Early Exhibitions of the Collections of Aurel Stein, Part 5: 1922: Indian and Persian Paintings, British Museum.

After 1919, parts of the newly acquisitioned Stein collection in the British Museum started to be exhibited in permanent and temporary exhibitions. This series concentrates on the latter, but we have a few hints of the former in this period from the correspondence between Binyon and Stein. Laurence Robert Binyon (1869–1943) was curator from 1921 in the newly formed Department of Ceramics and Ethnology: the Keeper was Robert Lockhart Hobson (1872–1941). In a letter from Binyon dated 16 July 1921, for example, he writes: ‘I have now got the beautiful mandala (Pl.3) framed and hung in our small permanent exhibition, where it is greatly admired.’1 He is almost certainly referring to the painting 1919,0101,0.32 (Ch.xxxvii.004) reproduced in Plate 3 of The Thousand Buddhas. Ancient Buddhist paintings from the cave-temples on the western frontier of China published in 1921 with an introductory essay by Binyon. If so, this would have taken up considerable space—it measures 180 x 201 cm framed.

Laurence Binyon at the British Museum. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Binyon was also very active in ensuring that the newly acquired Stein collection was displayed in temporary exhibitions, notably the 1922 ‘Exhibition of Indian and Persian Paintings and Illuminated Manuscripts, with Specimens of the Art of Eastern Turkestan, Tibet, Burma and Siam’ and the 1925 ‘Objects Brought by Sir Aurel Stein from his Third Expedition to Central Asia.’ I look at the first of these here and will discuss the latter in the next post in this series.

During Binyon’s tenure, he mounted several other exhibitions of Indian and Chinese material. None of these had a published Guide, and I have not yet had the opportuity to check the Museum archives to see if there is any information about their contents. It is possible that any of them might have contained Stein material, but especially the 1927 ‘Chinese frescos’. I list these other exhibitions at the end of this post and will add information here as I find it.

Binyon became Keeper of Prints and Drawings in 1932, and retired in 1933. The Department of Ceramics and Ethnology also ended in 1933 replaced with the Dept. of Oriental Antiquities and Ethnography: Hobson continued as Keeper.

1922: Exhibition of Indian and Persian Paintings and Illuminated Manuscripts, with Specimens of the Art of Eastern Turkestan, Tibet, Burma and Siam

The exhibition, curated by Binyon, opened in May 1922. As Binyon says in the opening paragraph of the short sixpenny Guide to the Exhibition, its aim ‘was to illustrate from the Museum collections the schools of Indian and Persian paintings, supplemented by a few specimens of the pictorial arts of others countries which have been strongly influenced by Indian Art and religion, viz. Eastern Turkestan, Tibet, Burma and Siam.’ The exhibition consisted of 178 paintings in the main section, with sixteen from these other countries and twenty manuscripts. It was held in the department’s galleries. The dates are not given. It received a review by The Times art critic, Charles Marriott (1869–1957) in Rupam: An Illustrated Quarterly Journal of Oriental Art, Chefly Indian (12, pp.122). The same issue carried a review (pp.134–139) of Stein’s The Thousand Buddhas. Binyon’s discussion in this undoubtedly influenced his choice of eight Stein paintings which comprise the East Turkestan contribution of the 1922 exhibition. They are listed below with the entry from the guide and the museum registration number, as far as I have been able to identify.

The classification of the first three items as Nepalese style helps to identify them. In Serindia, Stein identifies ten paintings with this characteristic, seven of which were sent to the National Museum of India, New Delhi.2 The three in the British Museum are therefore almost certainly the ones displayed in this exhibition. Stein refers to ‘the masterley treatise’ of his friend, the French scholar M. Foucher, namely Etude sur l’Iconographie Bouddhique de l’Inde (Paris, 1900), to conclude ‘that they must have been painted under the direct influence of that late Buddhist pictorial art of India which prevailed in the Gangetic plains, and the style of Nepal appears to have preserved in a particularly conservative manner.’3 He further hypothesizes that this iconographic style came to Dunhuang through Tibet, and that the Tibetan and Brahmi inscriptions on two of the banners confirms this but suggests that ‘the banners in no way differ from those of undoubtedly Chinese origin as regards material, size or arrangement of accessories.’4

Vajrapāṇi, 1919,0101,0.103. © The Trustees of the British Museum

However, as Roderick Whitfield notes in his 1982 catalogue, the material and size of the Vajrapāṇi painting (shown above) and two others now in New Delhi are in fact different:

‘They are on a grey silk with a balanced close weave, while the majority of the paintings are on a more open silk, with warp threads running in pairs. They are also much narrower than the usual width of the other banners, and both edges are hemmed with a strip of silk binding, instead of being merely painted with a dark brown pigment as is commonly seen. Finally, all three of these banners show a selvedge on the lower end. These facts seem to imply a different origin for the silk itself, and a different tradition of making the banners, the figures being at a right angle to the warp instead of in line with it. It does therefore seem possible, from technical as well as stylistic evidence, that these paintings were executed elsewhere and brought to Dunhuang.’5

Whitfield further argues that the origins of the other two paintings here formerly identified at Nepalese are similar to those from other Taklamkan kingdoms, Khotan (cat. 180) and Kizil (cat. 182), based on research by Gerd Gropp and Maria Bussagli.6

Cat. 184 is probably one of those discussed by Binyon in his essay as ‘kind of painting in a mixed style which flourished in Eastern Turkestan’, most likely 1919,0101,0.6 (Ch.liii.001) as the other one is now in Delhi. Although the central figure is now usually identified as Śākyamuni, it was initially identified as Amitābha in Stein’s expedition report, Serindia.

Cat. 189 is identifiable as there is only one painting of Tārā. It is on hemp, rather than linen. Stein gives the date at 10th century, with a question mark, as this is the generally accepted terminus ad quem of the library cave’s closing. But since then, scholars have accepted that some later material from other places might have been placed in the cave by Wang Yuanlu. Based on its style and iconography this is now generally accepted to be 14th century or later.7

Cat. 194 is also easily identifiable: this image of Mañjuśrī on a lion as later described by Arthur Waley in his 1931 catalogue as ‘completely Indian in style’.9(153).

It is more problematic to identify the two paintings in the exhibition labelled as Avalokiteśvara (cats. 183 & 185), simply because there are numerous examples of this subject in the British Museum Stein collection. In his essay Binyon looks at paintings with Chinese, Indian/Nepalese and Tibetan characteristics and then writes: ‘there are, lastly, a number which contain Indian, Chinese, and possibly Tibetan elements in varying proportions, but are in an intermediate style and may safely be held to be the product of local schools of Chinese Turkestan, and of the region which, on the east, joins it to China proper.’ Given his labelling of the two Avalokiteśvara as ‘East Turkestan’, we would expect them to belong to this category. So, for example, Binyon describes a painting of the thousand-armed Avalokiteśvara as ‘an imposing example of the kind of painting in a mixed style which flourished in Eastern Turkestan.’ But this painting is in New Delhi ((99-17-95, Ch.xxviii.006). Among the possibilities are 1919,0101,0.13 (Ch.liii.005), 1919,0101,0.130 (Ch.lv.0032) (although this is rather fragmentary); and 1919,0101,0.102 (Ch.lvi.003); Avaolokitesvara guiding a soul (1919,0101,0.47, Ch.lvii.002) is described by Binyon as a very fine paintings although it might have been expected that he would give a fuller title if this were one of those displayed.

Entries from The Guide

180. A Bodhisattva, perhaps Avalokiteśvara Nepalese; 9th or 10th century.
Probably 1919,0101,0.101, Ch.lvi.008.

181. Vajrapani. Nepalese; 9th or 10th century.
Almost certainly 1919,0101,0.103, Ch.lvi.002, a banner with a Tibetan inscription.

182. Avalokitesvara, the spirit of compassion. Nepalese; 9th or 10th century.
Probably 1919,0101,0.102 , Ch.lvi.003.

183. Avalokitesvara. Eastern Turkestan; 9th or 10th century.

184. Amitabha Buddha, with attendant saints. Eastern Turkestan; 8th century (?). Remarkable for the system of modelling by half-tones and high lights.
Almost certainly 1919,0101,0.6, Ch.liii.001.

185: Avalokitesvara. Eastern Turkestan; 9th or 10th century.

189: Tara, with attendant saints and divinities. Tibetan; 10th century(?). Painted on linen; with original mount. Found in the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas by Sir Aurel Stein, and possibly the oldest Tibetan painting now extant.
Almost certainly, 1919,0101,0.140, Ch.lii.001

194. The Bodhisattva Manjursi on the lion. Eastern Turkestan. 9th or 10th century. From the Stein collection.
Almost certainly 1919,0101,0.141, Ch.0036

Other British Museum Exhibitions in the 1920s

As mentioned above, several other temporary exhibitions were mounted in the Dept. of Ceramics and Ethnography in the 1920s, as below, and it is probable that Stein material was included in some of them, but especially the Chinese paintings of 1926 and the Chinese frescos of 1927. I will publish details here if I find them.

1924: Chinese Paintings and Japanese Screens

1926: Chinese paintings

1927: Chinese frescoes

1927: Indian paintings

1928: Chinese woodcuts

1929: Indian paintings

The next post will cover the 1925 exhibition which was dedicated to Stein material, namely, ‘Objects brought by Sir Aurel Stein from his Third Expedition to Central Asia’.

Thanks to Joanna Bowring for her compilation, Temporary exhibitions at the British Museum 1838–2012 (British Museum Occasional Papers, 2012), an invaluable resource.


  1. Letter from Binyon to Stein dated 16 July 1921, The Bodleian Library, MSS. Stein 65/229.

2. Serindia: 862.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. R. Whitfield, The Art of Central Asia, The Stein Collection in the British Museum: Vol.1, Tokyo 1982.

6. Gerd Gropp, Archäologische Funde Aus Khotan – Chinesisch – Ostturkestan – Die Trinker-Sammlung Im Übersee-Museum, Bremen (1974): 94 and Mario Bussagli, Paintings of Central Asia (1963): 32.

7. See Susan Whitfield and Ursula Sims-Williams, The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith (London: The British Library 2004): cat 243, p.288: n.5, for a summary.

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3 Responses to Early Exhibitions of the Collections of Aurel Stein, Part 5: 1922: Indian and Persian Paintings, British Museum.

  1. I suspect some of the Tibetan objects donated to the BM by Louis King might well have featured in some of these exhibitions. He donated them in 1919 and they were accessioned in 1921. The registration stem for the religious artefacts he gave is: 1921,0219,… and for the “thang-khas”: 1921,0201,0…. The deposit receipt for the thangkas which was given to King in 1919 was signed by Binyon, which suggests they very likely met one another at that time.


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