More about The British East India Company – Trade and Colonise, 2016
The British East India Company came into being as a joint stock company in 1600 to exploit the growing spice trade of the East Indies already dominated by the Dutch and the Portuguese. Later in 1664 the French East India Company was formed. It was trade with India that really made The British East India Company wealthy. Indian printed chintz textiles and later tea production being the most enduring market commodities throughout the 18th and 19th centuries set Britain on the road to being a very wealthy nation.
China produced silks, porcelain and tea – commodities much sought after in Britain and paid for in Sterling Silver. Britain, fearful of its ever-depleting silver reserves, encouraged the export of opium to China to address the trade deficit with opium grown in India. The Chinese Emperor opposed the use of opium and his attempt to expel the British and Indian traders was thwarted by an army of imported Indian Sepoys. After Chinese capitulation the treaty ports of Canton and Shanghai were created with Hong Kong being ceded to the British in 1842. The French were given equal trading rights in 1844 with the Treaty of Whampoa. The Portuguese maintained their presence in Macau.
The East India Company also operated ships to the colonies of America of New Holland (Australia). As with the Nabobs in India there was much wealth to be made by enterprising individuals in the import and export market of the colonies.
Ming Blue and White translucent porcelain from Jingdezhen, China was much admired and sought after commodity in the West and part of the ‘East India’ trade. This garniture of 5 vases was made and painted in Jingdezhen. The British East India Company tells the story of the cultural interrelationship between India, China, Australia and Britain and its archrival France.
The English lidded vase is decorated with the seals of Queen Elizabeth I and below that the emblem of The British East India Company. The central image is of Sir Walter Drake’s ship The Golden Hind. Drake was a successful privateer of the 16th century serving both the Queen’s naval interests in pirating Spanish gold and defeating the Spanish Amada. It was privateers who formed The British East India Company. The image of the Golden Hind is surrounded by various sea monsters decorative elements common to maps of the time.
The lower section of the Indian vase carries the image of a traditional 17th century Indian cotton coverlet (rumal) and is held in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The upper part of the vase consists of motifs of Turkish origin often appearing in Indian chintz patterning. Indian chintz throughout its long production timeline paid homage to every culture with which India traded.
The French vase is at the center of the group and represents its cultural importance at the time. The classical figure of Narcissus appears under The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba by Claude Lorraine a painter of the Enlightenment a period in painting where the human figure is dwarfed by the landscape.
Blue and White cobalt painting while developed in the Yuan Dynasty was raised to an art form in the Ming Dynasty after the invention of translucent porcelain and the acquisition of very pure blue cobalt from the Middle East and the use of a much longer brush. The lower part of the Chinese vase is of people in a pavilion beside and elm tree with an image from a Mandarin square on the upper section.
The nautical seal of HMS Sirius of the flagship of The First Fleet of 1788 is on neck of the Australian lidded vase. The Sirius was later wrecked along the north coast of New South Wales on its way to Norfolk Island in search of food supplies in the form of sea turtles for the fledgling colony - below that is the first coat of arms of the settlement of Sydney. The drawings of the emu and the kangaroo are copied from the work of George Raper naturist to The First Fleet with the central image of Aboriginal canoeists by The Port Jackson Painter (Thomas Watling).
The neck of the Australian lidded vase supports the nautical seal of the ship Supply that sailed half way around the world to bring supplies of food to the starving settlement of Sydney. Beneath that is the coat of arms for the Colony of New South Wales. The racehorse Rockingham was secreted to Sydney on the ship Supply in 1797 by Captain Kent along with the first merino sheep that were purchased by John McArthur and Samuel Marsden whose drawing of the sheep appears in front of George Stubbs’ horse. Captain Kent and John McArthur acting like 'Sydney Nabobs', made substantial wealth out of the livestock trade much to the chagrin of the management of The East India Company. The drawing of the kangaroo is taken from George Perry’s Arcana, 1811 and the wombat is by Thomas Bewick, 1807.
The mid 17th Century saw the Qing Dynasty in power in China. They were the Manchurians from the north, enlightened reformers and great traders. The image on the lower half of the Chinese vase is of a classic Chinese imagery of a temple, a bridge and a willow tree in a landscape that would be copied again and again by western painters. The painting above of flowers and butterflies is copied from a piece of export ware that found its way to English market.
Towards the end of the 18th century Napoleon invaded Egypt in an attempt to take control of the Mediterranean and limit the East India Company’s trade routes. Egypt was a hard land to occupy and together with the fact that the British had captured most of his fleet of ships, his mission was a failure and he returned to France leaving his entire army behind. Later the British navy would ferry the French troops back to their homeland. Napoleon is represented on this vase in his coronation robe and golden laurel crown riding in a Chinese boat taken from the French Beauvais Tapestry - The King of Cathay.
The imagery for Indian cotton Chintz prints manufactured for the English market was derived from English textile patterns drawn from crewelwork and tapestries. Indian cotton chintz became so popular with the English middle class that their import was seen to be threatening the English cotton manufacturing industry. A partial ban on wearing chintz in public in England was imposed without much success. The image on the upper part of the Indian vase is a print of a Portuguese lady and her suitor.
During Queen Victoria’s reign the British East India Company ceased to trade and the crown acquired its private army and British rule began in India thus Queen Victoria’s seal is on the neck of the English vase. The story of the Willow Pattern originates in China and is based on the story of The Butterfly Lovers and like cotton chintz the Willow Pattern was popular with the English public.
The British East India Company was officially disbanded in 1858 after the Indian Sepoy Revolt of 1857.
- Robin Best, 2016