From Clive’s victory at Plassey in 1757 to the outbreak of the Mutiny of 1857, Britain’s empire on the subcontinent was administered by the East India Company. A chartered monopoly, the Company significantly expanded its fiscal, territorial and military grip on the subcontinent in the century before its abolition in 1858. By the later 1750s, its servants (that is, its civil and military officers) enjoyed unprecedented access to Asian goods, through bribes, ceremonial gifting, private commerce and the spoils of war. Together with the Company’s official cargoes of Indian and Chinese commodities, these goods helped to transform British families’ material sensibilities and homes.
From the early 1790s, however, two trends increasingly rendered the flow of Asian goods into British households problematic. Restrictions on Company servants’ private trade reduced their specialised knowledge of and access to Asian textile producers; simultaneously, rising anxiety about the supposedly degenerative tendencies of ‘Oriental’ cultures made Britons’ large-scale acquisition and domestic incorporation of Asiatic goods increasingly suspect. British manufacturers’ ability to create new luxury wares with Asian motifs and the reopening of continental European markets in 1815, moreover, offered nineteenth-century British consumers access to luxury goods more easily accommodated with emerging Western conceptions of national identity than were exotic goods from the East.
The project has five main objectives.
First, by producing a series of interlinked case studies (of people, objects and homes in England, Scotland and Wales), it seeks to create a research base that will underpin meaningful analysis of change over time and space within British country houses, focusing specifically on the acquisition, use, meaning and circulation of Asian luxury goods.
Second, it seeks to situate the Asian goods that furnished Georgian and Victorian homes within ongoing social, cultural, political and economic relations, rather than to study them in isolation from their dynamic historical contexts.
Third, the research team will illuminate the ways in which material culture helped to mediate wider historical processes, such as family formation and reproduction, the creation and maintenance of trade networks, and the operation of political and military systems (for example, through webs of patronage).
Fourth, the project will assess the ways in which Asian luxuries incorporated within British country houses expressed (or, at times, papered over) regional, national and global identities.
Fifth, The East India Company at Home is designed to integrate academic and museum-based research on the global genealogies of British country house interiors with research findings generated by amateur local and family historians, whose activities have risen dramatically in the past decade in response to the availability of new digital resources and online forms of communication.
The East India Company at Home will create a series of interlinked case studies of individuals, families, objects and country houses, and will publish these case studies on the project website.
The academic project team will conduct detailed research on approximately twenty families associated with specific country houses in Georgian England, Scotland and Wales.
Archival research on the selected families and homes will be supplemented by analysis of material objects, contemporary printed descriptions and debates on the meaning of Asian commodities conducted in the periodical and newspaper press. Information on the selected families and country houses will be expanded—and connected to wider networks of persons, things and places—by the project’s engagement with ongoing research conducted by both curators and other specialists in material culture and family historians and local history societies. This engagement across the full range of the historical community will both enrich the research available to the academic team and—through the project’s website and database—help to bring genealogical research undertaken by family historians into a wider public domain.
The website and database will provide accessible synopses of the project’s case studies (several of which will also be disseminated to academic audiences through scholarly publications). Designed to provide both academic and non-academic audiences with bibliographical tools for the study of Anglo-Indian culture at home in Georgian and early Victorian Britain, the website will also, by its completion, provide access to a searchable online database of information on the persons, objects and country houses that mediated the incorporation of Asian material culture into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century elite British homes.