Tag Archives: East India Company

East India Company at Home Mid-Project Conference, 31st May – 1st June 2013.

Since the East India Company at Home Project started in September 2011, there has been a buzz surrounding its methodological framework, its research findings and range of subject matter. I last covered this project here after they released their first case study.

The project (EICaH for short) began at the University of Warwick but has since been transferred to University College London (UCL) for a variety of reasons, but mainly due to funding opportunities and departmental interests.* The premise of the project is to examine the British country house in an imperial and global context through material culture and the families linked with these houses on the one hand and the connections they may have had with the East India Company on the other.

EICaH wallpapers[2]

Helen Clifford and Emile de Bruijn presenting their paper on Chinese wallpapers in National Trust properties ‘every good country house has its Chinese wallpaper’!

What makes the EICaH project so unique and perhaps even dynamic, is its attempt to pull together knowledge from a spectrum of sources and people. By putting this bluntly, the project’s diverse pool of thought comes from academics, museum professionals, archivists and librarians, students, local and family historians and independent scholars. The core team consists of Professor Margot Finn, Helen Clifford, and Kate Smith. Then there is an Advisory Board consisting of those affiliated with institutions like the V&A, the British Library or local authorities to mention a few. Project associates make up the next segment of those involved and are a healthy mix of those with interests in the British country house, the East India Company, trade and consumption and all the bits in the middle. I’m a project associate simply because I clearly adore country houses and the mixture of histories which can be applied to them.

I don’t want to talk at length about the details of the project as this is fully accessible through the links already given. What I do want to do is address the topics discussed at the mid-project conference which took place at the end of last week.

The conference was split over two days and roughly by content and methodology. The link to the programme is here. On Friday some fascinating papers concerning particular people and places associated with the East India Company were presented to the cosy audience of about 70 avid listeners.

EICaH John McAleer

John McAleer and the architecture of the East India Company’s Offices (image courtesy of Rachael Barnwell)

My favourites were Georgina Green’s research into supercargoes and the roles of East India Company captains; John McAleer’s look at the architecture of the Company’s offices; Stephen McDowall’s extensive and thoughtful examination of material culture and the meanings placed upon specific objects; and Janice Sibthorpe’s Sezincote’s case study. In the evening a keynote lecture by Giorgio Riello about the trade and consumption of cotton textiles finished the day on a high.

Saturday was the day of debate with the focus on how collaboration between academic institutions and those outside the ‘academy’ work effectively or otherwise. Here it was necessary to understand the structure of the project – its framework, but also the questions it was hoping to ask as well as answer. There was  lot to cover.

The most anticipated part of the Saturday sessions was undoubtedly the trip to Osterley Park (which I was unable to attend) but for me in particular it was the discussion concerning the methodology of the project since I was taking part. Upon the very kind invitation of Margot Finn, Helen Clifford and Kate Smith, also participating were Margaret Makepeace (Lead Curator of East India Company Collections at the British Library), Cliff Pereira (Public Engagement Consultant), and Keith Sweetmore (Development Manager at the North Yorkshire Country Record Office) That’s the four of us pictured below.

EICaH me

In the words of Margot Finn, the project is fairly ‘experimental’ in terms of previous attempts by historians to collaborate. I’ve found other projects to be rather formulaic and incredibly constrained by academic protocol (for want of a better word) and so I was eager to see some part of the discussion aimed at how the EICaH project had been able to challenge this. My belief is that for something of this scale to thrive, individual academics must be willing to show motivation and share their professional development both within their respective departments but also elsewhere.

I, for one, despise the Research Excellence Framework (replacing the Research Assessment Exercise) since it encourages exclusivity through peer review whilst exposing a neat way to keep academic research knotted tightly to the academy. In more simple terms, any research undertaken by an academic institution, regardless of wider collaboration eventually becomes the possession of that institution and the doors close to those without academic affiliation.

So where does the EICaH project fit in? I understand there to be two distinct parts to its methodology and its collaborative efforts represent the major part; the role of the country houuse as means of posing and answering questions, the lesser part. Margot Finn and Helen Clifford are the highly motivated academics who initiated the project and discussed its possibilities long before it began. They also have a desire to promote greater dissemination of their own findings to wider audiences. Inevitably, they are bound by academic protocol because funding for projects like this comes with certain criteria to which any published material or outcome must adhere.

However, it should be noted that the EICaH project is perhaps transitional. Finn declared it to be experimental, indeed there is still more to be said about exactly how the country house community and household may be placed within an imperial and global context, but the project can provide a working model for future historians.

At the end of the conference though, I came away satisfied that history can be made more accessible both to bigger audiences and to those wishing to undertake historical research. The academic can put something into context, and the museum professional can provide layers of interpretation, but a historian is not limited to fancy apparatus like the scientist, or material compounds like the chemist in order to test a theory; history is about thinking. Many of Britain’s archives, libraries and collections are freely accessible to everyone, working collaboratively can enrich the pools of thought and maintain a flow of intellect whether someone has an academic tenure or not.

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* Warwick University links are still accessible and currently functional. I have left the original post on countryhousereader (dated March 2012) with these links in tact. The same case studies are also available on the UCL blog which has transferred everything over to this new site. The links in this post are for the UCL blog.

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The East India at Home Project – University College London 2011-2014

          As I mentioned in my post on Thinking About the Country House, there has been a great deal of interest in this subject area over the last two years or so. Present excitement is reflected in television shows like Downton Abbey which portray upstairs/downstairs divides and socio-economic themes of Britain in the early twentieth century. Such is public interest in these elements of country house living, that many houses open to the public feel the need to show their ‘secret’ rooms and dark domestic quarters for a short time each year.

          There has also been a flourish of interest in the grander apartments, perhaps to counterbalance the austere or the uncharacteristic calm of the kitchens, pantries and nurseries. Restored pieces of furniture are celebrated and entire rooms have been in receipt of funding in order to return them to a key moment in their history. This sort of activity has eventually led a few British academic institutions to consider the thought processes of country house owners in creating their homes. This has in turn prompted debate on the wider position of the country house, in Britain particularly, through themes of trade, politics and even military presence.

          The University of Warwick’s three year project on The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857 is one of these resulting debates. The main purpose of the project is to explore the significance of the country house in an imperial and global context by uniting relevant houses, families, and material culture by means of one detailed study. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust and led by Professor Margot Finn, in the Department of History at Warwick, the project ‘seeks to work in collaboration with family and local historians, curators, academics and other researchers to illuminate Britain’s global material culture from the eighteenth century to the present.’

          It has become quite a large undertaking, and so far the project team have amassed a great deal of material to present on their website. Arguably, some of it is rather more general country house reference material, but nonetheless, for anyone interested in British country houses, this is a must-see.

The project has five main objectives:

i) to produce a series of interlinked case studies,

ii) to situate the Asian goods that furnished Georgian and Victorian homes,

iii) to illuminate the ways in which material culture helped to mediate wider historical processes

iv) to assess the ways in which Asian luxuries incorporated within British country houses expressed regional, national and global identities,

v) and to integrate academic and museum-based research on the global genealogies of British country house interiors.

         It does sound very long-winded for anyone outside academic study, or with a general interest. What the website for the project can do, however, is provide a platform for further reading. For example, over the term of the project there will be a series of published studies on individual houses. The first ‘went live’ this week – Swallowfield Park, Berkshire. With separate sections to leaf through, and a full PDF of the case study to download, there is plenty to get into. Crucially, the study is comprehensive enough to include histories of architecture, family, design, and fine art. There are several pages to navigate through, and the illustrations are wonderful! Especially as the house is now owned by Sunley Heritage, a company which converts country houses into luxury apartments.

Swallowfield Park, Berkshire. (From the East India Company at Home project website)

         Clearly there are a lot of minds working on this project, and a lot of thought has gone into making this fully accessible. It may be academic, but this has not made it exclusive or entirely high-brow. I would even suggest that many more academic institutions could take heed of this method of promoting similar research, as it would definitely benefit those hungry to discover more about specialist areas of heritage study. 

Links:

East India Company at Home (full link) http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/ghcc/research/eicah/about/

The East India Company today http://www.theeastindiacompany.com/

Swallowfield Park on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swallowfield_Park

Sunley Heritage – Swallowfield Park http://www.sunleyheritage.co.uk/SP_index.cfm

Geffrye Museum, London. The Histories of Home and the Warwick project http://historiesofhomessn.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/the-east-india-company-at-home-1757-1857/

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Filed under Architecture and Design, Building the Country House, Men and the Country House, Recommended Literature, Women and the Country House