My name is Dr. Kate Smith and I’m the research fellow on the Leverhulme Trust-funded project, The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857, which is based in the History Department at the University of Warwick. I’m working with three other colleagues on the project; Professor Margot Finn is the principal investigator, while Dr. Helen Clifford is the senior research fellow and Ellen Filor is the PhD student. Our team has a wide range of interests and experiences, which will enrich and expand the project.
As most of you will know, Margot Finn is a historian of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British and imperial history with a particular interest in the relationship between family and empire. After many years at the V&A, publishing research on production, consumption and luxury, Helen Clifford now runs the Swaledale Museum in Yorkshire. Ellen Filor has just finished an MA in Global History and will be concentrating on East India Company family networks and identities in Roxburghshire, Scotland for her PhD dissertation. I have recently completed a post-doctoral fellowship, which was based at the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee and focused on Georgian material culture and design. Together we will closely examine British country houses and domestic interiors within a wider, global and imperial context.
Dining Room at Belmont House in Faversham, Kent
General George Harris bought Belmont House in 1801 after returning from India. Prize money from the successful British campaign against Tipu Sultan of Mysore substantially enriched Harris and his family. Note the silver elephant in the centre of the trade.
By Kind Permission of the Trustees of the Harris (Belmont) Charity
The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857 project began in earnest on September 1 and is now very much underway. It will continue through August 2014. It is somewhat daunting to begin such an undertaking, but it is incredibly exciting too because the project is so wide-ranging. Many East India Company servants who were based in India returned to Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and built country houses. Our project explores this phenomenon to uncover new ways of thinking about the British country house. It does so by examining the material worlds of those returning families. By what routes did Asian luxury goods enter the homes of Britain’s governing elite? Which objects were bought or exchanged? Where were these goods displayed in these homes? What did they mean? How did those meanings change over time?
Pair of Ruby Ground Soup Bowls
China, c. 1736-1795
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries elite families deemed Chinese porcelain a desirable commodity, prompting European manufacturers to imitate and innovate.
Courtesy of Tennants, Leyburn, North Yorkshire
It is possible to begin answering these questions because of the rich archives in the Asian and African Studies collection at the British Library and regional record offices, such as North Yorkshire and Berkshire. In the correspondence and personal memoranda between family members, general discussions of objects, furnishings and interiors were often undertaken. It is within these letters that more specific aspects of East India Company servants’ material lives are also revealed. Amongst the descriptions of personal, national and transnational events, servants and their families wrote about the objects they were sending and the materials they were in need of in impressive detail. As a historian with a longstanding interest in material culture, I have found such detail astounding. It is just so rare to find sources in which historical subjects discuss objects at length and yet here it is.
A rich archive is a historian’s dream and yet it is not always the easiest thing to deal with when the inevitable time and personnel restrictions are taken into account. There is so much stuff out there – how to mine it all? Our solution is to capitalise upon the recent explosion of historical research conducted by community-based family historians. The project team will work in collaboration with family and local historians, curators, art dealers, academics and other researchers who work on East India Company families, British country houses and Asian objects. By embarking on a collaborative approach we hope to find more sources, objects and connections, engage with more people and generally enjoy ourselves. What we want are good conversations, interesting leads and new ways of thinking, so please, whatever your background, do join us on this exciting endeavour.
To join our project and find more information about it, visit our website www.warwick.ac.uk/go/eastindiacompanyathome.