John Forbes Watson (1827–1892) was born in Scotland and trained as a physician in London and Paris. He traveled to India in the Bombay Army Medical Service in 1850 and lived there for three years. Upon returning to London, he published a catalogue of the plant life native to India and was soon named Director of the India Museum. During his relatively brief stay there, he clearly developed a keen interest in the welfare of India, which translated to his lifelong mission to promote and develop the native Indian industries, as well as trade between the Indian subcontinent, the British Isles, and other global markets.
The textile samples preserved in the volumes on display represent the second such group that Watson compiled. The first group was published in 1866, along with a supplementary volume with details about textile manufacture in India, local and regional tastes, and costumes. Watson pointed out that some fabrics could be made more cheaply by British factories using mechanized means, while others, such as the gossamer light cotton muslins, could not be reproduced satisfactorily by Western weavers; these still required the traditional hand skills of the Indian thread makers and weavers. He called these sample books "Industrial Museums" or "Trade Museums," because they were portable collections intended to inspire the textile manufacturers of both the British Isles and India. While Watson's cataloguing efforts were later criticized as being unscientific, these collections nevertheless preserve in compact form a dazzling array of textiles made in the Indian subcontinent during the second half of the nineteenth century.
John Forbes Watson's fascination with the myriad textile products of the Indian subcontinent mirrors that of earlier generations of Europeans. As global trade expanded during the Golden Age of sea exploration, both designs and techniques were transferred with surprising speed. One of the lasting effects of this commerce was the development of the European cotton printing industries, which developed in response to consumers' enthusiasm for colorful Indian cottons which were imported in large quantities by the late 1600s.
The seventeen-volume set was purchased by the American silversmith and designer Edward C. Moore (1827–1891). Moore, the chief designer for Tiffany & Co. from 1868 until his death, compiled a large library of art books and other reference material that served as inspiration for the Tiffany creative team. Moore paid £75 for these books in 1881, which is the equivalent of more than $9,000 today. Upon his death, Moore's personal library of more than five hundred books and his collection of Near Eastern and Far Eastern decorative arts were donated to the Metropolitan Museum. (Read about Edward C. Moore's contribution to the Museum's collection of Islamic art.)
This installation is intended to complement Interwoven Globe: Worldwide Textile Trade 1500–1800, on view September 16, 2013–January 5, 2014.