Croydon’s forgotten art collection

By - Wednesday 3rd July, 2013

A giant of Indian history and world culture is just one of many such figures whose works are held in our town

On the weekend of 28th-30th June, Dartington Hall school is holding a festival inspired by one of its founders. Rabindranath Tagore was a Nobel Prize-winner whose passions for the arts, education, and ecology shaped the school. You may wonder what this has to do with Croydon. One of the hidden cultural assets not on display in the borough’s museum are two ‘paintings’ by Tagore: ‘Five Profiles Overlapping’ and ‘A Head’, both in ink on paper. They can be viewed, along with many of the pieces in the Museum of Croydon, here.

The 150th anniversary of his birth in 2011 was commemorated in two ways. Prince Charles unveiled a bust commissioned by the Tagore Centre UK in Gordon Square and King’s College London’s India Institute to establish the Tagore Centre for Global Thought.

A Tagore Festival was held in the square in May this year. The Heritage Lottery Fund has approved funding for the Tagore Centre UK  to start a project celebrating his life.

Tagore was a Bengali poet, musician, painter, and thinker who was very influential on Yeats, William Butler, and  Robert Bridges. His work also inspired Gandhi. He visited England in 1912, and one of his stories was adapted by George Calderon for the romantic comedy The Maharani of Arakan’, which was performed at the Albert Hall later that year. He was back again in 1926 and helped found Dartington Hall School.

While on a European and US trip in 1930 his paintings were exhibited in London. A supporter of Indian nationalism, he returned the knighthood he received in 1915 in protest at the Amritsar Massacre in 1919. The massacre had seen troops ordered to shoot more than 300 Indian civilians by a senior British military officer in Amritsar, the holiest city of the Sikhs. In 1940 Oxford University arranged a special ceremony in India to honour him with a Doctorate Of Literature. A blue plaque was put up to Tagore him at 3 Villas at Hampstead Heath in 1961.

‘Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time’

The Maharani of Arakan’ was published in 1915, the year of Calderon’s death. It contained a character sketch of Tagore compiled by K. N. Das Gupta, was illustrated by Clarissa Miles, and contained photographs by Walter Benington. Having recovered from his war wounds the British actor Robert Coleman played in the 1916 performance of the play on the London stage.

Some of Tagore’s sayings are still relevant today. Michael Gove could do well to learn from ‘don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time’, or indeed ‘the highest education is that which not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.’

There is hope that when the Tagore paintings are displayed, they can be accompanied by an exhibition

Croydon’s Tagore’s ‘paintings’ can be seen on the Bridgeman Art, Culture, History website along with over a hundred other images in the Croydon Art Collection.

I am also very encouraged to hear from a council source that current plans for the Art Collection mean it will soon be displayed in the new exhibition space next to the Riesco Gallery on a rotating basis. This is certain to involve the two Tagore paintings at some point. Plans for the first hang are believed to be underway.

There is hope that when the Tagore paintings are displayed, they can be accompanied by an exhibition about his life, ideas, and influence, linked with the HLF-funded project. My next article will explore the other examples of Britain’s Black and Asian cultural heritage that are (or are not) on display in Croydon.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly, and Love Norbury Residents Associations Joint Planning Committee. He is Governor of Norbury Manor Primary School and Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, and of British black, , social action and labour movement history. He co-ordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History Networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint - History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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