The International Dr. G.W. Leitner Trail
Marcus Roberts & Silvia Dovoli (Oxford University Jewish Country House Project)


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Leitner's Wandering Collection of Gandharan Art

The last major phase of Leitner's life was marked by his efforts to establish his reputation as an expert on, and collector, of Gandharan Art, while attempting to both popularise Gandharan Art in Western Europe and to sell or lodge his collection of Gandharan Art in one or more of the major art collections of Europe. At the same time he attempted to establish his Oriental College. One might regard this as being an attempt to establish himself as an insider and part of the art establishment, though he was in fact someone of both status and wealth (he was a qualified barrister and in November 1875 was called to the Bar at Middle Temple as a Barrister at Law, and he was a Director of the Delhi London Bank in the 1880s), who was used to operating at the highest levels of the British administration, as is evidenced in extensive correspondence with Lord Kimberley, who has been appointed as Under-Secretary of State for India in 1861. Leitner was not fully successful in his endeavours, as far as the collection was concerned, and it wandered across Europe, being displayed at some key exhibitions, but failing to find a permanent home. When he brought his collection to Woking in 1882, it was the first collection of Gandharan Art in England (with the exception of the collection lost at Crystal Palace) and was therefore ground-breaking. Alternatively, and as likely, Leitner probably wanted the art collection to be educative and function as a cultural ambassador, representing the integrity and value of native Indian culture.

The scale and importance of his collection should not be under-estimated. When he displayed the collection in the 1873 Vienna International Exhibition, it included 1,000 coins, 184 Greco-Buddhist sculptures, 3,200 Himalayan Beetles and butterflies, 25 rare manuscripts from across the region, 177 ethnological articles from Dardistan, Kafiristan and Central Asia, 197 industrial and other articles from Central Asia and Northern India and a collection of Himalayan plants and minerals from Kulu and Gilgit. It was here that he attempted (unsuccessfully) to sell it to Berlin's ethnographic museum for the first time.

When he was at the Exhibition, he was awarded the highest honorary diploma (the only one awarded across the British Empire) for promoting education and for his exhibits, under Section IV, for 'Auxiliary Means for the improvement of Adults, through literature, the public press, public libraries, educational societies, associations for instruction'. The award, it was made clear, was for his educational work, with the caveat that it was awarded 'to the collections as a whole, including the sculptures, as bearing on education.' This award may give us a clue as to why Leitner may have had some difficulties in establishing his reputation as a collector, in so far as he may have been perceived primarily as an educational figure, given his founding work in, and direction of, Lahore University and repute as a linguistic scholar and publisher.

In 1873 the collection was also shown at the Royal Albert Hall Gallery in London, and in 1874 the collection was on loan at the moribund India Museum in London, which existed in temporary quarters loaned by the India Office, on what is now the site of the V&A. In April of 1875 he offered on loan some coins and sculpture to the South Kensington Museum and entered into negotiations for them to acquire his collections, but these negotiations did not bear fruit and it was only on his death in 1899 that some of his sculptures made it into the Indian Museum.

He also attended a number of congresses across Europe, as part of his campaign to publicise Gandharan Art and to establish his collection, as well as to cement his own reputation. In 1874 he attended the 2nd Congress of Orientalists in London, then in 1878 he attended the Fourth Congress of Orientalists in Florence, and then in 1878 he was at the Congres Ethnographique in Paris, then in 1876 Leitner attended the Saint Petersburg 3rd Congress of Orientalists. Even if Leitner did not receive recognition in England, he was honoured elsewhere in Europe. In 1873 Leitner was made Knight of the Order of the Iron Crown of Austria, Honorary Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Honorary Member of the French School of Oriental Languages and finally Honorary Member of the German Hochstift, so again Leitner appears to be receiving honour for his academic work, rather than directly in relation to his art collection.

Leitner's Other Collections

Leitner also had a substantial collection of Egyptian and Peruvian antiquities and some musical instruments, which should not be overlooked in the story of his curation and collection. Today, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford associates six instruments with his name all of which were collected in India. He also collected ethnic shawls, some of which still survive.

It is useful to consider why Leitner failed to establish Gandharan Art in England and Europe. At some levels the failure could have been due to the fact that he was primarily seen as an educator. Also being an outsider and with some tendencies to personal pugnacity may have been hindering factors. However, it may simply be that his attempt was made at the wrong time, as the tide of history was against an appreciation of Indian art for its intrinsic values.

In the early 19th Century, the culture of India had exercised some real fascination amongst the British public and the India Museum was a tourist attraction, organised more on the chaotic lines of a traditional Cabinet of Curiosities. However, the creation of a more rational and scientific format for exhibitions, encouraged by the Great Exhibition, and a paternalistic portrayal of indigenous peoples and their productions, keen to promote ideas of authentic Indian traditions to be mined for design ideas, made the India Museum appear dated.

Thus, while the British intelligentsia had argued for the greatness of India's, 'venerable civilisation and native artistic genius', as a supporter of expanding the museum put it in 1868, the India Office was desperate to be rid of its collection. From the 1860s, many of the objects in its collection were loaned to international exhibitions periodically held in South Kensington. In 1878-80 the collection was broken up and the objects were divided between the British Museum and the Cross Gallery in the South Kensington Museum and the surviving exhibits were largely seen as 'the triumph of Western rationality and order over Oriental superstition and chaos'. While in the 1880s the newly opened India Museum in South Kensington attracted huge crowds, and the curator, Caspar Purdon Clarke, set about augmenting the collection with thousands of additional items imported from India, Leitner failed to have made any substantial sales to the museum, as suggested in his correspondence to them. The reason may be simply that, in the way all collections have an implicit or explicit theme, narrative and values, his collection did not fit into the narrative and values being promoted through the collection at the time, but in some senses, rather contradicted it. There were some Gandharan sculptures in the museum, but they were simply mixed with and buried amongst the 'applied arts' on display.

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