Powis Castle and colonialism: The Clive Museum

A view of the Clive Museum and Tipu Sultan's palanquin at Powis Castle and Garden, Powys, Wales.

The collection of artefacts from India displayed in the Clive Museum is the largest private collection of this type in the UK.

Amassed during the British colonisation of India, these objects arrived in Wales and came to Powis Castle during the early 19th century. The Museum houses more than 1000 items from India and East Asia, dating from about 1600 to the 1830s. It includes ivories, textiles, statues of Hindu gods, ornamental silver and gold, weapons and ceremonial armour.

It was assembled by two generations of the Clive family: Robert (who became known as Clive of India) and his son Edward, who married Henrietta Herbert, daughter of the 1st Earl of Powis (2nd creation).

Robert Clive was an important figure in Britain’s East India Company, the powerful corporation that dominated trade between Europe, Asia and the Middle East between 1600 and 1857. The story behind the objects in the collection is not always clear and although some items were purchased or received as gifts, others were acquired as spoils of war following the defeat and death of Tīpū Sultān at the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799.

Robert amassed a vast fortune in gold, silver and jewels as spoils of war in India and this family wealth was passed down through generations. Ultimately it was invested in renovating Powis Castle and Gardens. The Museum shows how legacies of British colonialism continue to be visible today. Furthermore, the often-violent stories of how such precious objects came to be at Powis reinforce the need for new research into our colonial histories.

Robert Clive and the East India Company

Robert Clive (1725–74) was employed by the East India Company between 1744 and 1767. Through Clive, the Company deployed its armies to forcibly invade and conquer the Indian subcontinent exploiting and financially profiting from the wealth and rich natural resources of India’s southern regions. This began the British Empire in India, meanwhile ensuring a fortune for Clive. 

Robert Clive, 1st Lord Clive, by Nathaniel Dance, with the Battle of Plassey depicted in the background.
  A painting of Robert Clive, 1st lord Clive, with the Battle of Plassey depicted in the background. By Nathaniel Dance. Powis Castle and Garden, Powys, Wales
Robert Clive, 1st Lord Clive, by Nathaniel Dance, with the Battle of Plassey depicted in the background.

There was considerable local resistance to Clive’s activities in India, which he quashed using violence. At the pivotal battle of Plassey, Clive overthrew Siraj ud-Daulah (1727–1757), Nawab (sovereign ruler) of Bengal and replaced him with his own ally, Mir Jafar (c.1691–1765).

Palanquin, or covered travelling couch, belonging to Siraj ud-Daulah and now part of the Clive Collection at Powis Castle.
Palanquin in carved wood decorated with green lacquer and gilding at Powis Castle, National Trust, Powys, Wales.
Palanquin, or covered travelling couch, belonging to Siraj ud-Daulah and now part of the Clive Collection at Powis Castle.

The presence of an opulent palanquin, or travelling couch, in the Clive Collection is closely connected to the British seizure of power at the battle of Plassey. This rare, open palanquin was built for Siraj-ud-Daulah and was an ideal platform from which the Bengal ruler could see – and be seen by –  his subjects while traveling.

When, in 1757 Siraj ud-Daulah was overthrown at the Battle of Plassey, the palanquin, said to have been abandoned on the battlefield, was seized by the British and subsequently brought to Britain by Clive. With a vast fortune taken from the treasury of the defeated Siraj ud-Daulah, Clive returned to Britain one of its richest men.

Following the battle, Clive enlarged his authority and on his third visit to India became the Governor of Bengal and Commander-in-Chief of the East India Company’s Army. Under his direction the company used military force to invade and rule India.

Henrietta Herbert and Edward Clive

In 1784, Robert’s eldest son Edward Clive (1754–1839) married Henrietta Herbert, the daughter of the Earl of Powis. The marriage provided financial security for Powis, with the wealth and colonial power the Clive family had amassed in India, while bringing aristocratic prestige to the Clive name.  Edward continued his father’s colonial activities in India, adding to the family’s collection of Indian treasures.

Edward was appointed Governor of Madras in 1798. Unusually for that time, Henrietta and their two daughters joined him in India, staying for three years.

Tīpū Sultān and Indian artefacts

As Governor of Madras, Edward Clive bears responsibility for the defeat and death of Tīpū Sultān (1750–99), the ruler of the Indian state of Mysore. Tīpū Sultān succeeded his father to the throne in 1782 and was a devout Muslim who ruled over a predominantly Hindu population.

The East India Company fought three wars against Mysore to control the land and its rich resources, before definitively seizing power at the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799. The British forces were led by Lord Mornington.

After Tīpū Sultān was killed at Seringapatam, the British army swept into the city.  Tīpū Sultān’s treasury of precious objects and artefacts were taken to be distributed among the victors, some of which are now in the Clive Museum at Powis.

Tīpū Sultān's state tent at Powis Castle
Tīpū Sultān's tent made of painted chintz at Powis Castle and Garden, Powys, Wales
Tīpū Sultān's state tent at Powis Castle

Tīpū Sultān’s magnificent state tent, made of painted chintz, was one of the treasures seized by Edward Clive. The tent was a symbol of Tīpū Sultān’s power and leadership, which he used when travelling around his territories. At Powis it was used as a marquee for garden parties, highlighting the uncomfortable ways objects were used to signal colonial dominance and subjugation through appropriation.

A tiger head finial taken from the throne of Tīpū Sultān, ruler of the Indian state of Mysore.
A gold, bejewelled tiger head finial. Part of the Clive Collection at Powis Castle, Powys, Wales
A tiger head finial taken from the throne of Tīpū Sultān, ruler of the Indian state of Mysore.

Tīpū Sultān also known as the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, adopted the tiger as his personal emblem and tigers decorate many of his possessions.  After he was killed, his throne was broken up, with parts variously sold, and distributed as prized trophies or made into parcels to pay troops. This gold, bejewelled tiger head finial was taken from the throne and given to Henrietta Clive by Arthur Wellesley, later the 1st Duke of Wellington. Like the tent, its importance in conveying Tīpū Sultān’s personal status compounded the cultural, as well as physical, colonisation undertaken by the Clives.

Maharaja Pratap Singh of Tanjore, artist unknown.
A painting of MAHARAJA PRATAP SINGH OF TANJORE (1739-65.) Gouache, gold and beetle wing.The Maharaja sits in traditional Indian Style up against bolsters. He holds a flower-like rose water sprinkler. Powis Castle, Powys, Wales.
Maharaja Pratap Singh of Tanjore, artist unknown.

In addition to the removal of local artefacts, British colonialism in India also influenced local artistic production. This miniature, decorated with gold and beetle wing, depicts either Tulsaji of Thanjavur (ruled c.1765-86) or his father Pratap Singh of Thanjavur (ruled c.1739–65) who eventually allied with the British East India Company after fighting to retain his seat. Sarabhoji II (ruled 1798-1832), Tulsaji’s adopted son, gave this miniature portrait to Lady Henrietta Clive in 1800 when her husband was Governor of Madras (Chennai).

The painting was created by unknown Indian artists of the Thanjavur ‘Company’ School. Thanjavur was one of many places where artists practiced ‘company painting’, developing artistic styles to appeal to employees of the European East India Companies.

Powis Castle

At the beginning of the 19th century, on their return to England from India, Edward and Henrietta brought with them the vast colonial collection and wealth they had amassed.

Henrietta’s brother, the Earl of Powis had died in 1801 and so her eldest son, also named Edward, inherited the Castle.  The collection appears to have been split between Powis Castle and Henrietta’s house, Walcot Hall, until this property was sold by the family in 1933, when the whole collection was then displayed at Powis

The present Clive Museum occupies the old Billiard Room and was opened in 1987.  It remains a symbol of Britain’s colonial past and represents the ongoing impacts of colonial and imperial legacies in the twenty-first century.

The collection

Our research is ongoing and we are accelerating plans to reinterpret the stories of the painful and challenging histories attached to Powis Castle. This will take time as we want to ensure that changes we make are sustained and underpinned by high quality research.