Magazine article The Spectator

A Sultan and Scott in Edinburgh

Magazine article The Spectator

A Sultan and Scott in Edinburgh

Article excerpt

'Oh Caledonia!' exclaimed Sir Walter Scott, `Meet nurse for a poetic child!/Land of brown heath and shaggy wood/Land of the mountain and the flood.' And, he would probably have added these days, land of the Edinburgh Festival, which annually floods the Caledonian capital with shaggy types associated with the performing arts. What it doesn't do, this year, is stage major exhibitions in the visual arts.

'Twas not ever thus. Time was when, come festival time, at least one substantial, internationally significant exhibition would open. This year the closest to that is a rather esoteric display of Multiples by the German artist Joseph Beuys at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (which I shall discuss next week, along with the Beuys drawings show at the Royal Academy). There is also an excellent show of new paintings by the Young British Artist Gary Hume, who was also the star turn at the Venice Biennale. But there is no centrepiece, nothing even approaching a blockbuster.

I do not know why this is so - perhaps it is merely a blip. Could it be that these days there is pressure to keep everything as parochially Caledonian as possible? But it is a shame that the National Gallery of Scotland -- which has a magnificent permanent collection - is not hosting a substantial Old Master or Impressionist show, as in days of yore.

Instead, there is an historical exhibition, The Tiger and the Thistle: Tipu Sultan and the Scots in India (until 3 October), which has its own charms. The subject of the Scots in India is a beguiling historical byway. This show does not deal with William Fraser from Inverness, for instance, described by William Dalrymple in City of Djinns, who commanded his own private force of Indian auxiliaries, grew his moustaches in the Rajput manner, kept a harem, and hunted the Asian lion on foot with a spear by way of relaxation. Nonetheless, The Tiger and the Thistle deals with some intriguing characters and events.

The tiger of the title was Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore in the late 18th century who died on 4 May 1799 defending his capital, Seringapatam, against a British force. One of the commanders of the final attack was General Sir David Baird, who on a previous occasion had been captured and imprisoned by Tipu Sultan under harsh circumstances, leading his mother to remark, `Pity the poor man who's chained to oor Davie.'

During his career, Tipu Sultan encountered not a few Scots. A portrait of General Norman MacLeod of MacLeod by Zoffany clearly shows the scar he received when Tipu discharged a pistol at his head during an altercation over dinner.

One of Tipu Sultan's prized possessions was 'Tipoo's Tiger', a most curious piece of mechanism as large as life, representing a royal tiger in the act of devouring a prostrate European officer. Operated in the manner of a hand organ, this produced a realistic roar, and the wail of the victim, whose arm rose and fell - all of which demonstrates how Tipu felt on the subject of European officers.

By the way, this object is said to have been inspired by the eating of Hugh Munro while picnicking one day on an island off Calcutta. In turn the incident is said to have led Munro's descendent, H.H. Munro, Saki, to write a celebrated story in which an unpleasant aunt is similarly devoured by a pet ferret. Sadly, the original 'Tipoo's Tiger' is deemed too fragile to move from the V&A, and is replaced in this show by a fibreglass replica. …

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