Flying home: a volume of watercolours and its rather special 4,500 mile journey | Library and Archives

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.

Colour photo taken from above showing a bound manuscript volume sitting in a see through perspex book cradle. The book is sitting diagonally from bottom left to top right. The bottom left hand corner of the left face is out of the photo. Although not readable, it is clear that there is handwritten notes on the left hand page, at intervals from top to bottom. On the right hand page, in landscape, is a coloured watercolour of two small birds facing each other, sitting on a branch with leaves, only the outline is drawn in black. The bird on the left is crouched, has a light green breast, head, dark back and right wing. The left wing is not visible. The bird on the right hand side has an orange breast, dark head, back, left wing and tail. The right wing is not visible. There is a short piece of unreadable text directly underneath the image and another small drawing to the bottom right, but it is not clear what it is. To the right and underneath the perspex support, sitting on the flat cream surface, is an electronic temperature / humidity recorder. It is a small grey plastic box, with a digital display and short stubby aerial. To the left of it is come sort of small grey bowl.
Hodgson’s Birds of Nepal (Appendix 1-187) volume showing watercolour illustrations and accompanying manuscript notes

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.

Sepia photograph showing Brian Houghton Hodgson standing, from the knees upwards, facing the photographer, but looking slightly to the right. He is standing next to a light coloured decorative column , which comes up to his waist. He is dressed in a stand calf length dark Victorian plain dress coat, buttoned once in the middle. His right hand is resting inside the breast opening of the coat, with just his white shirt cuff visible. His left hand is resting on his hip. He is wearing a dark gentleman's neck scarf. He has light coloured, probably grey moustache and side burns and short hair, brushed back from his forehead. He shows no emotion on his face. The background is light and plain.
Brian Houghton Hodgson 1800-1894 (dated 1860)

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.

Plain white square room, blank walls on the left and right, and the far wall has some sort of faded sporadic pattern on it, with just dark outlines of rough shapes. The are two, four sided white pillars, from floor to ceiling, one on the left and one on the right. In the foreground are two plain light wooden tables, next to each other but with a gap between them. The one on the left, has a see through perspex box on the top, with a large old book sitting in a perspex cradle inside. The table on the right has a black slide projector sitting in the middle, with a wire trailing across to the right, off the table down onto the floor, where it is plugged into a plug extension. The slide projector is on and projecting an image away, towards to the back of the room, onto a blank canvas that is hanging from the ceiling by three wires, that are almost invisible. The image being displayed can not be determined.
Heide Hinrichs installation “On some of the Birds of Nepal (Parting the Animal Kingdom of the East”. Photograph © Dirk Pauwels

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.

Six individuals standing in a small white room, with no windows. They are standing near to the photographer, in a line, left to right on the image, facing the camera. They different heights, gender (three male, three female) and ethnic backgrounds. All are smiling.
The Siddhartha gang (left to right): Tobias Volz, Sangeeta Thapa, Heide Hinrichs, Anoj Subedi, Pranaya Shrestha, Andrea Hart
Looking at watermarks
Turning the pages of the Hodgson volume and using backlighting to see the watermarks on the paper

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 return

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.

Turkish airlines representative Abdullah Tuncer Kececi and Head of Special Collections Andrea Hart with the Hodgson volume on its return journey (April 2017)
Turkish airlines representative Abdullah Tuncer Kececi and Head of Special Collections Andrea Hart with the Hodgson volume on its return journey

Media coverage of the Hodgson volume at the Kathmandu Triennale (2017)

Written by Andrea Hart, Head of Special Collections, Library and Archives.

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