Object of the Month, May 2017: Loro Blonyo Figures

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Loro Blonyo means the ‘inseparable couple’ and these figures depict the goddess Dewi Sri and her consort Sadono. The Loro Blonyo figures are used in traditional Javanese wedding ceremonies and would be placed in front of the krobongan (a ceremonial wedding bed) in the central room of the house.

Dewi Sri is a goddess of fertility, agriculture and protector of the rice fields. She is an adaptation of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, who is a goddess of wealth, prosperity and beauty. Dewi Sri is said to ensure agricultural abundance and fertility in marriage. Because of this, it is believed Loro Blonyo figures will bless the bridal couple with fertility both in their marriage and in the rest of their lives.

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Loro Blonyo figures are usually found in a formal pose as is the case with these from the the South Asia Collection. Dewi Sri is kneeling with her hands on her knees, wearing a colourful sarong and an elaborate hairstyle with a comb. Sadono is sitting cross-legged with his hands on his shins, also wearing a sarong, a tall hat and has a kris (dagger) on his back. Traditionally, Loro Blonyo figures were found in wealthy households, in part, because of the space required to house them. While these figures are mostly made from wood, they were also produced from clay.

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During a wedding ceremony, the figures would be replaced by the real bride and groom, who copied their painted outfits. The couple had their skin rubbed with a yellow paste and their hair cut and shaped to resemble petals. By appearing like the Loro Blonyo figures, the couple hoped to ensure they received Dewi Sri’s blessings. They would sit solemnly in front of the bed during the last moments of the wedding rites. After the ceremony, the figures would be reinstated and surrounded by bowls of food, water, incense and flowers, and a lamp would remain lit for them, just in case Dewi Sri made a visit to the house to bless it.

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The Loro Blonyo figures are not a symbol of a specific religion, they represent the very old beliefs of the Javanese people, before other religions became established on the island. Today Java is predominantly Islamic with 90% of its population identifying as Muslim. There are also Hindus and Buddhists, but the concept of ancient spirits and ancestor worship still holds great significance.

Recently, elaborate wedding ceremonies with a large ceremonial bed have dropped out of favour. A ‘bed’ still features in most ceremonies, but now it will take the form of a decorative settee, or just a space in the lounge of a private home. Loro Blonyo figures have also changed in their appearance from a more classical god-like form, indebted to Indian aesthetics, to a much more life-like and Indonesian style of depiction. The contemporary focus is on the cosmetic and aesthetic values, rather than the philosophical ones. Figures are painted with beautiful coloured robes and elaborate hairstyles, whereas previously they would have been much plainer. Generally nowadays bridal couples are choosing more modern wedding ceremonies and the use of Loro Blonyo figures is declining in popularity.

These figures are currently on display in our new exhibition case, South East Asia: Traditions and Belief.

Copyright, The SADACC Trust, Norwich, UK.


A Man of Strangely Varied Talents: Life with the Brassey’s – Part 6

The Lives in Paint blog series is an attempt to understand the paintings and prints in the South Asia Collection by understanding the artists behind them. Many of these images are of a type that we may feel we know at first glance. But it is often the case that the half-familiar obscures what are often fascinating stories and messages bound up in paint at the moment these works of art were created.


In this edition we explore Robert Taylor Pritchett’s relationship with Thomas Brassey, the captain of the Sunbeam, the boat that took Robert to India. Recent research (in the last few weeks) has suggested that the most likely date for the painting of Ayahs with their Charges was in-fact during Thomas Brassey’s work as chairman of the Opium Commission. As part of that work the Sunbeam was moored in Calcutta for the winter of 1893-4. Thomas is recorded as entertaining a large number of guests and friends on board. It seems probable that Robert Taylor Pritchett was among their number. An account of that Christmas appears in an interview in a contemporary magazine published in London.

Thomas and Robert shared much in common, beyond their relationship as sailing and shipping enthusiasts and shipmates. Because Thomas’ views are recorded in a number of sources, not least the 1889 volume: The Last Voyage of the Sunbeam (that Thomas helped to complete – adding an introduction and appendices – after Lady Brassey’s sad death at sea).

If we can judge a man by the company he keeps, then Robert’s relationship with the Brassey’s allows us to gain a sense of his own opinions, by comparing them to the better recorded (in words, at least, as opposed to paint) versions of his companions. Their thoughts help us to understand how Robert may have viewed and interpreted India.


Thomas Brassey (b.1836), like Robert, was the son of an industrialist – although in this case in a different line of work. Thomas’ father, also called Thomas (and referred to here as Mr. Brassey), had made his fame and fortune as a railway engineer. This was the age of rail and steam and Mr. Brassey was famous for building many of the railways in England and France and then around the world, including the Eastern Bengal Railway and the East India Railway in India.

Mr Brassey had started life as an apprentice and worked his way up from surveying roads to running a quarry and brickwork’s that included the use of a small railway. By the age of thirty he was constructing viaducts and his career trajectory was established. He married Maria, and Thomas their first son was born in 1836. The young family swiftly moved to France. Mr Brassey couldn’t speak French and so he relied on his young wife to act as his business interpreter. And when Thomas grew up, he swiftly learned French from his mother.

It must have been an odd childhood, moving often from place to place. Their father working and supervising teams that included a large number of labourers with a huge variety of backgrounds (the projects ranged from constructing a relief line to Sevastopol – the carnage of the Crimea conflict born out in the bodies of the working men, frozen and malnourished, through to Holland, Spain, Italy, Eastern Europe, South America, Canada and India). One has to wonder what this multinational perspective might have had on young Thomas. The first school he went to was in Dieppe. Young Thomas’ was brought up as an internationalist – something his later political views would mirror.

His father appears to have been renowned for the treatment of the working men who laboured on his projects. That Mr Brassey’s wife, Thomas’ mother, was such a key element in supporting and enabling this work might suggest that these concerns entered the family home and were discussed. An interest in man, politics and social ideas was clearly engendered in the sons, of the three sons that survived infancy, all became members of parliament, with the balance tipped (two to one) in favour of the Liberals over the Conservatives.

Thomas was just 22 (only a few summers after he had accompanied his father to France to inspect the works during school holidays – trips that were always extended to explore the countryside and visit galleries and museums) when his father took on his first project in India. It was 1858, one year after the mutiny. While Mr Brassey did not travel to the subcontinent, he would (there are a huge number of references to his all-night hard working nature) have taken a detailed interest in the affairs of the project.

The end of the mutiny brought great change to the political map of India. Public works were accelerated and supported in growing numbers, resources and labour prices were high. This would no doubt have caused concern to Mr Brassey, becoming an object of concentration. For example, the price list for the project had been formulated before the mutiny – a list the contract had been built on – and now costs were up, this was not good news for the finances of the company. But the line was built and it opened in 1862.

The experience did not put Mr Brassey off working in India. A new project was undertaken in 1865 to construct a line from just outside Delhi to Umristir in the Punjab (based on the account of Mr Henfrey who was a partner sent to India). The line opened in 1870. It is noticeable from Mr Henfrey’s account how much attention needed to be paid to the landscape (the structures of railways are attuned to hills and rivers, for example, the viaducts over the Jumma, Sutlej and Beeas), the weather (the rainy season was a key concern), and the socio-cultural make up of the working groups who came from different regions. It is hard to imagine that over the decade and more that his father was involved with works in India, that Thomas did not talk to him about it, that ideas of the landscape and the weather (not to mention the working conditions – a prime interest of Mr. Brassey’s) were not conveyed, and that a curiosity was not stirred.

There is direct evidence that Thomas took an interest in the opinions and actions of his father when it came to labour relations, and, by extension, human relations. Thomas wrote a memoir of his father entitled: Work and Wages. In the Introduction he makes a point of noting, ‘Other men have organised and conducted vast industrial operations; but few have laboured in so many lands, or had the same means of comparing the working men of every nation’.


The book is dedicated to Thomas Hughes MP. This Thomas was the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a social reformer along Christian socialist lines, and (which is interesting in relation to Robert Taylor Pritchett) a founder of the Working Men’s College (that Robert had supported and lectured at from its commencement).

This humanitarian interest in fellow man would appear to have been shared by Robert and Thomas, and, crucially, by Lady Brassey. Throughout his life Thomas gave to charity, and by the 1894 he was president of Dr. Barnados’ Homes, the British and Foreign Sailor’s Society, and gave generously to the Missions to Seamen, notably giving £5,000 to the completion of the Sailor’s Institute at Poplar.

An interest in charity may have been one of the foundations for the emotional attachment of the Brasseys (Thomas adored Lady Brassey for all she was in her actions and thoughts). Lady Brassey was heavily involved in charitable work, not least with the St. John’s ambulance. Her outreach work tended to occur in places that she had visited, often on the yacht Sunbeam, suggesting a particular level of interest in and sympathy with the lives of those they encountered on their travels.

The affection she was held in by those who met her – from Thomas’ own family, to foreign dignitaries, to those less fortunate in social standing – is clear from those who write about her. Lady Brassey was clearly a person interested in people (and their social position – it was Lady Brassey who did much of the canvassing for Thomas). Thomas describes, ‘her genuine sympathy with everything that was intended for the public good.’

We might then ask what the married couple thought ‘the public good’ was? They seem to have had overlapping interests in man and his education, as suggested by the web of social relationships that snare around the Working Men’s College. Both the Brassey’s supported missionary work. Thomas describes Lady Brassey’s last day of relative good health – she is relaxing under the gently swaying trees rocked by a trade wind with, ‘the English missionaries, the native teacher with his congregation assembled around him, the waving cocoa-nuts, the picturesque huts on the beach… the beauty and the peace.’ This is described as the perfect scene to give Lady Brassey’s heart content. And missionaries, a teacher and material culture were central to it.


(The final illustration for Lady Brassey’s final piece of writing in the Last Voyage of the Sunbeam)

Robert, Thomas and Lady Brassey had shared interests when it came to the people they encountered. Theirs was a world of overlapping experiences and a circle of acquaintances that served to give a foundation to their Liberal view points. If a gaze can be considered to be loaded – in that a particular person might be likely to interpret what they are seeing by straining it through a lens of past experiences and ideas (that include hand-me-down stories, the opinions of friends, what they were taught as children, what they learned in adolescence etc.) – then we are starting to appreciate how Robert might have viewed the people and scenes he encountered in India.

Next time we will investigate the desire to collect (Robert, Thomas and Lady Brassey were assiduous collectors of objects), and the crisis of Liberal ideas when it came to the colonies. This will lead us to the specifics of how Robert may have interpreted India, which will lead us, finally, into trying to understand what Robert was thinking as he created the painting Ayahs with their Charges.

Ben Cartwright, Collection Curator, SADACC Trust.

A Man of Strangely Varied Talents: The Company He Keeps – Part 5

The Lives in Paint blog series is an attempt to understand the paintings and prints in the South Asia Collection by understanding the artists behind them. Many of these images are of a type that we may feel we know at first glance. But it is often the case that the half-familiar obscures what are often fascinating stories and messages bound up in paint at the moment these works of art were created.


In this edition we follow Robert Taylor Pritchett to India to try and work out why he created the watercolour Ayahs with their Charges in the way that he did. How was he viewing the regions he travelled through and what background interests might appear in the painting?

It is often said that you can judge a man by the company he keeps. In this entry we will look at the social make up of the group travelling on the Sunbeam yacht as guests of Earl and Lady Brassey as it reached India in 1887. What sort of conversations might Robert have engaged in on those long journeys under-sail or over land in their travelling carriage as they worked their way north up to Lahore and back? Of particular importance are the views of the Earl, Thomas Brassey. Thomas and Robert, who we know shared a number of voyages, seem to have had a remarkable number of over-lapping interests and social concerns. There is a lot of documentary evidence (if one looks hard enough) for what and how the Brassey’s thought about India. Given that Robert was counted as a friend, it is useful to try and see how their viewpoints may have been similar – because this in part gives us a more accurate lens with which to view the decisions Robert made in composing the painting Ayahs with their Charges in the distinctive way he did.

Robert’s position as a travelling artist meant that he occupied a slightly odd position in the social make up of the group on the Sunbeam – at once both professional and personal, he was certainly a friend of the family, but he also had to distance himself from the warmth of human emotions and apply the artist’s calculating eye.

Robert was responsible for the illustrations in Lady Brassey’s final travelogue, The Last Voyage of the Sunbeam, which chronicled the Brassey family’s visit to India in 1887 (published 1889). It is to this text we can turn to discover the attitudes of the company Robert was keeping to the land they were travelling through. As mentioned in a previous entry, the Brassey’s visited a wide number of sites: they visited temples where they enquired about rites, they browsed bazaars, travelled by all modes of transport from trains to camels, through a huge range of landscapes, architectural styles and encountered people, objects, customs and manners unique to each – all of which were recorded in minute detail by Robert’s pen (draughtsmanship, as an apprentice in the gunsmith’s, had been central to his artistic education – we might say that for him, drawing was a way of knowing, an act of creating knowledge).

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The interest in the places they visited certainly extended to politics. Lady Brassey’s husband, Thomas, is recorded discussing the political relationships between the government and the native states with the Maharaja of Patiala state, in the Punjab, ‘Sir Deva Sing, the president, is a man of distinguished presence and graceful manners. In the course of conversation we endeavoured to elicit his views on several points. Tom questioned him as to the relations between the Government of India and the native states, and told me that speaking for Patiala, and indeed for the native states generally, there were no grievances of which they could complain.’

The conversation moved on from the close political relationship between the Maharaja’s and the imperial government, to the Afghan wars. Tellingly, Sir Deva Sing, ‘…thought it desirable to improve the position of native officers in the British service… to put them on a level with British officers.’ This recorded conversation is then concluded with the observation that there was much lavishness and wastage of funds (on elephants, menageries, jewellery, palaces, and barbaric splendours of every kind). Later the men went out shooting together, and the group reconvened to play lawn tennis.

It is worth saying more about Thomas Brassey (1836-1918), and how the opinions of the man at the helm of the Sunbeam might shed light on how Robert was also responding to India. Thomas was a member of parliament who had retired from the Hastings constituency before embarking on the Sunbeam in November 1886 (Lady Brassey, the children and other friends were placed on a steamer bound for Bombay, their son was already in the subcontinent exploring South India). 1886 was the year that the Gladstone government fell out of power and into opposition. Thomas was granted the title of Earl, and stepped away from the daily grind of parliamentary life.


(One of Robert Taylor Pritchett’s illustrations for Spunyarn and Spindrift)

Thomas loved the adventure of being at sea; a lifetime’s passion for sailing had begun when just a boy. His father used to wade around pushing him in a small boat, then at school Thomas learnt the art of yacht sailing, and it was his father who had bought him his first yacht. He was the captain of the Sunbeam and in charge of a crew of 24.

As his family were chugging to Bombay, Thomas was embarked on a bolder venture – ferrying Lord Dalhousie to Gibraltar and the M.P. Arnold Morely to Algiers. These two men give some idea of the political relationships Thomas was actively entangled in. Lord Dalhousie was a retired Naval Commander, member of the House of Lords, previously Lord-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria, Gladstone’s Secretary of State for Scotland, a Knight, and a privy counsellor. He would appear to have been a staunch supporter of Gladstone’s political ideas because he gained his post as secretary of state after the previous incumbent resigned in opposition to the Irish Home Rule bill that Gladstone wanted to pass. Dalhousie, as we might suppose Thomas was, was a leading supporter of the Liberal party’s colonial stance (that those born in the colonies should be encouraged to occupy positions of office so that the relationship between Britain and colonised nations should be mutually desired) and their advocacy of Home Rule. M.P. Arnold Morely was the Liberal party whip. An man tasked with enforcing this ideology.

After dropping their political cargo, Thomas and the crew raced on to Bombay – and this is probably some measure of their seamanship as well as a degree of luck in the weather conditions – where on the prearranged date Sunbeam reached the spot for the rendezvous with the steamer ‘The Thames’ off the coast of Bombay harbour and Thomas signalled his cordial greetings to his wife.

Thomas would appear to have been an emotional man. The sunbeam yacht took its name from the nickname of his daughter who had died aged four from scarlet fever. And the opening of The Last Voyage is a memoir (an act of memorial) for his wife, ‘My dear children, – In sorrow and grief I have prepared a sketch of the life and character of your dearly loved mother, whom it has pleased God to call to Himself.’

These pages consist of a description of their mother’s life before the children knew her. The reason for doing so can be traduced from the quote from Dr Johnson used to start the chapter, giving tone to what Thomas himself writes, ‘…by which you may, in some degree, continue her presence…’ Johnson’s quote then notes that recording the minute details of a life not only soothes the reader, but also, in time, will allow for grief to be replaced by veneration.

There is a very touching passage where Thomas writes about meeting his wife-to-be for the first time, and then lists her early characteristics: ‘How sweet it is to remember her as she was in those young days.’ At the end of this heart-felt introduction he signs off, ‘My dear children, I might write more. I could never tell you what your mother meant to me. Your very affectionate father, Brassey.’

Thomas was clearly a man interested in people (Lady Brassey notes many of his opinions in the pages of her books), and not above empathy. He was described as ‘…hard working, well informed, and fair minded.’ He was a man with a reputation for ‘balance and objectivity’.

These opinions were important because they were voiced during the selection of Thomas as chairman of the Royal Opium Commission (1893) tasked with reviewing the trade between India and China. There was a growing support for the anti-opium cause, notably among Liberal ministers but also among the public. This clamour had become so loud that Prime Minister Gladstone (the Liberals were voted back into power in 1892) felt forced to call for the Commission as an act of appeasement. And while the anti-opium lobby were impressed by how impartial the Commission were, they were ultimately disappointed when the report was in favour of keeping the trade.

One of the interesting facet’s of Thomas’ work with the Commission was that there were two Indian members of the board (alongside a mixture of more radical Liberal politicians and the more conservative ex-Indian government men). One of whom, Lakshmeshwar Singh, the Maharaja of Darbhanga, was a major supporter of the Indian National Congress, a key body in the push for Indian independence. As in the example of Deva Sing, Thomas was mixing with people of diverse opinions when it came to colonial rule. This willingness to listen to voices outside of the British Conservative norm was perhaps typical for a man following Gladstone’s opinions about the desired role of the governed in governance.

India seems to appear again and again in Thomas’ later life. During the First World War, Thomas kitted out Sunbeam as a hospital ship and sailed it (at the sprightly age of 79) to the Dardenelles to support the Gallipoli campaign (where he found it was not as useful as he had supposed). He then gifted the yacht to the Government of India for the duration. Prior to that, in 1913, Thomas’ last major sailing voyage on the boat was to India. India, it would seem, was never far from his thoughts.

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One has to wonder what impression the trip to the subcontinent in 1887 made on Thomas, and how these experiences played out in his later life and relationships. But there are further clues that suggest that Thomas’ relationship with India started long before he set sail in the Sunbeam. And that the subcontinent became an interest that spanned sailing to politics via the history and customs of the regions he encountered.

Next time we will explore how it might be possible to guess at some of Robert Taylor Pritchett’s ideas about India through the writings of Thomas Brassey, and what (and this cannot be coincidence given their friendship) is an extraordinary series of inter-crossing relationships, interests, childhood experiences, sailing enthusiasms, and political contacts (spanning the world) linking the two men. Of particular importance is Thomas Brassey’s ability to understand the task of governance (he would, after Lady Brassey’s death, go on to become the governor of Victoria, Australia) whilst being able to empathise with the governed. This has particular importance when it comes to understanding why Robert painted the watercolour Ayahs with their Charges in the manner he did. We need to peer into what Robert thought about particular objects and people, and then why he chose to include them, in a very specific arrangement, on the canvas. He was, after all, an artist who was used to making satirical images (he had worked for Punch). Satire by its nature is an art of commenting on and representing (exposing) topical issues.

Ben Cartwright, Collection Curator, SADACC Trust.

A Man of Strangely Varied Talents: Rambles and Scrambles – Part 4

The Lives in Paint blog series is an attempt to understand the paintings and prints in the South Asia Collection by understanding the artists behind them. Many of these images are of a type that we may feel we know at first glance. But it is often the case that the half-familiar obscures what are often fascinating stories and messages bound up in paint at the moment these works of art were created.


We have been trying to learn more about the painting Ayahs with their Charges, which shows nursemaids and Anglo-Indian children on the Maiden of Calcutta, by investigating the artist who painted this watercolour – Robert Taylor Pritchett. So far we have looked at the techniques involved in the painting and what it depicts, we have seem Robert’s remarkable life journey from an apprentice gunsmith to a world travelling artist, and we have learnt more about what sort of man he was by investigating the cartoons he made for Punch magazine, the papers he wrote and presented on topics such as the flora of Borneo, and we have noted his interest in history and culture as evidenced by various collections of weird and wonderful objects as well as the books he published on a range of topics from smoking apparatus through to sailing equipment and techniques. Why have we followed this journey? It is because I have a hunch that the image Ayahs with their Charges is not just a mere depiction of life in late 19th century Calcutta, there is something much more radical going on.

In this entry we are going to look at one book, Gamle Norge, published around the same time that Robert probably painted Ayahs with their Charges. It is my belief that this book, which Robert both illustrated and wrote, is the best source for trying to understand how he viewed and constructed the scene on the Maidan in Calcutta, because it spells out exactly how Robert approached the places he visited and what he was looking for when he got there.


Gamle Norge or Rambles and Scrambles in Norway by Robert Taylor Pritchett was first published in 1879. In the introduction he writes a passage that seems to frame his approach to travel and trying to understand new lands. ‘To travel profitably it is not sufficient to merely notice or admire scenic effects. Men and manners should also be closely observed; and no object or detail, however trivial, should be neglected or deemed beneath regard.’ On the same page he goes on to mention some of the merits of Norway as a place to explore: geology, archaeology, sport (‘for lover’s of rustic life’) costumes and customs.

The book is full of insights gained from talking to people (it includes basic Norwegian phrases, as well as exchange rates and temperatures for the time of the year). As readers we learn about the periods of history, what Vikings had in their homes, about religious and country practices (from the toilette, to jewellery and how butter is carried, he paints a vivid picture of daily life). We are shown so many places and objects (the chair in Hitterdal Church, the church in use, a raft boat, carved houses, farm implements, spinning, the old water front at Bergen, dances, a great caricature of the local coastal inspector. There are over 120 illustrations! Robert even records the words and music – written in staves – for the songs he has heard) and the customs, with their histories, that attend them. He records the agricultural calender – ‘The weaving is done during the winter months. In the summer a little spinning is done, but only by the most industrious.’ The book, somewhat fittingly, finishes with the declaration ‘FARVEL! FARVEL!’ followed by an illustration, a portrait titled “Costume of Lutheran Priest of Norway”.

The raft boat, Telemark

In one of my favourite extracts (and we are really beginning to get a sense of Robert’s joy in telling the tale of his travels – there is such warmth used to describe the people he meets and their lives interwoven as they are with culture and landscape) Robert describes being invited by Svend Tollefson to ‘a little dance at his mother’s house’. We are in Hardanger; the entry starts with describing the farmhouse where Robert saw a ‘beautiful piece of carving, in the form of a salt-box,’ and then moves onto the costume of the district before he throws the reader into the evening’s entertainments (p. 48-50): ‘The father and mother sat together, whilst the younger folk were either standing or sitting round. The fiddler was grand both in action and eccentricity, with tremendous catgut fire, a few involuntary notes trespassing now and then, and producing a stirring effect on the dancers. The young Svend, evidently a favourite with the youth and beauty of Odde, was continuous in his dancing, principally the Spring Dance – a waltz in which it is most desirable that the swain should be taller than the maiden, for the former, holding her hand over her head, has to run round the latter as she waltzes… The politeness of the Norwegians is most noticeable. After taking wine there was a constant shaking of hands, while the host was profusely thanked by, “Tak for vün,” or “Tak for mad,” the charm of which is considerably enhanced by the fact that these simple-hearted people mean what they say.’

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Robert’s eye for detail is apparent in the description of the costume he observes. He says it is ‘very striking and characteristic, the chief feature being the head-dress, or cap, called in Norske, skaut. It is formed of white muslin crimped, the hair hidden by the white band over the forehead, the cap rising in a semicircle above the head, while the corners fall down the back in a point nearly to the waist; white linen sleeves, with scarlet body bound with black velvet; the stomacher worked in different coloured beads and bugles; the chemisette fastened with old silver brooches; and the collar joined wither by a stud or a brooch. The apron is equally picturesque…’ (p. 48-49).

Towards the start of the book there is a somewhat telling, when considering the vies of the man who painted Ayahs with their Charges, passage which sheds some light on the nature of his human sympathies. At the start of the book he states that Gamle Norge ( which he says means old Norway, a phrase that creates a lot of excitement among the Norwegians he knows, but little among the English – a fact that he bemoans) should be seen as a book for his own travelling countrymen, a book that aims to give ‘some useful information as to time and distance, which at present they can only obtain by time and experience. (p.4)’ We might expect a book that only concerns itself with the niceties of foreign travel. But this is not what we read.

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Gamle Norge is more ethnography than an advisor on hotels and restaurants, more history than a list of top tips for quaint excursions. It is concerned with understanding a country. This is made absolutely clear when (as early as page 5) Robert is questioning and critiquing the persecution of minorities. This is not an abstract line of thought, but one that both places the persecution in its contemporary context and suggests possible historical antecedents. It also shows his enquiring mind at work:

‘The Norsemen are strict Lutherans; scarcely and individual is to be met with professing any other creed, and no place of worship of any other kind exists in Norway. No Jew is allowed to set foot in this free country. It has often struck me as a curious anomaly, that in the free cities of the Continent these unhappy outcasts were far worse treated than under many despotic governments. Commercial jealousy in a great measure accounts for this enmity in a city of merchants, but in a poor and thinly-populated country like Norway this motive could have no weight.. I have been unable to learn from what cause the exclusion originated, though it is said to have originated from some idle fear that they would posses themselves of the produce of the silver mines at Kongsberg; but it is certainly a most startling fact that the freest people on earth should cling with such a watchful jealousy to one of the most illiberal and inhuman laws that can be conceived.’

Highlighting Robert’s interest in and willingness to cross-exam social custom and its historical development will set us up well for the following installment. Next time we will unpick Robert’s illustrations to the Annie Brassey travelogue The Last Voyage of the Sunbeam which took Robert to India. And we will see the man behind Gamle Norge was consistent in his curiosity for other cultures and places (something he worked out in paint). Then it will be just a short step to the eastern coast of India and the meaning painted into Ayahs with the Charges.

Ben Cartwright, Collection Curator, SADACC Trust.


A Man of Strangely Varied Talents: Part Three – Author and Sinner

The Lives in Paint blog series is an attempt to understand the paintings and prints in the South Asia Collection by understanding the artists behind them. Many of these images are of a type that we may feel we know at first glance. But it is often the case that the half-familiar obscures what are often fascinating stories and messages bound up in paint at the moment these works of art were created.


This time we continue to discover more about the watercolour Ayahs with their Charges by Robert Taylor Pritchett. Previously we have looked at what the painting depicts, the techniques Robert used and the story of his transformation from a gunsmith (apprenticed from the moment he left school) into an international artist. I have hinted that Ayahs with their Charges may have hidden meanings in the paint if only we got to know Robert Taylor Pritchett a little better.

What sort of man was Robert Taylor Pritchett? One with a sense of humour and eccentric interests. There are photographs of Robert on stage, for example, as a member of The Green Room, On The Occasion of the Amateur Performances Of The Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing and Cox and Box In Aid of the Bennett Fund (for the widow and children of a fellow Punch contributor who had suffered from ill health and died young) in 1867. Here Robert is dressed as a pensive cavalier with frilly ruff, whiskers, long curly hair and wide brimmed hat. Robert clearly mixed in artistic circles, in this photograph he is stood behind the famous actress Ellen Terry.

Robert’s was a non speaking part as one of Kirke’s Lambs (a soldier) called Rasper. The play was set at the time of Monmouth’s rebellion. Colonel Kirke is busy crushing the last of the rebels after their defeat by the King’s army. Kirke encounters a lady he thinks to be a widow and imposes his affections on her. But the lady (although she announces that she hates her husband for rebelling) is still very much in love with her husband, and is, in fact, hiding him in a cupboard at the home.


(A detail showing two soldiers on horseback in Ayahs with their Charges)

It is a play about the nature of the heart’s affections and the efforts an individual will go to to protect their lover, even if it means wrestling with moral dilemmas such as whether it is right to promise an act of passion to a solider you despise if you believe it might help your lover escape – a classic Victorian conscience challenging historical drama. The reviews in the Illustrated London News lauded the quality of the the acting and the night in general – which also included an operetta, monologues and musical entertainment.

Robert’s Punch cartoons suggest a man with a wicked sense of humour (for example, My Only Shot at a Cormorant – where a rain sodden man balancing on the plank bench of a rowing boat, half full of water, the half empty wine bottle beginning to bob, shoots and the recoil knocks him off his feet. The bird flaps none-the-wiser away to the captions, ‘Here she comes! There she goes!’).

It would take a man of humorous persuasion to publish a book of cartoon-like illustrations of the world’s smoking equipment called Historical Smokania: Ethnnographical (1890) and in his dedication write: ‘To the Anti Tobacco Fraternity of the present day the following ethnographical plebescite is respectfully dedicated by their well wisher, the Author & Sinner.’


Smokania is at once an ethnographic account of different smoking pipes and materials and how they are used, full of draughtsman-like illustrations, but also a sort of jokey first person account that is in equal parts marvelling and scathing, as well as being a sort of jokey-up yours to the establishment (perhaps this is the Robert we see in the ‘Sheep in Wolves Clothing’ green room photograph).

On one page, (the text sits beside a beautiful illustration of a Hookah pipe, from Srinugger Cashmere, which is listed as 30inches in height – a man of specifics) he notes the metal work is, ‘…of beautiful form… and yields a very lovely specimen of Hookah (p.53). But on the next, talking about India, he says, ‘Of all the dreadful materials ever introduced in any land to the mouth of the smoker, the Red Clay of India is certainly the worst and the roughest (p.54).’ Again there is a beautiful illustration of a red ware vessel in profile with measurements.

Smokania-India redware

This remarkable collection of smoking apparatus from across the globe shows a man who was not content to simply travel to places, he wanted to understand them through their history, and in particular the customs of different lands and the material objects used to furnish them. He was a great collector of objects from the places he visited. His collection of netsuké were donated to the V&A (they also have a group of his drawings, paintings and magazine illustrations) and a collection of silver badges to the British Museum, while his pipes were sold at auction.

Robert also possessed a scientific mind, wanting to record and understand, perhaps not surprising for a man whose background was in draughtsmanship. And he seems to have constantly been at work in his thoughts – observing, classifying and trying to come to terms with things he did not understand or had not come into contact with before. He wrote and presented a number of papers about his travels. For example, he gave a paper on the plants of Borneo to the Society of the Arts, the aim of which was to suggest the future cultivation and uses for the plants he had seen (see below). His experiences of travel and observation led him to feel an affinity with Charles Darwin. He would go on to write to a publishers demanding to do an illustrated copy of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, which was published in 1890: ‘Having been over the same ground artistically and observantly, I should do it con amore (n.b. con amore = lovingly or with devotion. Letter to publishers, John Murray, 2nd of December 1885). He was also something of an expert on historic armour (he made recommendations to the Tower of London when it came to dating its pieces).


Pritchett believed in access to education (illustrating books was just one way to achieve this) and was also something of a social reformer. As we have seen he had helped with the founding of the Working Men’s College (the first adult educational institution in the country), where he continued to give lectures, that mostly focused on ordinance. He was also an enthusiastic teller of stories (as we shall see in his writings), an enthusiastic attendee of church, and an enthusiastic sportsman.

It is possible to see period and its views and prejudices in his writings. For example, the opening address to Borneo, and British North Borneo: ‘Living, as we do, in an age of remarkably successful colonial development, in which England is certainly not the hindermost, it is only natural that much interest should be taken in those young plants which promise to make a mark in the future, and are likely to supply the wants created for a largely increasing population at home and abroad (Journal of the Society of the Arts 1889: 425).’


(Detail of a cow from Ayahs with their Charges)

But typically this positive view of colonialism (something that we now, rightly, see as problematic) is abutted with a fierce interest in trying to understand something new because he finds it interesting (interest for interests sake) and secondly he deduces that this understanding or observation could make a positive contribution to what we might refer to as his notion of progress. This was not necessarily on an industrial scale, it could be about culture, history and quality of life (as we shall see in the next installment). What Robert wanted to do was to look into things rather than to merely observe.

Next time we will look at specific book, Gamle Norge or Rambles and Scrambles in Norway by Robert Taylor Pritchett. It was first published in 1879, not too far from the likely date that Ayahs with their Charges was completed. This account of visiting a foreign country abounds with details on life (from costumes to rowing techniques, farm tools and methods, history and archaeological objects, dance steps and even the music for songs he has heard, as well as highlighting some of his personal warmth when it came to meeting other people and discovering their joys and plights). As such it is a really useful guide to how Robert may have approached the painting Ayahs with their Charges. It also allows us to look for the meaning in the picture – why were certain figures and objects (many of which were old fashioned for their time) drawn with such attention to detail, while others were left blurred and in the background (in complete contrast to drawings and prints of the same scene as created by Robert’s famous artistic predecessors).

Ben Cartwright, Collection Curator, SADACC Trust

What a Life! Putting a Painting in Context

This entry is part of an ongoing attempt to discover more about the lives behind some of the paintings in the South Asia Collection.


What an eventful life! Robert Taylor Pritchett (1828-1907) was the eldest of the four children of Richard Ellis and Ann Pritchett. Robert was a draughtsman and gunmaker long before he took to the ocean with his sketchpad. But when he did finally leave the factory he set about a life of travelling and depicting the people and places he came into contact with.

This week’s blog entry is a further attempt to discover more about the painting Ayahs with their Charges by understanding the life of the man behind it. In this entry we will chart Robert’s transformation from a childhood apprentice in an Enfield gun factory to an artist with a truly international portfolio and Queen Victoria as a chief patron.

Straight out of school Robert went to work for his father in the family firm – a gunsmith’s in Enfield. The company became Pritchett & Son in 1851. In 1853 Robert had collaborated with William Ellis Metford, creating a hollow bullet (the Pritchett bullet – which won him an award from the government after the small-arms committee took it up). This was the year he joined the Victoria Rifles, a reserve regiment made up of volunteers.

In 1854 he helped in the founding of the Working Men’s College where he would give lectures on gunlocks and rifles. The College was the first adult educational institution, and was established on liberal principles. The list of founders and promoters includes the likes of Ruskin and Rossetti, not bad company for an aspiring artist to join!

But Robert was not letting up (a feature of his life), by the age of 26 he had invented a three-grooved rifle. The accuracy of which he proved by winning a shooting competition – apparently he only missed two of a hundred targets, stood around 550m away on a windy and wet day.

Over the next few years the company added a number of premises. Eventually Robert started his own firm (R.T. Pritchett Co.) in 1856. Robert was trying to start out on his own and set his affairs in order. Perhaps this was with marriage in mind; he married his wife Louisa Kezia McRae in the following year. They would go on to have two children, a boy (who was named Ellis after Robert’s father) and girl Marian (both of whom sadly died before Robert).


But these years were certainly not without considerable stress. The East India Company, the main customer of both R.T. Pritchett Co. and the family firm, was dissolved by government order in 1858 after the terrors and traumas of the Indian Mutiny. Five years later in 1863 the Pritchett firms would cease trading – they were bankrupt.

There is little documentary evidence from this period. It would seem that R.T Pritchett Co. managed to stumble on after 1858 by selling bullets, moulds and rifle parts to the British companies who were supplying both the Union and Confederacy in the Civil War (1861-65). This trade clearly wasn’t enough to save the businesses – while the war raged the Pritchett’s firms were shut down. What impact this closure had on the newly-wed Pritchetts goes unsaid in the historical records. But we do get a sense that Robert was relieved to be moving on.

Robert’s first paid job as an artist was providing twenty-six cartoons for Punch between 1863-1869. Working for the magazine taught him new skills such as wood block printing and introduced him to an artistic circle including Whistler, Dickens and Sir John Millias.

The staff at the magazine (who wrote a contemporary history of the founding of Punch) were dismissive of the previous chapter of Robert’s life seeing his real purpose as an artist. They suggested that Robert was only a boy when he joined the family firm, had suffered because a man who is known for one thing can never be known for another, and had been relived when the government agreed to develop the Enfield rifle he had help design. The award they made allowed him to leave his job and pursue art full time. While, as we have seen, this is not entirely factually correct, it does hint at some of Robert’s probable hopes and gripes.

Robert was already a keen artist. By the time the firm fell into difficulty he had exhibited views of Brittany and Belgium at the Royal Academy in 1851-2 (aged 23). From 1863 he supplied cartoons for Punch magazine, sold images from his travels in Norway and the Western Isles of Scotland, did book illustrations (including those for Cassel, Peter and Galpin, In the Trades, Tropic and the Roaring Forties 1885, The Last Voyage of the Sunbeam 1889 the 1890 edition of Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle), and (at the behest of Queen Victoria after she bought one of his paintings) depicted Royal life (e.g. Queen Victoria Receiving Representatives of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, St. Georges Hall, Windsor) until Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901.

Robert spent a large amount of time travelling on his friends’ yachts and painting and sketching the worlds he encountered (including scenes from Athens, Borneo, Cairo, Japan, Jerusalem). In 1880 he was on the yacht called The Wanderer on its voyage round the world. Later he joined the Sunbeam in 1883-5 on its global adventures. Robert provided illustrations for the owner’s accounts of these travels that they published in book form – Lady Brassey’s books about the voyages on the Sunbeam were an international success.


The accounts in them and Robert’s prints go some way to telling us about his life at this time. Region after region is described at great length, as the travellers move from port to port and encounter people and their customs. It is not surprising that Robert developed a visual style that mixed landscapes with objects, because these were the interests and preoccupations of the travelling party. In one moment Lady Brassey can be describing how her husband questions a local government official about the relations between the government of India and the local states and in another can intricately describe a bazaar, ‘a wonderful concourse of people’, or list the practices at a particular temple or a visit to a School of Art, Museum, or Palace where they had an interview with the Maharaja.

There is no date on the Ayah picture. The other watercolours of India in 1887 might be a useful reference, although largely carried out on the other coast of the country. The Last Voyage to India and Australia in the Sunbeam was published retrospectively in 1889 after Lady Brassey had died. Poignantly, for someone who had adored the life of travel and the opportunities it provided to meet people, Lady Brassey was buried at sea in September 1887. This last voyage included extensive travel within India. Arriving on the Sunbean into Bombay they travelled by train (although other modes of transport were used, such as a camel carriage!) up to Lahore and back. It seems likely that Ayahs with their Charges dates to the 1880’s.

The style of image making in Ayahs with their Charges is so reminiscent of the prints (often composed from watercolours) in Last Voyage. The use of line and fill may have been an approach that leant itself well to book illustration. In his life Robert was more renowned for his sketches and drawing than his paintings – he provided numerous book illustrations (e.g. Spunyarn and Spindrift: a Sailor Boys Log of a Voyage Out and Home in a Tea Clipper, by Robert Brown – a gripping tale

about sailing the eastern oceans). Robert had successfully used this style in America – portraying A Sioux Indian Outside a General Store (an undated image). This watercolour is also a touching social commentary.

It would seem Ayahs with their Charges was composed and painted with techniques that Robert was often using at this time. In A Bugla off Cutch (an Indian Ocean sailing vessel off the coast of Kutch in Gujarat, dated to 1887) he also uses white highlights, referred to as bodycolor. The same use of line and white bodycolour is used in the Voyage of the Sunbeam series.

Robert, in his lifetime, was best known for his sketches and illustrations than his paintings. This was especially the case when it came to his fame as a maritime artist. It is perhaps fitting, then, that the South Asia Collection has a watercolour by his hand that was completed using techniques recognisable from the books he had illustrated.

Now we have a context for the painting Ayahs with their Charges, we need to have a look at what sort of man Robert Taylor Pritchett was – what were his hobbies, his passions and his emotional responses, not least in India. This will really help us to understand what he was feeling when he painted the scene with the Ayahs and the children on the Maidan in Calcutta.

Ben Cartwright, Collection Curator, SADACC Trust

A Man of Strangely Varied Talents: Robert Taylor Pritchett’s Ayahs with their Charges

Part 1:


This entry is part of an ongoing attempt to discover more about the lives behind some of the paintings in the South Asia Collection.

Who was Robert Taylor Pritchett and how might this help us come to better understand the watercolour Ayahs with their Charges?

On his death, Robert Taylor Pritchett was described in his obituary as ‘a man of strangely varied talent’ (The Times, 20th June, 1907). This phrase went some way to trying to capture the essence of a man who had in parts been a gunmaker, inventor, artist, storyteller, philanthropist, traveller, amateur botanist, enthusiastic collector (he was an informed expert on historic armour, smoking apparatus from around the world, netsuké, historic silver badges from mainland Europe, and more) he wrote about the construction of boats, ships and their use, was a cartoonist, actor in charity benefit performances, sportsman, husband, father (his two children sadly died before he did), attender of church (something that was common in this period in Britain), and so much more. The obituary noted that Robert’s wide variety of pursuits were beyond the norm. Might the watercolour painting Ayahs with their Charges somehow be a product of a man who carried with him an endless and engaging fascination with the world past and present, might it be more than just a passive depiction of life in Calcutta?


Ayahs with their Charges shows Anglo-Indian children being attended by their nursemaids on a large stretch of grass close to some of the most imposing buildings in Calcutta. Ayahs were maids who not only attended the lady of the house but were responsible for a large part of the children’s daily care, a relationship that often resulted in a strong bond between ayah and child. Ayahs were an ever present feature of European life in India, and, as a result, appear in a large number of artworks (for example, in the paintings of nurseries in the Madras Collection, a series of watercolours showing life in Madras just after the turn of the 19th century – these pictures are in the South Asia Collection).

The group are sat on the Maidan, a large expanse of grass that was once a parade ground or open firing space for the fort. When New Fort was constructed to the south in 1773 the Maidan became an area for leisure pursuits. The Maidan was the place to be seen. At dawn and dusk fashionable society drove out across the course, look closely and you will be able to see the carriages and even a palanquin (this variety is known as the long palanquin/ mahannah and was a European introduction to India).

The expanse of grass is overlooked by the grand buildings of Esplanade Row, for example, Government House, home to the governors of the East India Company, and later the Viceroys. A place where officials made decisions that affected the lives of the residents of the city.


The techniques used in this image are perhaps closer to magazine illustration than the watercolours of previous generations of artists in India (Robert had worked as an illustrator for Punch among others). The use of white highlights on top of a minimally coloured paper ground was common for the period. But the application of the white bodycolour, the pen-work and construction of the scene, make this image stand out when compared to most of the tourist art from this period, painted and sketched by the wealthy on breaks from hunting tours and dinner engagements.

Robert’s use of white highlights is particularly interesting in this painting because it mimics the brightness of the buildings. It is an example of the surroundings seeping into his artistic habits, effecting how he worked.

The buildings of Esplanade Row were constructed by architects (working for the East India Company) who were inspired by (and using architectural copy books full of examples of) classical architecture from ancient Greece and Rome. White, with its associations with classical ruins, was very important to this visual tradition. The buildings of Calcutta were not hewn from white stone, but were built from brick and given a plaster coating. Every year after the rainy season the plaster was cleaned and whitewashed to give the city its characteristic bright sheen.

Ayhas with charges - gov house

By the late 19th century the British Government had taken over the rule of India ‒ after the trauma and atrocities of the mutiny. The East India Company had been disbanded. It was now common for men working in government offices to travel out with their entire family. There was an expectation that they would then return to England at the end of their tour of duty. Social mores and customs were exported wholesale from England to India and were expected to return home unchanged with their custodians. Relations between European circles and the populace became more distant, diffident, and often condescending. The great curiosity of previous generations had been replaced with the rigid social structures of ‘home’.

It took tourists like Robert Taylor Pritchett, probably seeing the scene for the first time as an outsider, to depict the city in its startling diversity. There is an almost childlike wonder to this image with its portrayal of children at play, the possibly nostalgic approach to showing the relationship between Ayah and child (written accounts from this period show that Europeans were becoming more wary about employing local maids to look after their children), the toys, the kite and the hustle and bustle synonymous of the meeting of several different walks of life.

Perhaps the attention to detail – the toys, the costumes, the carriages and palanquins – is symptomatic of an artist painting what he sees. But I wonder whether Robert is suggesting that the Europeans rely on living with the people of this city even though those relationships were becoming increasingly hidden, especially in public life. I think it is possible that his artistic eye had been influenced by the relationships in his own life, as well as written accounts and the hand-me-down tales of India that permeated British popular culture.


Could there be a chance that Pritchett arrived in the sub-continent expecting to find the India of old and was disappointed he did not? Is it a coincidence that he has chosen to depict so many practices and objects evoking customs from the past – the ayahs and household-men, the palanquin (a mode of transport that was going out of fashion in European circles), the taking of the air at sundown and sunrise on the Maidan, the distant buildings – not a bold sign of European power, but small and abstract like a memory?

Part of this nostalgia might lie in the terrors of the mutiny (1857-8) and the bureaucratic governmental mission that followed. Government policy saw maintaining a distance from the populace as necessary to help the officials implement laws, pass judgement, and keep the peace – it was crucial to ensure the violence that had wracked the country (great cities, whose buildings had once been described as artistic jewels, now lay in ruins) was not repeated.

Was Robert saying that he wished that part of the way forward might stem from some of the way relationships were constructed in the past? This is probably pushing things too far. But there is evidence that Robert had dealings with India long before he travelled there as an artist of leisure. And that he might have been aware of the history and social changes taking place in the country. To understand the painting we have to understand more about this ‘man of strangely varied talents’. It will be worth the wait.

Join us next time for part 2: the man and the meaning.

Ben Cartwright, Collection Curator, SADACC Trust