The Painting Left Behind

I’ve been in the Stein archives at the Bodleian again (checking final references for a forthcoming paper) and, as usual, ended up tempted down several rabbit holes. This blog post is the result of exploring one of the shorter and more easily navigated—written while awaiting retrieval of further material— and highlights the issues that Museums and Librarys can face when acquiring, sorting, cataloguing and caring for large, diverse collections. I will write further on this in future posts on another Dunhuang painting, mislaid, and on timelines of the acquisitions of the Stein collections.

In a letter dated 11 September 1927 to Laurence Binyon (1869–1943) at the British Museum, Aurel Stein (1863-1943) writes from India of his amazement of having received a letter from F.W. Thomas (1867–1956) at the India Office in London (The Bodleian Library, MS. Stein 65/251–2). The letter enclosed one of the paintings that Stein had acquired at Dunhuang in 1907. His surprise was compounded by the fact that Thomas had not recognized it as an original but described it as ‘an enlarged proof.’ Given that this was a fragile painting on silk it is difficult to see how Thomas could have made such a mistake. Stein is confused, but rejoices in the fact that it has reached him from London by letter post without loss or damage. It was a painting of Virūpākṣa, as shown below, with the Stein id. Ch.0040 (see forthcoming paper for a detailed discussion of these ids.).

Painting of Virūpākṣa from Dunhuang.
Stein Ch.0040, NMI 99-17-001.

Stein’s acquisitions from Dunhuang and elsewhere on his second expedition (1906–1908) were originally sent to London and then unpacked, numbered and sorted in the British Museum. His expedition had been jointly funded by the Museum and India and the collections were to be duly divided and a portion sent to the India Office in London for dispatch to Delhi. This could not start until they had been unpacked and listed and this took several years. The division was discussed before and during the First World War (1914–1918) during much of which Stein was on his Second Central Asian Expedition (1913–1916). He was keen that the material remain in the Museum until his return so that he could have access to it to finish his expedition report (Serindia, published in 1921). In a future post I will give a detailed timeline of this period.

In May 1914, an exhibition opened at the British Museum of much of the material (see my previous blog post). There were two banners of Virūpākṣa listed in the catalogue: cat. 40 is described as ‘Virupaksha, King of the Western Quarter, in full armour and with a sword’; and cat. 69 has ‘Virupashka trampling on a red-headed demon.’ The latter is almost certainly the painting in question. By this time it had had at least preliminary conservation work involving mounting and backing with thin Japanese paper: it can be seen in its original state in an early Stein photograph (Photo 392/27(594)). Much of this was done in 1911–12 in preparation for the photography for Serindia. It is possible that it was also conserved further for the exhibition by conservation with silk over a light wooden frame. Further photography was carried out in London during this time but was not comprehensive owing to lack of funds and time.

The discussion over the division of the paintings continued through the war years. The list, produced largely by Raphael Petrucci (1872–1917) in 1911–14 (before he left to work at a hospital run by the Red Cross in Belgium), was adjusted and finally agreed in 1917 (Petrucci died in the same year of diptheria contracted in hospital after an operation). The material destined for India was then packed up by Florence Lorimer in the British Museum in 1918 and sent to the India Office in London to await dispatch to the proposed new museum in New Delhi. The paintings agreed for the British Museum were acquisitioned into the collections in 1919.

The Indian material was not to be dispatched until several years later. By this time the painting had been listed in Serindia (p.948 and Pl. LXXXV) and illustrated and described in The Thousand Buddhas (Pl.XXVII), both published in 1921. 1927 was Thomas’s final year at the India Office: he took up the post of Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University. It is therefore possible that came across this piece when he was sorting through material prior to his departure.

In his letter to Binyon, Stein writes:

‘As you know, I had nothing whatever to do either with the distribution (done during my absence on the third expedition) or with the packing up of the Indian share by Miss Lorimer in 1918 or its repacking by Andrews in 1923 and the handing over to you in 1924 of the paintings. I am therefore, quite unable to explain how this banner got mixed up with MSS sent to the India Office Library and how its absence from the paintings which were being catalogued in your Department remained unnoticed.’ (Bodleian Library, MS. Stein 65/251–2)

Binyon replies, suggesting that it must have been sent to Thomas before the distribution was agreed and admitting to the ‘mislaying’ of several paintings over this period:

‘It must I think have gone to him by mistake before the division was made, as it is not on either of the typed lists (Neither the IO nor the BM list). I think more than one painting was reported missing at the time. And in fact on each occasion when the collection has been handed over some items have been reported missing thought they usually reappear.’ (MS. Stein 65/253, 4 Oct. 1927)

This banner was among those that was photographed in this early years for Serindia. But many more had not, and Stein therefore had ensured that a full listing and description of the paintings and other objects was included in his expedition report. Although this was not published until 1921, the work was done in 1913 by Florence Lorimer, one of his assistants at the British Museum (see Wang 1998), with the input of various visiting scholars. He praises her work:

‘I took special care to secure a sufficiently detailed description of all pictorial material which would provide needful guidance also as regards the many paintings etc that had to be left without illustrations… This descriptive list reproduced below in Section …. has been prepared mainly by the hand of Miss Lorimer who devoted to it for years an amount of painstaking study and care which I cannot value too highly. In it has been embodied also much useful information on artistic points received from Mr F H Andrews previous to 1913 and what valuable iconographical indications expert Japanese scholars like Professors Taki and Kano and Mr Yabuki were kind enough to furnish on their more of less prolonged visits to the collection.’ (MS. Stein 406/3622-23) and see slightly revised version in Serindia 836–6)

But the painting was in the initial list of the proposed division of the painted material between the British Museum and India submitted by Petrucci in late 1914/1915 (BM, CE32/173/4, p.15). Changes were suggested to this list by Binyon—including adding ‘six pictures accidentally overlooked by M. Petrucci.’ (Letter from Denison-Ross to Binyon, 26 Feb. 1915, CE32/23/62/3). Several others then also had their say. The final list, with revisions, was eventually agreed by both parties in 1917 but it was also agreed that, for safety of the objects, no distribution should take place until after the war. This final list did not contain Ch.0040 so perhaps Binyon was right and it had been sent to the India Office for some reason before this. It seems cross-checking between lists —including Florence Lorimer’s—was not a strong point!

Stein/Lorimer’s list is, indeed, invaluable, most especially as a catalogue of the paintings sent to India was not to appear until 2012 (Chandra and Sharma). Although this painting is in the concordance with the museum reg. no.99-17-101, it is not pictured or described in the catalogue. The reg. no. prefix 99, indicates that it was found in 1999 but its absence in 2012 suggest that it might again be mislaid.


My forthcoming article, jointly authored by Paschalia Terzi, is entitled: ‘Reconstructing a Medieval Library? The Contents of the Manuscript Bundles in the Dunhuang Library Cave’, and will appear soon in the inaugural issue of Silk Roads Archaeology and Heritage, edited by Tim Williams.

Chandra, Lokesh and Nirmala Sharma. Buddhist Paintings of Tun-Huang in the National Museum, New Delhi. New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2012.

Wang, Helen. “Stein’s Recording Angel: Miss F. M. G. Lorimer.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 8, no. 2, 1998, pp. 207–28. JSTOR, Accessed 1 Mar. 2023.

A detailed timeline of this period and the Japanese scholars will be discussed in future blog posts.

This entry was posted in Aurel Stein, British Museum, Dunhuang, paintings, Silk Road archaeology, Silk Road art and history and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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