Indian silver for the Raj

October 2008 | Some categories of objects seem so well researched that it is hard to imagine that there is any new ground to discover. The art of the silversmith has long seemed to be one such area, so it is especially thrilling to be confronted with completely unfamiliar material at Columbia University’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, where Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj opened last month (and will run through December 13). The exhibition explores the whole class of silver objects manufactured almost exclusively for the British household by Indian craftsmen from about 1858 until the end of British rule in India in 1947, the period typically referred to as the British Raj.

The show’s title is indeed apt—who knew such delightful things existed? Not many people it turns out.The typical English household in India during the Raj seems to have been filled to overflowing with servants giving the English sahib and memsahib very little to do. One woman was shocked to discover that she was not permitted to pick up her embroidery scissors when they fell to the floor, while another found that as she moved about her garden she was always followed by a servant with a deck chair. In 1909 a writer summed up the situation this way: “Save for arranging a wealth of cut flowers laid to her hand by a faithful mali, an ‘Anglo-Indian’ girl’s domestic duties are practically nil. All things conspire to develop the emotional, pleasure-loving side of her nature, to blur her higher aims and sterner self-discipline.”1

One thing such a “girl” could easily take pleasure in is the type of silver on view in the exhibition. (Look, for instance, at the whimsical jug with a snake charmer playing to the long cobra coiled around its handle in Figure 1.) Organized by Vidya Dehejia, the Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian Art in Columbia’s Department of Art History and Archaeology, who was assisted by Dipti Khera, Yuthika Sharma, and five other doctoral students, the show focuses on 150 objects made for household use. Such objects were designed for typically Western uses—calling card cases, tea services (see Figs. 2–4), and punchbowls—so the forms are recognizable, but the motifs with which they are decorated are strikingly exotic. “These Indian workshops adapted ‘native’ ornamental styles to Western forms to create a unique hybrid,” Dehejia observes.

Most of the pieces on view come from the collection of Paul F. Walter, a collector who seems to enjoy nothing better than building up a comprehensive assemblage and then giving it away. Walter has collected in many areas, from American decorative arts to Indian postcards. His current passion is twentieth-century African decorative arts, and a regiment of recently acquired ceramic pots lines the edges of his living room in Manhattan. Like all true collectors, Walter takes great pleasure in getting to know his objects through touch as well as sight. But he is no hoarder, and he enjoys sharing his pieces through exhibition loans and permanent gifts. The Brooklyn Museum, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Morgan Library and Museum, Newark Museum, Peabody Essex Museum, and Yale Center for British Art have all been his beneficiaries.2

Walter began amassing his holdings of Raj silver only a few years ago, and he claims that he cannot remember quite how this particular passion took hold. “I was really attracted to the cross-cultural aspect of it,” he says. “It is fascinating to me how they would take an English form and cover it with Indian decoration. Some pieces are quite mad, but also lovely.”

The amount of effort that went into creating these objects also fascinates and impresses the collector. “Just look at this,” he says, indicating a teapot in the form of a quail (see Fig. 13). “Someone spent hours chasing the outer surface to get the feathers. It’s a staggering amount of work.”

Two years ago, as part of a seminar, Dehejia and her students spent a week in Walter’s apartment examining, photographing, and cataloguing the collection. This experience led to an academic conference, “The Art of Exchange: Circulation of Visual Culture in Colonial India,” held at Columbia University in October 2006, which in turn led to the current exhibition. Dehejia, who came to Columbia after working as a curator at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, has known Walter for years. “No one had really looked at this material before,” she says. “While there have been extensive studies of Indian textiles, especially shawls and carpets, and Indian furniture, almost nothing had been done on the silver. I would come across the occasional piece in a shop in London, but never a whole group. So it was an extraordinary opportunity.”

In fact, only one person, the British antique silver specialist Wynyard Wilkinson, who was the source of most of the pieces in Walter’s collection, knew much about it. Wilkinson, who has written three books on Indian silver,3 organizes periodic selling exhibitions, the most recent of which was held in London this past July. He organized that exhibition of more than four hundred objects to illustrate how the tastes of the three consecutive ruling regimes in India were reflected in their silver.

“India’s long and tumultuous history is arguably nowhere better reflected than in silver objects produced to the order of those who once ruled the vast subcontinent,” Wilkinson explains. “My July exhibition began with items designed to appeal to the sybaritic tastes of the Mughal emperors who controlled India from the sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. The next group of objects reflected the neoclassical ‘Georgian’ restraint that was favored by the first generations of European merchants and soldiers who arrived under the auspices of the East India Company. The last group consisted of objects produced during the British Raj, the style of which is truly indigenous.”4

It is this last group that has now been so thoroughly documented in the Delight and Design exhibition and its accompanying catalogue. The curators have clearly identified and defined the distinct regional styles of Raj silver. Silver from Madras came to be known as “swami silver” for its depictions of Hindu deities (see Fig. 2). A swami tea service and other items from Madras were presented to the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII; r. 1901–1910) during his 1875 to 1876 tour of India. Upon his return, these pieces caused a sensation when they were exhibited in several cities in England.5 Kutch silver is identifiable by its allover embossed floral decoration (see Figs. 1, 3). Kutch silver items were imported to England by the great arts and crafts retailers Liberty and Company and Procter and Company, who regularly featured it in their catalogues (see Figs. 14, 16). The style was also widely imitated by English silver manufacturers, especially Elkington and Company.6 Silver from Kashmir is often covered with an allover pattern resembling that of the paisley shawls for which the region has long been famous. Ornament on silver from this area also drew inspiration from local flora, especially the stylized leaf of the chinar, or plane tree, executed in high repoussé and applied to tea services, bowls, and platters (see cover).7 Prior to 1900 Lucknow silver was easily recognized for its jungle and hunt scenes (see Fig. 6),8 while silver from Calcutta typically depicted rural pursuits or pastoral scenes (see Figs. 7, 8). Silver produced for only a brief period of about ten years in Alwar was characterized by intricate and detailed engraving (see Fig. 4).9 Silver from Burma often depicted scenes from ancient texts such as the Ja-taka tales and the Ramayana (see Fig. 9). And, as befits its cosmopolitan air, Bombay silver was produced in a variety of styles.

In addition to delineating the formal characteristics of silver from these eight regions, the exhibition and catalogue also restore the social context in which the objects were made and used. Dehejia contributes a fascinating essay on the exalted place the silver occupied at the great exhibitions and world’s fairs in the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Elsewhere English rituals of the calling card and serving tea are discussed in relation to the objects made for them.

Only a culture with low labor costs could have produced pieces so intricate and requiring such elaborate care. Even so, most British households did not possess entire sets of this silver. When one family was hosting a large dinner party, it was not unusual to borrow extra pieces. According to reminiscences of English people who had lived in India, when the need arose servants would go to other bungalows in the neighborhood gathering needed pieces of cutlery and utensils. Apparently it was not uncommon for guests to encounter their own dishes laid out on someone else’s dining table.10

Walter has concentrated mainly on functional objects, tableware rather than presentation pieces, because he likes to use them. He laughs as he recounts the tale of a friend who borrowed a pair of punchbowls for a party. “I was out of town at the time,” Walter recalls. “He filled them with ice to chill champagne and when he returned them he said, ‘You know, Paul, they leak terribly.’ Some of these pieces have such high relief work—they were really pushing the silver to its limits—that there are sometimes tiny holes. My poor friend! It sounded like such a fabulous idea and then they started to leak!”

1 [Katherine Helen] Maud Diver, The Englishwoman in India (London, 1909), quoted in Plain Tales from the Raj, ed. Charles Allen (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1985), p. 65.
2 For a fuller accounting of Walter’s activities, see “Touched by Art: Louise Nicholson Talks to Paul Walter,” Apollo, vol. 166 (December 2007), pp. 40–45; and Martin Filler, “Paul Walter moves his W. A. S. Benson chandelier,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 163, no. 6 (June 2008), pp. 40–42.
3 For a comprehensive introduction to so-called Raj silver, see Wynyard R. T. Wilkinson, Indian Silver, 1858–1947: Silver from the Indian Sub-continent and Burma Made by Local Craftsmen in Western Forms (Wynyard R. T. Wilkinson, London, 1999).
4 The objects in the exhibition ranged from a Calcutta sugar bowl for $100 to a suite of silver-gilt dressing table boxes for $120,000. “All sold well across the price spectrum to a younger and more ethnically Indian audience than we had experienced in the past,” Wilkinson reports. Interested people can contact him at or 44–1787–237–372 to view pieces by appointment. Wilkinson will participate in two American shows next year: the Arts of Pacific Asia shows in San Francisco (February 6–8, 2009) and New York (March 12–15, 2009).
5 Vidya Dehejia et al., Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj (Grantha, Ocean Township, N.J., 2008), p. 101.
6 Ibid., p. 127.
7 Ibid., p. 153.
8 Ibid., p. 171.
9 Ibid., p. 181.
10 Plain Tales from the Raj, p. 94.

SHAX RIEGLERis a PhD candidate at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture in New York, specializing in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century decorative arts.

Thank you for signing up.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

» View All