Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 10, 2004
Nigel Allan, ed. Pearls of the Orient: Asian Treasures from the Wellcome Library Chicago: Serindia Publications, 2003. 215 pp.; 200 color ills. Cloth $50.00 (0906026601)

The title of this volume of essays on illustrated manuscripts in the Wellcome Library, London, says more than editor Nigel Allan may have intended. The notion of gems plucked from an exoticized Orient, replete with objects there for the taking, fills colonialist—and, to build on the title, Orientalist—fantasy, including that of Sir Henry Wellcome, who founded the pharmaceutical company that bears his name and who built the collection. The Wellcome Library, a center for the history and understanding of medicine, houses a splendid collection of manuscripts, both Western and Asian. It also maintains a continuing exhibition schedule at the library itself and occasionally at other institutions, for example, a current exhibition entitled Living and Dying at the British Museum. This volume seeks to present a selection of the library’s manuscripts through a series of essays covering all of Asia. It is in no way a catalogue of the complete holdings but is rather a superb introduction to the collection, presenting—for the first time in many cases—some extremely important illustrated manuscripts.

The eleven essays are essentially organized geographically, from West Asia to Japan. The first essay, by Allan, treats two Hebrew marriage contracts (ketubah), one from the eighteenth century and the other from the nineteenth. The earlier one is from Venice, while the second comes from the Sephardi community of North Africa. The illustrations, most of which form elaborate borders around the legal documents, are little discussed in the essay, which focuses largely on information derived from the content of the contracts and on the history of Jewish marriage contracts in general. That emphasis on manuscript content is characteristic of most of the other essays in the book, underscoring the difference in approach of scholars concerned with visual culture on the one hand and, on the other, of those concerned with verbal culture.

Vrej Nersessian, author of the second essay, treats fifteen illuminated Armenian manuscripts in the Wellcome collection. Covering a range of topics—the four Gospels, hymnals, ritual books, and medical texts—these manuscripts date from 1495 to 1802, although some much earlier vellum fragments are also in the collection. Commenting as much on the text as on the illustrations, Nersessian notes that scribes often added a note beseeching the owners not to regard the manuscripts as saleable merchandise. He does not, however, comment that somebody must have treated the manuscripts as commodities in order to get them into the Wellcome collection.

An article on Islamic calligraphy by Nikolaj Serikoff presents the differing calligraphic styles with select examples from the Wellcome Library. Although this essay is a good introduction to the scripts, it does not give a sense of how extensive the Wellcome collection of Islamic manuscripts is. Serikoff himself has prepared a catalogue of the Haddad manuscript collection in the library, some 87 manuscripts on medical topics. This number is only part of a collection that, if my search is correct, includes some 297 Arabic manuscripts alone; others are in Persian and Urdu, both written in the same script. The second article on Islamic manuscripts, by Sergei Tourkin, introduces two astrological manuscripts: one a horoscope of Iskandar Sultan (1384–1415), grandson of the great Timur, and the other simply described as Indian. This latter document is, in fact, from the Deccan, probably from Bijapur, and is very important given how rare Deccani paintings are.

Dominik Wujastyk presents a fascinating illustrated Balagopalastuti (Hymn to the Baby Cowherd, Krishna), dating to the fifteenth century and created in what is commonly called the Western Indian Style. Scholars too often assume that this style was used exclusively for Jain manuscripts, probably because it was not centered on a court but rather practiced by artists located largely, though not entirely, in Western India, where Jain merchants would have had the resources to be among their most active patrons. The second article on Indian manuscripts, by Jeevan Singh Deol, focuses on an illustrated Punjabi translation of the Bhagavad Gita (Bhagvadgitagianu) dating to ca. 1820–40, one of only five known manuscripts of this text. Beside information on the manuscript, the article reveals that Henry Wellcome had an agent who operated on his behalf to purchase manuscripts in the Punjab, amassing some 261 of them between 1911 and 1921. (Other collectors, even quite recently, have plundered the subcontinent by using agents, satisfying immense acquisitive appetites yet at the same time bringing to the public works of great importance; the practice, however, may be thought of as looting, incidentally an English word derived from the Hindi lutna.) The article provides a good treatment of a painting style that is little known and too often dismissed as simply “late,” as if its date made it unworthy of display or investigation.

The life of the Buddha as illustrated in three Burmese manuscripts of the later nineteenth century and in the covers for a small Sinhalese manuscript, also of the nineteenth century, is the first of two articles on Southeast Asian materials. The authors, William Pruitt and Peter Nyunt, fail to tell us the specific text of the manuscripts but instead recount the story of the Buddha’s life in more or less chronological order. The paintings of these events are described in some detail but are presented more as illustrations of Siddhartha’s life than as works produced during a particular historical period and functioning physically and visually within that time, as well as in subsequent years. The second article on Southeast Asian manuscripts, however, is a thoughtful presentation of four eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Thai accounts of the Buddhist monk Phra Malai and his journeys to heaven and hell. Written by Henry Ginsburg, this essay sets the works in the context of the Southeast Asian concern with the decline of the religion and the need to counteract it, for example, by the patronage and production of manuscripts such as these. Both the subject of the paintings in these four manuscripts and the evolution of their style are considered—important given that we know so little about Thai manuscript painting apart from Ginsburg’s scholarship.

The final three articles cover works from North and East Asia. First, Gyurme Dorje writes on a set of fifteen Tibetan banners depicting the accoutrements of protector deities. He does an excellent job of contextualizing them and speculating on their origin, a Palkhor Chode Monastery in Gyantse. Following that introduction, each banner is treated in a detailed and useful catalogue entry. Next, Harmut Walravens examines three Chinese albums that illustrate “strangers,” that is, people other than Han Chinese who had been absorbed into Chinese society. Although the author discusses these in the context of similar albums and considers in detail the ethnographies presented by the albums, he relies primarily on the text, saying little about the illustrations. In fact, it is not clear when the Wellcome albums were crafted, although they are apparently nineteenth-century products. The final article is on Japanese medical books and illustrations. Peter Kornicki considers three nineteenth-century manuscripts, produced long after printing had been introduced to Japan; keeping a text in manuscript, however, helped maintain the secrecy of medical traditions and thus the economic value of the knowledge they preserved. Besides presenting the manuscripts, this article offers an interesting history of Japanese medicine and the gradual infiltration of Western medical knowledge.

I might complain about the emphasis on the content of the manuscripts over the illustrations, but I think that very emphasis makes important reading for art historians. There’s probably not one among us who can’t recognize the major manuscripts included in the discipline’s canon. But how many think of the now-museumified books as functional, read works? And do we try to imagine the response to a painted page by a society less inundated than ours with visual imagery—from films to billboards, from newspapers to television and video? This book, then, is important not only because it presents gems from a collection that is inadequately known. In some excellent essays, it also extends the imagination of art historians.

Frederick M. Asher
Professor Emeritus, Department of Art History, University of Minnesota