The British Empire Library

The East India Company at Home 1757-1857

Edited by Margot Finn and Kate Smith

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The East India Company at home 1757-1857 is the record of a project which ran from 2011-14, extending far beyond academics to include independent researchers and writers (including BACSA members) in many different fields. The volume contains nineteen case studies, with linking essays exploring the themes of the volume. These include the role of the country house as a focal point for families with Indian connections to establish a county presence which often lasted for generations. Many of these houses were grouped in proximity to the centre of East India Company power in London, though studies also look at their manifestations further afield. The houses displayed objects reflecting the owners' connections with India, the wealth obtained and the connoisseurship often acquired. Independent scholars played a significant role in researching the history of a number of the families and the houses they created, which will be of interest to BACSA members who visit or live nearby - the Childs of Osterley (National Trust), the Benyons at Englefield House, the Amhersts at Monfreal Park, the Setons of Touch House, and others. Close studies of objects collected in India will also enhance visits to see them in public spaces - such as the 'silver coffer' of Tipu Sultan, a treasured possession of the Fraser family, now on display in the British Museum, and the ivory furniture widely collected by the well-to-do in India, and now on display in Sezincote, Powis Castle (National Trust) and elsewhere.

While avoiding the jargon which sometimes blights academic writing, the exposition of the themes of the volume by professional historians may seem rather heavy to the general reader, and some of the chapters written by independent researchers have a lighter touch. A particularly engaging study by Joanna Goldsworthy focuses on the irrepressible Fanny Parks, who claimed on her return to England the status of cultural authority on India with her 'Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostan and Cabinet of Curiosities'. Novelist Penelope Farmer provides a compelling account of the mundane but humanly engaging life of William Farmer, discovered only recently in a cache of family letters. Meanwhile, Diane James, a PhD student, gives a fascinating account of Colonel Robert Smith, engineer and talented painter in India, who recalled the land of his career in architectural fantasies in Rome, the south of France, and in Paignton where his partially oriental extravaganza of Redcliffe Towers can now be visited as a hotel.

Case studies have the advantage of presenting important and interesting new research in a variety of areas. On the other hand, they can seem arbitrary, and there is a disproportionate emphasis on Chinese influences in wallpaper, armorial china, lacquerware and designs for staircases in north Wales. Much of the extensive influence of India in the interiors of country houses goes unremarked. There is little on the use of Indian textiles in interiors, or the clothes of the ladies and gentlemen who graced them. An astonishing range of books, many of them illustrated, as well as paintings and prints of India filled country houses and made India one of the most documented areas of the world. However, two important areas for further research are highlighted: the subsequent lives of the Indian servants who returned with their employers to their country homes, and the fate of the many children of mixed parentage who were despatched far from their mothers to a new life in Britain. The focus of the study on the East India Company, with a terminal date of 1857, provides important new evidence on the interaction of India and Britain in a particular domestic framework. It does not pretend to tell the whole story. It should also be remembered that the influence of India grew enormously in the later 19th century, from the Great Exhibition of 1851, later international exhibitions, the display of gifts given on royal tours, the support given by the British to Indian arts and crafts, and the devotion of the Queen Empress to all things Indian. In architecture, art, textiles and design, the interactions described in this volume were greatly enhanced. The East Indian Company at Home is recommended for many new and interesting insights into a very wide subject.

British Empire Book
Margot Finn and Kate Smith
First Published
Niyogi Books
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2018 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe