Fanny Parks Case Study


Fanny Parks (1794-1875): her ‘Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostan’, her Museum, and her Cabinet of Curiosities

By Joanna Goldsworthy

Please note that this case study was first published on in June 2014. The case study was last checked by the project team on 19 August 2014.

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Wanderings Vol 1 Title page

Figure 1. Title page for Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, Vol. I (London: Pelham Richardson, 1850).

On 9 December 1834 an exuberant, rather plump, Englishwoman who had celebrated her fortieth birthday the day before set off up the Jumna river from Allahabad in the Northern Provinces in India in a two-masted pinnace (sailing boat), the Seagull, her only companions the twenty-two-strong Indian male crew. Her husband, the Collector of Customs in Allahabad, would join her for a few days if he could get leave from his employer, the East India Company. Following the Seagull was the cook boat containing goods for the voyage: live sheep, goats and chickens; wine and other provisions; servants included a dhobi (washer-man); and the cook boat crew of nine. They travelled from six o’clock in the morning to seven in the evening, anchoring at night and with armed watchmen on shore. The frequent storms, the contrary current, the treacherous rocks in the river, the uncharted sandbanks and the risk of being plundered by robbers – all combined to make this a hazardous but thrilling journey for a woman who craved excitement to counter the boredom of life for a childless Englishwoman in the Indian mofussil (countryside). Who cared what colonial society thought of this enterprise? Certainly not the indefatigable wanderer, Fanny Parks.

Just over forty-one years later, on 17 February 1876, Fanny’s first cousin, Clement Robert Archer Esq, presented a copy of Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque,[1] Fanny’s account of her travels in India, to the India Museum.[2] Clement had been present at her death, aged eighty-one, two months earlier, on 21 December 1875.

One month after this first gift another relative, J. Coutts Antrobus Esq of Eaton Hall, Congleton, presentedallH three sculptures to the same museum: two pieces of carved dark grey sandstone, now in the British Museum collection (see one in figure 12 below), which Fanny had obtained from a fisherman living on the banks of the Ganges, and a piece of white carved stone acquired by Fanny in Pooree (now Puri) in 1844.[3] These three sculptures, together with a large and disparate collection of other artefacts – Fanny’s cabinet of curiosities – gathered together by Fanny and Charles Parks during their twenty-three years’ residence in India, were brought back to England in the Essex which left Calcutta at the end of September 1845, and arrived at Folkestone after a stormy – but fast – voyage at the beginning of January 1846.

The cabinet of curiosities and Fanny Parks’ published recollections of her travels in India appear to have given her a public legitimacy and authority that she lacked before she went to the sub-continent. As a young woman she was a typical product of her background and upbringing in a military family, ‘eminent in beauty as in talent… wounding many a heart’, before finding a role for herself: that of traveller, collector and ethnographer.[4] India and her experiences there changed her. ‘Whatever the wandering traveller says, he does so from having seen that of which he speaks’ was the oriental proverb she quoted in the opening pages of Wanderings of a Pilgrim, emphasising the veracity of her enterprise.[5]

Historian Maya Jasanoff argues that collectors ‘shared one crucial characteristic: all of them used objects to advertise, hone or shape their social personae. Collecting was a means of self-fashioning’.[6] Fanny’s enthusiasms appear in her own account so unfeignedly artless as she gathers people, customs and curiosities to herself on her travels through India that it is hard to see a conscious self-fashioning in her actions, certainly while she was living in India.[7] It was not until she returned to the metropole that her collection lent her authority in an almost exclusively masculine society. This was when she made full use of her Indian adventures: they gave her an entrée to a social world to which she might not otherwise have been admitted and they were the basis on which she formed ‘a life independent of her own life’.[8] The objects with which she surrounded herself both validated her and enhanced those experiences.

Studies of collecting as a phenomenon, from the age of the ‘cabinet of curiosity’ to the present, have focused overwhelmingly on male collectors – men whose adventures, professional lives and wealth gave them privileged access to exotic plants, animals, artwork and objects. There is a much more detailed understanding of the Company men whose collecting helped to furnish the British country house and later many British museums.[9] This case study, however, illustrates the way in which one Company woman took advantage of her colonial experiences to collect, describe and display Indian material culture.

Three Satis and a MandapWho was Fanny Parks?

Frances Susanna Archer was born on 8 December 1794 in Conwy, North Wales. On 25 March 1822, Fanny married twenty-three-year-old Charles Crawford Parks and began her lifelong connection to the East India Company and India.


Spider Wanderings vol IWanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque

Once settled back in Britain in 1845, Fanny began to write an account of her travels in India by using her journals and the long letters she had written to her mother while abroad. Her efforts resulted in her 1850 publication Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, which was illustrated throughout with Fanny’s own sketches and paintings.


Diorama_drawingThe ‘Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostan’

In 1851, Fanny instigated and funded the construction of a ‘Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostan’ which was staged at the Asiatic Gallery in the Baker Street Bazaar. The Grand Moving Diorama of Hindostan offered not objects but vistas, visual evocations of the landscapes of India.  


Wanderings Vol I FrontispieceThe Cabinet of Curiosities

Fanny began collecting curiosities in the subcontinent from around 1830. Although acquiring such objects was pleasurable, the souvenirs she purchased became more important to Fanny on her return to England, when she chose to exhibit them in a ‘museum’ that accompanied the diorama.



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The text and research for this case study was primarily authored by project associate Joanna Goldsworthy who gratefully acknowledges the help and suggestions made by Professor Margot Finn and Dr Kate Smith.


[1] Fanny Parks, Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque during four-and-twenty years in the East; with revelations of life in the Zenana, 2 vols (London: Pelham and Richardson, 1850).

[2] The India Museum closed in 1879 and its collection was shared between The South Kensington Museum (later The Victoria and Albert Museum), Kew Gardens and The British Museum. This copy of the book, with its inscription “Presented by C. Archer, Esq, February 17th 1876 to the India Museum” is now in the British Library collection, IOL1947b170.

[3] J. Coutts Antrobus was married to Fanny Swetenham, daughter of Fanny Parks’ first cousin Edmund Swetenham who lived for many years at Cloud End in the Himalayan hill station Mussoorie, and who died at Dehra Dun in 1863.

[4] Blackwood’s Lady’s Magazine, January 1852, 196.

[5] Introduction, Wanderings, Vol I, vii.

[6] Maya Jasanoff, Edge of Empire: Conquest and collecting in the East 1750-1850 (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), 7.

[7] ‘A friend has made me a present of the most magnificent cow-tails… They are great curiosities, and shall go with my collection to England.’ Wanderings, I, 238. See also 227, 253.

[8] Wanderings, II, 496.

[9] See Sarah Longair and Cam Sharp-Jones, ‘The Attar Casket of Tipu Sultan’, The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857, (2013).