Collection of 18th century artworks saved for the nation

The collection was brought back from India in 1766.


An “exceptional” collection of 18th century artworks from the Mughal empire has been saved for the nation.

Brought back from India in 1766, the collection, which features paintings and lacquer work, was formed by Captain Archibald Swinton (1731-1804) while he was in Bengal in north-east India between 1752 and 1766.

It was accepted in lieu of inheritance tax by the UK Government from the estate of Sir John Swinton and was allocated to National Museums Scotland, with the collection settling £2,267,370 of tax.

The large paintings depict the Nawabs who were ruling Bengal at that time.

When Capt Swinton, an army surgeon, first met them, they were the local rulers under Mughal sovereignty but subsequently came under British rule.

Friederike Voigt, of National Museums Scotland, right, and Naina Minhas, manager of NKS, with some of the artwork (Neil Hanna/National Museums Scotland/PA)

The paintings are believed to have been given as diplomatic gifts during this period of transfer of power.

Friederike Voigt, principal curator for the Middle East and South Asia at National Museums Scotland, said: “I am thrilled that this remarkable collection of 18th century paintings and lacquer work has been saved for the nation under the Acceptance in Lieu scheme.

“The Archibald Swinton collection is of exceptional historical and art historical significance and will make an outstanding addition to the South Asian collections at National Museums Scotland.

“We look forward to preserving, researching and displaying this exceptional material for the benefit of all our visitors.”

Painted in Indian miniature style, the artworks show lavish decoration in minute detail of clothing and landscapes, set against rich gold and silver backgrounds, featuring court scenes, a royal procession on horseback and evening entertainment with music and dance.

An Edinburgh-trained surgeon, Capt Swinton travelled to Madras (now Chennai) in 1752 and secured a position as an army surgeon.

He served in the East India Company’s army at the beginning of its military expansion in India and subsequently, with his Persian language skills and familiarity with local customs, became an interpreter for the East India Company.

On several occasions he was sent as an emissary to negotiate with local rulers, including the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, and was instrumental in the signing of the Treaty of Allahabad in 1765 by Major-General Robert Clive and Shah Alam II.

Friederike Voigt
Friederike Voigt, of National Museums Scotland, said the collection will now be further researched (Neil Hanna/National Museums Scotland/PA)

This event marked the formalisation of British rule in India.

Experts said the Swinton collection will add to the understanding of this period of British imperial expansion in India and will help tell the stories of early Scottish-Indian encounters.

Edward Harley, chairman of the Acceptance in Lieu panel, said: “I am delighted that the Archibald Swinton collection has been acquired through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme by National Museums Scotland.

“These paintings and lacquer work are Mughal in origin and date to the 18th century. They are believed to have come into Swinton’s possession as diplomatic gifts. With rich decoration and elegant composition, the pictures are a testament to the skilled craft and precision of their respective artists.

“I hope that this example will encourage others to use the scheme to find a place for great art in our national collections.”

Naina Minhas, manager of NKS Ltd, which is working with National Museums Scotland on heritage outreach projects, said: “The Archibald Swinton collection showcases and tells a story of South Asian culture, history and heritage of the 18th century.

“Moreover, it gives us, especially the South Asian diaspora, an opportunity to revisit and reinterpret history as we see and understand it from our perspective, in collaboration with diverse communities here in Scotland.”

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