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Book review: The complex political and artistic cross-currents of East and West, between 1750 and 1850

Why Napoleon became a Muslim

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Last year, the world’s most lavish art collector, Sheikh Saud al-Thani, outbid all his rivals at a Christie’s auction to bag an exquisite Mughal jade flask once owned by Robert Clive of India—a prize coveted by the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). The British government, determined to keep the treasure in this country, slapped an export ban on it, whereupon the Sheikh announced that he had changed his plans to take the flask back to Qatar. As far as we know, the flask is still effectively under house arrest in Britain, while the Sheikh himself has been released from his house arrest in Qatar for allegedly embezzling millions of pounds from the State during his shopping spree.

The Sheikh’s post-colonial acquisitiveness—and his attempts to repatriate Islamic objects to an Islamic land—form a wonderfully ironic grace note to Maya Jasanoff’s superb analysis of how the West conquered and collected in the East.

Robert Clive would have entirely understood this overwhelming urge to buy art, although, unlike the Sheikh, he lacked family money to fund his passionate collecting mania. Dr Jasanoff recasts his life as a parable of the founding of empire, a rags-to-riches story that culminated in staggering wealth and the formation of a vast art collection encompassing Old Masters and Indian artefacts, all purchased as part of Clive’s attempt to reinvent himself as a British aristocrat rather than a provincial man on the make.

By looking at the lives of a number of diplomats, soldiers and aristocrats who lived in India and Egypt—the Eastern fringes of the British Empire—moving across countries and gathering objects as they went, Dr Jasanoff portrays an intimate and multifaceted tale of imperialism, and the ways in which its complexion altered over the century between 1750 and 1850. She sees the accumulation of collections as a metaphor for the accumulation of territory, describing how objects became bound up with wider political struggles, and how their possession was enmeshed with the status of countries and individuals.

One of the many strengths of this book is that it resists the urge to oversimplify, presenting the changing interaction between East and West in all its complexity. The author paints a particularly vivid panorama of pre-1800 Lucknow as a place where Indians mixed freely in British and French society, where Westerners acquired Indian mistresses, wives and children, and where the cross-cultural collecting of objects was a competitive sport. While the Frenchman Claude Martin pillaged Indian manuscripts from Bhutan, the local nawab gathered together British objects in “a ridiculous assemblage of finery and trumpery jumbled together”, whose bad taste made European visitors gasp.

But the happy days of multi-culturalism and comparative harmony in India do not seem to have outlasted the turn of the 19th century. In the years following the French Revolution, imperial ambitions polarised England and France, and both nations attempted to carve up slices of the globe for themselves. Cross-cultural alliances were henceforth dictated by political expediency. Thus, Napoleon conveniently declared himself to be a Muslim convert when he invaded Egypt, while Tipu, the Sultan of Mysore, became “Citoyen Tipu”, the first French Jacobin king in India, when he sided with the French against the English. Ironically, Tipu’s death at Seringapatam at the hands of the English in 1799 provoked a bout of “Tipumania” in Britain, and objects associated with the deceased arch-enemy (including the V&A’s famous tiger) assumed the status of relics.

In an era of territorial tussles, antiquities and works of art took on symbolic significance, both as trophies of power and compensations for its loss. Napoleon embarked upon a centralised programme of acquisition in Egypt, only to find that certain treasures, including the Rosetta stone, had to be ceded to the English when they took control of the country in 1801. In the following years, Anglo-French rivalry found an outlet in the activities of English and French excavators along the Nile, who behaved like claimants in a gold rush, “dashing into the ruins of Karnak and Luxor to stake out the patches most evidently pregnant with objects worthy of excavation”.

However, this unregulated archaeological plunder could not continue indefinitely. It was only a matter of time before colonised countries began “collecting back”, realising the need to preserve and interpret their own heritage. While the material legacy of imperial collecting lives on in the galleries of the British Museum, the V&A and the Louvre, its post-colonial inheritance can also be seen in the Cairo Museum, founded in 1858, the painted tombs still in situ in the Valley of the Kings, and the historical displays of the Victoria Memorial Hall in Calcutta. Dr Jasanoff concludes with the poignant hope that in future the tolerant forms of collecting objects will outweigh the violence of collecting empires.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as "Why Napoleon became a Muslim"

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