The scope of the Library collections at the Museum is truly international with many items already having travelled a significant distance to reach us. From the artworks of Cook’s Endeavour voyage, through to the Chinese illustrations of plants collected by John Reeves and the sixteen beautifully illustrated sketchbooks of Olivia Tonge detailing her travels in India, many of the items in our collections have undertaken and survived incredible journeys of their own just getting here.
This is true of a special collection of bound volumes of watercolour illustrations of Nepalese animals that were presented to the Museum by their creator, Brian Houghton Hodgson (1800-1894) the naturalist, ethnologist and founder of the discipline of Himalaya Studies. This blog tells of a very special journey that one of the volumes recently made back to its place of origin.
Brian Houghton Hodgson (1800-1894)
Born in Cheshire, England, Hodgson attended Haileybury, a college that educated future civilian employees of the East India Company. He first arrived in Nepal in 1820 and in 1825 was appointed as assistant resident before becoming the first British resident to Nepal in 1833.
He lived in Kathmandu for eleven years before retiring from the service in 1844. After a short stay in England, he returned to India and settled in Darjeeling for 4 years, in a bungalow he named Brianstone, before his final return to England in 1858 where he lived in the Cotswolds until his death in 1894.
Hodgson had a passionate interest in zoology and an inexhaustible curiosity which led him during his time in Nepal and India to describe many new species of mammals and birds. One of the first people to study the birds of Nepal, he is considered a true pioneer of Himalayan ornithology.
Today, there are over 860 bird species found in Nepal of which approximately 160 were documented for the first time in Hodgson’s remarkable collection. Seven of those birds are no longer found in Nepal including the pink-headed duck (Rhodonessa caryophyllacea), which is regarded by some as extinct.
Despite not being about to travel outside of the Kathmandu Valley, Hodgson used local trappers to help him amass a large collection of specimens. Under his direction, at least 3 local Nepali artists were also employed to undertake paintings of different aspects of Nepal including its birds and animals as well as Tibetan and Nepalese Buddhism and architecture. The identities of Hodgson’s artists remain unknown with the exception of Raj Man Singh Chitrakar (1797-1865).
Hodgson’s manuscript notes and paintings were sent back to England and in 1854 and again in 1858 he presented over 10,000 specimens and some of his drawings to The British Museum. They were subsequently transferred to their permanent home in The British Museum (Natural History) prior to opening its doors in 1881 here in South Kensington. He also presented a further set of manuscripts and drawings to the Zoological Society in 1874.
The Hodgson Collection in the Library and Archives
Accompanying Hodgson’s manuscripts are 302 sheets of mammal drawings, 29 sheets of reptiles and fish drawings, 120 sheets of insect drawings, and 642 sheets of bird drawings that are held in the Library and Archives at the Natural History Museum. The bird drawings are bound into seven leather volumes and from looking at the illustrations it is clear that Hodgson’s aim was not to have them serve purely as animal portraits, as many have additional ecological features including the nests of the birds and their eggs on each sheet in addition to anatomical details such as the species beaks, feet and feathers.
Undertaken in a mix of pencil, watercolour and gouache, not all have been finished but those that have are remarkable in their detail and application of colour. Many have handwritten notes alongside each drawing or on the reverse of the sheet documenting the animal’s measurements, weight, details of where they were collected and other details regarding their habit, behaviour and diet. Some are in the hand of Hodgson but others are in a mixture of script including Nepali – much of which has never been transcribed.
The 4,500 mile journey
In March of this year, I took one of these volumes, Appendix 1-187 which contains 188 sheets of original drawings of Nepalese birds, on the not insignificant journey of 4,500 miles (temporarily) back to its place of creation after almost 170 years. Although the fruits of Hodgson’s research and observations reside in many collections and museums in Europe, this was the first time that an original copy of any of Hodgson’s collections has returned to Nepal. It was also the first time that the Museum has facilitated an exhibition loan to Nepal so the project was not only challenging but an exciting privilege for us to undertake.
The volume had been requested for exhibition loan by the German artist Heide Hinrichs with the support of the IFA (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) in Germany, and sponsorship of Turkish Airlines, as part of her art installation for the inaugural Kathmandu Triennale – The City: My studio/The City: My Life that took place from 24 March to 9 April 2017.
Organised by the Siddhartha Arts Foundation to promote Nepali arts and culture, it was curated by Philippe Van Cauteren and featured invited international artists whose art installations could be found in a number of locations around Kathmandu, including the Taragaon Museum, Patan Museum and the Nepal Art Council building.
Taking pride of place in the Siddhartha Art Gallery, Heide’s installation was titled The Birds of Nepal (Parting the Animal Kingdom of the East). The volume formed the central part of her display and was opened at a single page for the duration of the exhibition.
It was accompanied by a slide projection of the other pages in the volume that were projected onto a sheet of Nepali paper, two walls covered in pencil outlines of birds showing them in negative spaces and an installation made of blue silk threads to which feathers from Nepali birds were attached. The threads reached from the floor to the ceiling and were held down by different ornithological field guides to the Indian subcontinent and Nepal which had been published over the past sixty years following the pioneering work of Hodgson. Together, the drawings, the installation, and the display of the book aimed to represent a coexistence of different perspectives, informed by Buddhism, Hinduism, shamanistic beliefs and a scientifically-informed worldview.
Also forming part of the installation were the air handling units that had been sourced and installed into the gallery space, which itself had been specially modified by its founder and director Sangeeta Thapa to ensure that the environmental and security conditions of the loan were achieved. A specially designed hand-made wooden display case was also engineered to display the volume and for the duration of the exhibition where it proudly sat upon two hand-crafted traditional Nepalese wooden book cradles that had been modified to securely hold and support the volume.
Visitors to the exhibition included Richard Morris, the British Ambassador to Nepal. At the end of the Triennale, a special page turning session was also organised for select researchers, scholars, critics and other distinguished guests. This session enabled a closer inspection of the volume, the watermarks on the sheets and interesting discussion and even translation of some of the Nepali script – an area of particular interest that we are looking to investigate further and gain funding for with our new friends at the Taragaon Museum.
The volume is now back alongside the other beautiful illustrations that Hodgson presented to the Museum re-joining the rest of our collections that help us continue to tell great stories, support scientific research, create new collaborations and inspire generations to the never ending wonders of the natural world.
Media coverage of the Hodgson volume at the Kathmandu Triennale (2017)
Written by Andrea Hart, Head of Special Collections, Library and Archives.