Osterley Park and House Case Study

Fig 1 View of Ost“A jaghire without a crime”

East India Company and the Indian Ocean Material World at Osterley 1700-1800

By Yuthika Sharma and Pauline Davies

Please note that this case study was first published on blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah in July 2013. The case study was last checked by the project team on 19 August 2014. For citation advice, visit ‘Using the website’.

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 On Friday we went to see – oh! the palaces of palaces! and yet a palace sans crown, sans coronet – but such expense! such taste! such profusion! and yet half an acre produces all the rents that furnish such magnificence. It is a jaghire got without a crime. In short, a shop is the estate, and Osterley Park is the spot. The old house I have often seen, which was built by Thomas Gresham; but it so improved and enriched, that all the Percies and Seymours must die of envy…

Horace Walpole to Lady Ossory, 21 June 1773.[1]

When Horace Walpole visited Osterley Park in 1773 he was struck by the transformation of the House effected by the renowned architect Robert Adam in the 1760s, a major redevelopment that had changed the character of this “botched Elizabethan pile”[2] into a fashionable neo-classical country mansion whose interiors were “…worthy of Eve before the Fall.”[3] Not only this, Walpole was impressed by the collection of ‘oriental’ objects at Osterley and the collection of birds brought in from various parts of the world through East India Company trade, which were displayed alongside European master paintings: “Mrs Child’s dressing room is full of pictures, gold filigree, china and japan. So is all the house – the chairs are taken from antique lyres, and make charming harmony – there are Salvators, Gaspar Poussins, and to a beautiful staircase, a ceiling by Rubens.[4] Not to mention a kitchen garden that costs £1400 a year, a menagerie full of birds that comes from a thousand islands which Mr. Banks has not yet discovered…”[5]


Figure 2: Secretary Bird in the Osterley Menagerie.
Source: William Hayes, Anne Hayes, Emily Hayes, Matilda Hayes, et al. Rare and Curious Birds Accurately Drawn and Colored from Their Specimens in the Menagerie at Osterly [sic] Park (William Bulmer and Co., London, 1794-1799). Robert and Sarah Child commissioned William Hayes to write and illustrate this work, which documents the collection of birds at Osterley Park. Their correspondence is archived in the London Metropolitan Archives (London ACC/3752/12/155-164).

 Walpole’s characterization of Osterley as a “jaghire got without crime” is a telling reference to the decorative magnificence of the estate, which was the result of its patronage by three generations of Child family men who were prominent governing figures of the East India Company. The second half of the eighteenth century had seen East India Company’s expansion into politics as well as trade in South Asia with major Company figures such as Robert Clive (1725-1774) securing trading concessions and administrative rights in the region, facilitating the influx of increased wealth into Britain. As the Company’s political ambitions in South Asia grew, so did the personal wealth of Company patrons who returned after making their fortunes in the subcontinent.[6] While their “shop”, the family-run bank Child & Co., was the principal resource funding the grand restoration of Osterley Park in the 1760s, many of its remarkable examples of decorative art were brought together as a result of the Child family’s multi-generational link with East India Company trade and shipping networks in the Indian Ocean.

Acquired by Thomas Gresham (1519-79) in 1562, the Osterley estate was a simple farmhouse before it was converted into a grand mansion.[7] The high profile status of Osterley Park in this period was cemented through Gresham’s own reputation as a financial adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. It is known that the Queen paid ten visits to Thomas Gresham’s manor at Osterley, one of them c. 1570s coinciding with the performance of entertainments devised by playwright Thomas Churchill described as the ‘devices of war and a play’.[8] Nearly two centuries later, Osterley Park’s architectural and interior redesign as a classical home by Adam brought it into line with current fashion once again. Although Osterley’s Adam interior has received much attention, little has been written about Osterley Park’s rich and multifaceted history from the perspective of its intimate connection with the East India Company and the Company’s role in shaping its decorative programme.

This case study seeks to highlight Osterley Park’s East India Company (EIC) heritage and the role of EIC trade in the Indian Ocean in shaping the house and its interiors. Rather than focusing on the period of Adam’s interventions in Osterley House (and their European orientation), we focus on the arrival of furnishings and objects from the ‘Orient’ prior to the 1760s. The first section of this case study focuses on the hitherto unknown connections between the Child family and the East India Company. In presenting a biographical account of Francis Child the elder (1642-1713) and his financial dealings we present a more complex, if not complete, picture of the role of moneyed individuals such as Francis Child the elder in shaping the course of maritime mercantile trade conducted by the EIC in its transitional years from being a medium-sized charter Company to being a global trading and administrative force in Asia. As this study demonstrates, three generations of the Child family were in the strong position of making decisions for the Company as Directors and Chairmen. While they were certainly astute businessmen, this study aims to highlight their personal and emotional investments in acquiring objects to furnish their home at Osterley Park. From that perspective, the analysis of Francis Child’s travel journal documenting his visit to the Netherlands in 1697 allows a fuller insight into his own impression of what constitutes the ideal home – a view that brings together his preference for Asian export art and European grand master paintings. His son Robert Child’s (1674-1721) active involvement in one of the foremost artistic forums of the period, the St. Luke’s or Van Dyke’s Club, is an important context for considering his role as the primary creative force for refurbishing Osterley Park after it was acquired by his father. His role as Director of the EIC for over a decade further substantiates our hypothesis that he had the means and the ability to acquire the choicest of decorative pieces and textiles from Asia for Osterley Park.

As this study shows, material objects were not only part of commodity trade between Britain and Asia, but they were also carriers of personal aspirations and memories of East India Company servants who had spent time in Asia. Thus, they were constitutive of the wider emotional economy of maritime trade. A section of this study, therefore, focuses on the Childs’ own maritime investments in shipping. It is through the acquisition of these objects – Chinese armorial porcelain, lacquerware and silks, Indian textiles, and furniture—that the Childs created a distinctive visual identity and enduring status for their family in London society. Moreover, as we see, these objects (especially armorial ware) were often the result of personal choice; they were commissioned selectively and acquired through private trade by Company merchants and representatives in Asia, the objects themselves harboring the complex interactions of European and Asian artistic exchange.

The Money brothers: William (1769-1834), James (1772-1833) and Robert Taylor (1775-1803)Family Commerce

Three generations of the Child family at Osterley (Francis Child the Elder, Robert Child and Francis Child the Younger) were intimately involved in the East India Company. As far as we know none of the Child family who owned Osterley in the seventeenth and eighteenth century ever traveled to Asia, or served as employees of the EIC. However, the family was concerned with the governance of the Company and were undoubtedly influenced by the tastes and styles of the countries it traded with. This section of the case study explores the family and the connections its different members fostered with the EIC.



7-tradewindsreducedWinds of Trade

The Child family’s interest in East India Company sea trade was carried forward through their investment in shipping. Company ships were instrumental in the network of trade and commodity exchange in the Indian Ocean. In the second half of the eighteenth century, there were three ships called Osterley (Osterley I, Osterley II and Osterley III) and each of them bore a connection with the Child family, as this section of the case study goes on to explore.

11-Osterley-261reducedMaterial Goods: Porcelain

Porcelain or “chinaware” was included as cargo on most East India Company ships that crossed the Indian Ocean in the eighteenth century. The rapid expansion of the English market for porcelain from about 1720 to 1770 saw perhaps 25-30 million pieces of porcelain enter the country making it one of the largest importers in Europe. This section of the case study examines the processes and people that facilitated this trade to demonstrate how Chinese porcelain entered the collections of the Child family in the eighteenth century.




15-Osterley-268reducedMaterial Goods: Textiles

The Child family played a key role in shaping how Asian textiles entered the British market. During Francis Child the elder’s tenure as EIC committee member and later as a Director, for example, the Company was responsible for augmenting the trade in cotton textiles from India, with calicoes accounting for nearly three-quarters of Company trade. Aside from cottons, this section examines the embroidery and silk work that the Child family acquired for their own domestic spaces and situates these textiles within the broader context of the Asian textile trade.

18-Osterley-245-coatofarmsreducedMaterial Goods: Lacquer

A decorative art in Japan, Korea and China, lacquerware held a particular exotic appeal for its European collectors as a luxury craft especially popular for its polished finish and vibrant luster. The English East India Company was one of the primary importers of lacquerware furniture from East Asia in the eighteenth century through its flourishing network of maritime trade. This section of the case study examines the lacquer collections at Osterley, which highlight the popularity of a particularly delicate technique of gold engraving on lacquer, a Chinese variant of the Japanese style that combined gold and silvery inlay with surface painting on lacquer.





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The Osterley Park and House Case Study was researched and written by Yuthika Sharma (AHRC Cultural Engagement Fellow) and Pauline Davies (Osterley Park and House volunteer).




[1] Horace Walpole to Lady Ossory, 21 June 1773 in W.S. Lewis ed. Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence (New Haven; Yale University Press, 1937), 125.

[2] Eileen Harris, “The genius of Robert Adam: His interiors”—as cited by Lissa Chapman, “Sans Coronet”, 43. Undated Manuscript, Osterley House, National Trust.

[3] Walpole To Lady Ossory 21 June, 1773. (Lewis, ed. Walpole’s Correspondence, 1937), 126.

[4] It has been suggested that this painting was bought by Sir Fancis Child in Amsterdam in 1697 and was housed in his house in Lincoln Inn Fields before it was removed to Osterley House. See below.

[5] Walpole To Lady Ossory 21 June, 1773. (Lewis, 1937), 127. Lewis has suggested that Mr. Banks refers to a person in Walpole’s earlier writings (Tale V of the Hieroglyphic tales) who ‘was going all over the world in search of he did not know what.’ See note 30. It is quite evident that Mr. Banks is Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the renowned naturalist and botanist.

[6] Walpole’s reference to a “jaghire without a crime” is very much a reference to his impression of Clive as “this every way great criminal”. Last Journals i, 197-203, 231-5, pp. 231. As cited by Lewis (1937) in note 11 accompanying the transcribed letter. The term “jagir” (var. Jagheer, Jaghire) was defined as “A hereditary assignment of land and of its rent as annuity.” Henry Yule, Hobson-Jobson, A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive. New ed. edited by William Crooke, B.A. London: J. Murray, 1903.

[7] John Hardy and Maurice Tomlin, Osterley Park House, (Victoria and Albert Museum, 1985).

[8] Martin Wiggins with Catherine Richardson, British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue: Volume II: 1567-1589, (Oxford University Press, 2012) “Play at Osterley”, No. 590, p. 146.