
Recent research revealed that 17 of RAMM’s botanical drawings are by three of the most renowned late-18th-century Indian painters. Their names are Sheikh Zain al-Din, Bhawani Das and Ram Das.
This revelation kick-started an international project between RAMM, the University of Exeter and the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. Holly Morgenroth, RAMM’s Collections Officer, and Dr Andrew Rudd and Dr Nandini Chatterjee from the University of Exeter recently returned from a fascinating visit to Kolkata. They explored a similar collection of paintings at the Victoria Memorial Hall and developed ground-breaking plans for further collaboration.
The John Fleming collection in Kolkata
The team were introduced to the John Fleming collection. It includes over 200 depictions of animals. Some are of animals native to India, others were imported from around the world and kept menageries or as stuffed specimens. Fleming was a surgeon and botanist with the East India Company and many paintings have notes written by him – one of a fishing cat (which resembles a leopard) says,
“This animal was sent me by Mr Crommelin from Luckipore. It is size of the jackal and one of the fiercest animals in nature. I wished to send it to England but none of the captains would take charge of it.”
Presenting research and formalising the partnership
The Exeter visitors were privileged to be invited by Dr Jayanta Sengupta, Curator at the Victoria Memorial Hall, to present their research at an evening lecture held in the museum’s stunning marble courtyard. The audience offered new information and tantalising avenues of research to follow up.
This is the first time the Victoria Memorial Hall has collaborated with an international museum and university and the opportunities the partnership brings are exciting. Professor Sir Steve Smith (University of Exeter’s Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive) and Dr Jayanta Sengupta signed a Memorandum of understanding to formalise the partnership. Funds will be sought for further research into the two collections of paintings and for an exhibition drawing on both collections. The exhibition will tour venues in both the UK and India.
The Botanic Gardens near Shibpur
While in Kolkata, the team also visited the Central National Herbarium at the Botanic Gardens near Shibpur, home of the 250 year old great banyan tree. They hold botanical paintings that were commissioned by the East India Company as a scientific record of India’s flora – very similar to the paintings at RAMM. They also browsed through Nathaniel Wallich’s letter archive. It is a fragile collection detailing all the garden’s activities from the 1790s to 1840s. He records the discovery of new plants, appointments of new staff (including John Fleming), visitors to the gardens and one letter from the Asiatic Society’s librarian concerns the supplying of crocodiles!
ICOM UK and the British Council support
The visit was made possible by the ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant Scheme.