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The Zoomorphic Figures of Awadh

There are 14 extraordinary painted clay zoomorphic figures in the Horniman collections which have piqued the curiosity of visitors. Curatorial volunteer Alison South has been researching these figures to find out something about their origins.

  • Composite of the zoomorphic figures, The zoomorphic figures
    The zoomorphic figures

These are 3D artworks, with animals and humans comprised of numerous smaller animals. The fine quality of the figures and their unusual form has been a source of interest, particularly since four of the figures have been put on display in the World Gallery, while two more featured in the recent Lore of the Land exhibition.

The creatures depicted are so diverse there is no obvious link to any particular geographical region.

The 14 models consist of the following 21 figures:

  • 4 humans standing, 3 seated
  • 2 rhinos
  • 2 gazelles
  • 2 monkeys seated
  • 1 donkey
  • 1 owl
  • 1 ostrich
  • 2 goat/goat-like animals
  • 1 cow, 1 calf
  • 1 kangaroo

Whilst paintings of zoomorphic creatures are well-known in Indian art, we have not so far been able to trace any other similar ceramic figures.

  • zoomorphic art, Pari holding a unique animal. 19th cent. Rajput style. Bhopal museum, Ismoon via CC license on Wikicommons
    Pari holding a unique animal. 19th cent. Rajput style. Bhopal museum, Ismoon via CC license on Wikicommons

How did the Horniman acquire them?

The 14 figures were transferred to the Horniman from the Wellcome Collection in 1982. We wanted to know more about the origins of these figures – where had they been made and how had they come to be in the Wellcome Collection?

As with most of our research projects, we began with our own records: the Horniman’s historical file relating to the transfer from the Wellcome in 1982.

The file also includes copies of the Wellcome’s descriptions and index cards, which pointed us to two sources.

12 figures (Wellcome A19174 / Horniman 1982.126i- xii) came from a sale at Easton Park on 25 June 1919, lot 243.

The two human figures (Wellcome R753/1937 and R754/1937 / Horniman 1982.127i – ii) were bought from a Mr H R Maggs, who lived at 118 Long Acre in Covent Garden, London in 1937.

Although the objects came to the Wellcome from two separate sources, they are so similar that they are considered to have come from the same origin. The figures currently on display at the Horniman all come from the Easton Park source, the remaining figures are in store at our Study Collections Centre.

The Easton Park figures

The next step was to identify Easton Park. Online searches brought us to Easton in Suffolk and their excellent local history website revealed that the Easton Park estate formed part of the Dukes of Hamilton’s holdings. The Hamilton’s were (and are) the most senior peers in Scotland, and Easton was the main base of the 12th Duke of Hamilton.

  • The 12th Duke with a gun boy, The 12th Duke with a gun boy, Courtesy of Mr Brian Boon
    The 12th Duke with a gun boy, Courtesy of Mr Brian Boon

It was well established that the whole estate, 4,833 acres, was put up for sale in 1919 and a large proportion of the estate was sold at that time. However no sale of artefacts taking place in June 1919 (as referred to in the Wellcome documentation) was known about locally.

  • Easton Park, Easton Park, Courtesy of Mr Brian Boon
    Easton Park, Courtesy of Mr Brian Boon

Local historian Mr Brian Boon suggested contacting Dr Godfrey Evans, Principal Curator of European Decorative Arts at the National Museums Scotland, as a researcher of the Dukes of Hamilton, and the Hamilton Palace collection and dispersal. We’re very much indebted to both these individuals for sharing their knowledge on this with us.

Following our enquiry, the archivists in the Wellcome Library helpfully located an uncatalogued sale catalogue in their archives for an auction by Moore Garrard & Son for five days at Easton Park starting on 25 June 1919.

Almost simultaneously, Dr Evans confirmed that this was the sale at which the 12th Duke of Hamilton’s collections were disposed of by the Marchioness of Graham, his daughter and only child. The 12th Duke had died some years previously, aged 50 in 1895.

  • Lady Mary Graham daughter of 12th Duke, Lady Mary Graham daughter of 12th Duke, Courtesy of Mr Brian Boon
    Lady Mary Graham daughter of 12th Duke, Courtesy of Mr Brian Boon

Lot 243 from the first day of the sale is described as ‘Eleven quaint Russian figures and animals, under glass.’

The annotated copy of the sale catalogue confirms that Lot 243 was purchased by ‘Stow’ for £9, 15sh. Dr Ruth Horry at the Wellcome Collection explained Mr Harry Stow was one of the longest-serving of the Wellcome’s employees and acted as a regular purchasing agent at auctions and sales.

The Wellcome index card for the Easton Park acquisition indicates there were 12 figures rather than 11 and that the origin was thought to be Indian rather than Russian. The glass coverings referred to in the sale catalogue have not survived.

So how did William, 12th Duke of Hamilton come into possession of these 12 exquisite figures? This is where the trail goes cold.

They may have come to him directly from India or from some more circuitous route. He is not thought to have visited India himself though family members and friends may well have. The figures could possibly have been a gift from someone who knew of his interest in amusing, bizarre and exotic representations of animals of which there are many examples within his collections.

The Maggs figures

The next task was to investigate Mr Maggs of Covent Garden. The Wellcome has now digitised their correspondence files so it’s possible to read the exchanges from 1937.

When offering the two figures to the Wellcome, Mr Maggs said, “I feel sure” that the figures were made in Lucknow for the Nawab (or ruler) of Oudh (the anglicised spelling of Awadh) and were in his collection about 100 years ago.

He added that the king was a great lover of wild animals and had a “wonderful collection.” After some correspondence, the price of 8 Guineas was agreed for the purchase.

So, who was Mr Maggs?

Harry Reginald Maggs is listed at the Long Acre address between 1935 and 1939 on the Electoral Register, as is Sarah Lewis Maggs. They are also linked to a property at 50 Great Russell Street, which is probably a business address, located opposite the British Museum.

By 1939, the flat at 118 Long Acre was vacant, and the census confirms Harry and Sarah Maggs were living in Hove. Harry’s occupation is given as General Export Agent and his date of birth as 8 June 1880. Sarah, born on 17 September 1888, was a Master Antique Dealer.

  • 118 Long Acre, Covent Garden, 118 Long Acre, Covent Garden, Spudgun67 under CC license via Wikicommons
    118 Long Acre, Covent Garden, Spudgun67 under CC license via Wikicommons

No details of Sarah’s business activities are known at present, but it’s interesting that she dealt in antiques, which adds to the validity of the explanation of the origin of the figures mentioned in Harry’s letter to the Wellcome. From the Wellcome correspondence files, we know that in 1936 Harry also offered them sets of drug jars and glass bottles from a chemist’s shop which he said were 150 years old, though these were not purchased by the Wellcome. He does not appear to have offered or sold any other objects to the Wellcome, apart from the 2 figures.

We have not been able to find any evidence so far that Harry was involved in trade with India, though this is a possibility, or that the figures were acquired through Sarah’s business dealings.

The King of Awadh Connection

Based on the information in Harry Maggs’ letter, the figurines date from around 1837 and were made in Lucknow for the Nawab of Awadh. There are four rulers of Awadh who ruled within the likely time-frame:

  • four-shahs---all-wikicommons-public-domain, From top left clockwise - Muhammad Ali Shah, Nasir-ud-Din-Haidar Shah, Amjad Ali Shah, Washah Ali Shah., Wikicommons - public domain
    From top left clockwise - Muhammad Ali Shah, Nasir-ud-Din-Haidar Shah, Amjad Ali Shah, Washah Ali Shah., Wikicommons - public domain

King Wajid Ali Shah was the last Nawab of Awadh and a great patron of the arts. He also possessed a large menagerie of animals.

In 1856, his kingdom was annexed by the British and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah eventually settled in Metiabruz, a suburb of Calcutta, following stints under house arrest. His mother and brother came to England in 1856 to plead his case with Queen Victoria. The first great revolt of Indian Independence started in Awadh in 1857 and Lucknow was besieged.

Accordingly, there would seem to be very many routes by which these figurines could have come from Awadh to England - either during or following the annexation by the British.

Can you shed any light on these figures, or have you seen others like them?

Get in touch and tell us.

Magical Gardens - Myths and Folklore

What myths and folklore are hidden around the garden?


For Druids, mistletoe symbolised the spirit, as it grew in the air. Mistletoe was most treasured when found on oak trees because they are considered sacred.

It is thought that Druids believed that the hand of God placed it there with a strike of lightening. At the end of the year, it would be cut off by priests in white gowns who would not permit the plant to touch the ground. Two white bulls would then be slain where the oak had grown and the twigs of the mistletoe would be spread among the people. People believed the plant was protective and would place the twig above doors or carve them into rings and jewellery to ward of evils, such as attacks from witches and poisons. It could also be used as a general protection amulet. In British paganism, it was said that mistletoe was hung with red ribbon and then burned during Imbolc to protect the home and ward off disease at the height of winter.

Mistletoe (Viscum album) does not only grow from oak trees. It is a ‘hemi-parasite’, meaning it grows on a host tree, from which it takes water and support. Today there are approximately 1,500 species of the plant. You can see a bunch of it in the Meadow field, high up on a tree.

Yew Tree

Another tree respected for its magical properties is the yew tree.

Also named ‘The Tree of Resurrection’ or ‘The Goddess Tree’, it has the ability to regenerate itself. A branch can grow down the centre of a tree, forming a brand new one, and because of this ability, it can be difficult to identify a yew tree’s exact age.

The oldest yew tree in the UK, is thought around 2000–3000 years old and is found in churchyard in Perthshire. Yew trees in England are often found in churchyards, popping up in approximately 500 around the country. It is thought yew trees could purify victims of the plague if placed on their graves.

Elder tree

The Elder tree is a truly magical plant. All parts of the tree can be used for good, like food and medicine.

The English elder comes from the Anglo-Saxon words, aeld meaning fire. In Elder tree folklore, the tree was believed to host a powerful spirit called the Elder Mother. People hung dried elder leaves to ward off evils from their home, and it was thought to be a lucky omen if an Elder tree grew near your home, as it would offer protection to your household. Use of the Elder tree required asking permission through a ritual, and if not asked, it is said the Elder Mother would seek revenge against the person who had offended her.

In some Christian legends, the elder tree has been given negative connotations. It was thought that Judas Iscariot hanged himself on the tree after betraying Jesus. It is also said that the wood used in the crucifixion came from this tree, although it is unlikely the weight of the wood could bare the weight of a man.


Sage has become a widely used ingredient in our food dishes today but did you know the herb has a long history of being used for healing properties?

The scientific name for Sage is Salvia which comes from the Latin word Salveo, “to heal” or “to save”.

The Romans regarded sage as a holy herb. They used it to clean their teeth and believed it aided memory function. The Romans and the Egyptians both used the herb to preserve meat and to help with fertility.

In the Middle Ages, sage was used as a medicine. An old English practise was to eat sage every day in May, which was thought to grant immortality, and fresh sage leaves were said to cure warts, which may be due to its antibacterial properties. During this time people would use sage to cover rotting meat, both to help protect themselves and cover the smell, which may be why it is still so commonly used with roasting meat now.

Further reading:

Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees and Fruit, Charles. M. Skinner

Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?

We delve into the festive traditions and mythology surrounding mistletoe.

Mistletoe, or Viscum album, is a curious plant. It is a ‘hemi-parasite’, meaning it grows on a host tree, from which it takes water and support. Don’t worry though, it causes very little, if any, damage to its host. In fact, it has real value to wildlife - six species of insect are specialist mistletoe feeders, including the rare mistletoe marble moth Celypha woodiana and mistletoe weevil Ixapion variegatum. 

It was often seen as a mystical plant because it seemed to appear from nowhere, with no roots, and stayed evergreen when its host tree dropped its leaves in winter. We now know that its seeds are germinated to its host tree by passing birds and its roots are entwined with its host tree. But this small plant must have seemed magical to people long ago.

The earliest account of mistletoe is from the Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder. Writing in his Natural Histories in the first century AD, he described how Druids thought mistletoe taken from oak trees was sacred. Many modern Pagans still use mistletoe today.

However, mistletoe is seldom found on oaks. It is more likely to grow on trees such as apple, hawthorn, poplar, lime or conifers.

It is a festive tradition to hang up mistletoe around Christmas and New Year and plant a kiss on anyone you find yourself standing next to while beneath it. But why do we do this?

It is said the roots of this tradition stem from Norse mythology. According to legend, the Norse goddess of love and fertility, Frigg, made all living things promise not to harm her son Baldr because she wanted to protect him. However, she overlooked the mistletoe plant because it was so small. Baldr was then killed by an enemy using an arrow made from mistletoe. In some versions, Frigg’s tears land on the mistletoe and turn its berries to white which brings Baldr back from the dead. In gratitude, Frigg reverses the mistletoe’s bad reputation and kisses anyone who walks underneath it as a sign of gratitude.

It wasn’t until Victorian times that this tradition seems to become popular. It is said that a berry would be plucked for each kiss until all the berries were gone.

  • Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?, A hanging bough of mistletoe ,  creativecommons, Loadmaster (David R. Tribble).
    A hanging bough of mistletoe ,  creativecommons, Loadmaster (David R. Tribble).

Five tonnes of mistletoe are sold in the UK every year, most of which are imported from France. Much of the wild mistletoe in the UK grows in the west Midlands around the English/Welsh border. It is not very common in London but we do have some here at the Horniman, in our Gardens. Our boughs are high up in a tree on Meadow Field and our Gardeners are looking into growing them lower down on the trees so they are more visible.

Visit the Gardens and see what other plants you can spot.

Secrets from Olympus

Ancient Greece is perhaps one of the most famous periods of human history. The gods and goddesses of mythology are passed on to us through story telling, museums and some frankly awful (and some amazing) films.

With our Secret Late event this week it got me thinking about how much we actually know about these gods, and what secrets they had. Not everything is well documented and known, in fact some of those devious gods seem to have had a few secrets of their own...


Aphrodite, the foam born Goddess of Love, is one of the oldest gods from the Greek pantheon. She is married to the god Hephaestus, but they didn't exactly have the most stable of marriages.

Aphrodite with her son, the winged Eros

In fact, Aphrodite kept many secrets from her husband and had affairs with other gods such as: Poseidon, god of the sea, Dionysos, the god of wine and Nerites a sea god who she turned into a clam when he refused to leave the sea for her.

Her long relationship with Aries, the War God, was her most famous clandenstine affair, and is even mentioned in Homer's Odyssey. Despite all her cunning, she wasn't the best at keeping secrets and inevitably her husband would find out.

Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries

Demeter is a personal favourite of mine, she is the mother of Persephone who was kidnapped by the god of the underworld but is eventually returned after sixth months. Demeter's changing mood at having her daughter with her were believed to influence the seasonal change.

Teracottas like this may depict the goddess Demeter

The Eleusinian mysteries were a cult honouring Demeter, but the activities were a secret and never written down. Only initiates to the cult knew what was hidden within the kiste (a sacred chest) and kalathos (basket), I'm guessing something shiny.


Ok not Ancient Greek (originally a Persian deity renamed Mithras in Greek), but the cult of Mithras is perhaps one of the most famous secrets from the Ancient World.

This replica Greek cup represents a bull, a popular motif with the Greek god Zeus and the illusive Mithras.

Like the Eleusinian Mysteries this was Mystery Religion, meaning only the initiates knew what happened inside the temples. Mithras was popular with the Roman military, although he is a far older god, and often features Tauroctony, which means a bull slaying scene. No one really knows what this scene might mean, the bull is probably a sacrifice, perhaps he represents the Greek god Zeus and marks the end of the old rule and a celebration of the new Roman Empire, or perhaps it links to a Zoroastrian myth with a similar story?

We will probably never unfathom these secrets, and I for one love that!

If you fancy sharing in some secrets with us this week, be sure to pop along to our Secret Late this Thursday evening.

Inside the Horniman Merman

On display in our Centenary Gallery is an object from the Natural History collection which tends to grab people's attention: the Horniman Merman.

Thanks to careful research by our Deputy Keeper of Natural History Paolo Viscardi, we are now able to reveal some of the secrets of our mysterious merman, as well as tell the story of how 'mermaids' such as ours came to be.

The secrets of the Horniman Merman have been revealed with a combination of X-rays, CT scans and even DNA analysis.

  • A 3D model of the merman built using the CT data, Here you can see clearly how different materials were used to build up the merman's shape
    Here you can see clearly how different materials were used to build up the merman's shape

While it has long been described as a 'monkey-fish', we revealed a while ago that this was not an accurate description of our specimen. Paolo's research now goes further, looking at mermaid specimens across Europe.


Mermaids have a presence across a wide range of museum collections, and have always sparked curiosity. Our own was originally part of the Wellcome Collection, who have also been blogging about their connection to these strange specimens. There is even an exciting hint at the possibility of a new mermaid exhibition in the near future.

The merman and his kind also feature in today's Animal Magic blog post on the Guardian website.

You can also read Paolo's blog post introducing his research.

We'll be sharing more about the Horniman Merman and similar specimens on Twitter today. Follow the hashtag #mermania to join the discussion.

A Mysterious Sword

We have a mysterious sword in our collection. It looks like a dha from Burma, but it was collected over one thousand miles away from there in a region of North West Pakistan called Chitral.

  • Chitrali Sword, One of the more mysterious objects in our collection
    One of the more mysterious objects in our collection

Chitral is quite different from the areas around it. In fact it only officially became part of Pakistan in 1969. Our sword was collected in 1895 when the British invaded Chitral to relieve a British garrison which had become besieged there, and also to exert British control over the region.

We invited Shah Hussein and Muntazir Ali, two members of the Chitrali community in London, to the museum to try and help solve the mystery of the sword.

  • Viewing the Chitral Sword, Assitant Curator Tom Crowley discussed the rather mysterious object with our visitors
    Assitant Curator Tom Crowley discussed the rather mysterious object with our visitors

They thought that the sword could have found its way to Chitral as a gift between ruling elites. Although Chitral would have had no direct dealings with Burma, the sword could have travelled across India state by state: a gift which was passed on again and again.

Shah and Muntazir also suggested that the sword could have come to Chitral with a soldier in the British army, the makeup of which was very diverse, although there were no specifically Burmese units in it.

  • Viewing the Chitral Sword, Muntazir and Shah share their thoughts about the sword's origin
    Muntazir and Shah share their thoughts about the sword's origin

Muntazir and Shah found it strange in some ways, but unsurprising in others, to come across the sword so far away from their homeland. It brought to mind folk memories of the siege and a sense of pride, still felt today, that Chitralis had come together to resist the British. But the sword also served as a reminder of the violence from which the regions around Chitral have suffered in recent years.

What do you want to know?

Our team working on Collections, People, Stories have made a fantastic find in the stores.

An Unusual Find

It was found in our anthropology collection, which we're hoping to learn a lot more about during this three-year collections review.

The team have been investigating, and we've learnt a little about this object, but there's still more to be discovered. 

What questions do you want to ask about this object?

Leave a comment here, on Flickr or on Twitter @HornimanMuseum, and we'll try and answer your questions (if we can!).


Update: Everyone in the stores is really taken with this fascinating object, and there's been some real detective teamwork going on.

Thanks to Paolo and the Natural History Collection, we can reveal that the skull pictured here wrapped in leather is thought to be that of a Lappett-faced Vulture.

Intriguing cheese horse - what can you tell us?

A few weeks ago, we found an intriguing object in our collections - a horse made of cheese.

Cheese horse

We don't know a lot about this horse - it's made from cheese, it's from Poland, and came into our collections in the 1950s.

What can you tell us about it? Take a look at our video below, and leave a comment on flickr or on our blog here if you can shed light on the cheese horse.

We found the cheese horse while working on a three-year project, called Collections People Stories, to review our anthropology collections. We're hoping to find out more about the collections, what they are and what they mean to our visitors and communities.

Update: London's Polish Cultural Institute pointed out another cheese horse in Krakow's Ethnographic Museum. Their cheese horse - called Bar'ańczyk - is made from sheep's cheese, and was a toy gift for children.


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