A Tale of Three Cities: Calcutta, Southampton and Florence: The Stibbert Family and Museum

By Clearkin, Christine; Di Marco, Simona | British Art Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

A Tale of Three Cities: Calcutta, Southampton and Florence: The Stibbert Family and Museum


Clearkin, Christine, Di Marco, Simona, British Art Journal


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The city of Florence has an unlikely link with Southampton through the Museo Stibbert (Pls 1, 18). General Giles Stibbert (1734-1809), Lord of the Manor of Portswood in Southampton, made his fortune in India, and his grandson, Frederick Stibbert (1838-1906), devoted his life and the family fortune to amassing a varied collection of costumes, both civilian and military, and high quality handicrafts. He transformed the family's Florentine home on the Hill of Montughi, originally purchased by his mother, into an original house-museum to hold his collection. He lived alongside the objects on display and the rooms were arranged in such a way as to show his taste and learning.

The Museo Stibbert today is a rare example of a 19th-century eclectic home combined with a cabinet of curiosities. It is made up of more than 50 rooms, mostly as Frederick had envisaged them, such as the world-famous European, Islamic and Japanese armouries, the ancient and modern picture gallery, furnishings, textile, china, ceramics and bronze collections, in short all the best in artistic handicrafts. The founder's presence, like that of the villa's other residents of a century ago, can still be felt in these rooms. Frederick, his mother and sister lived the life of a comfortably well off upper-middle-class family. Frederick Stibbert, in his will, wanted to leave his museum to the British Government and, only in the case of rejection, to the city of Florence, with the obligation that it be opened to the public and that it be supported by a foundation with which he endowed it by a considerable sum (for the time). (1) The British Government declined the offer and two years after Frederick's death, in 1908, the Florentine authorities set up the Museo Stibbert.

Giles Stibbert (Pls 2, 3), the founder of the family fortune and grandfather of Frederick, was born on 14 July 1734. (2) In the List of the Officers of the Bengal Army, 1758-1834 he is said to have been a native of Kent, (3) but his family 'pedigree', in the possession of the Museo Stibbert, reveals that his father's family came originally from Norfolk, (4) while his mother's came from Kent. The List goes on to state that he went to sea as a Captain's servant, and in c1756 'enlisted in the ranks of H.C.S. under the patronage of Robert Clive' (1724-74). (5) 1756 was a significant year in India since it saw the fall of Fort William, the East India Company's establishment at Calcutta, to the forces of Siraj ud Daula, Nawab of Bengal, an event that culminated in the infamous 'Black Hole of Calcutta' incident. (6) A combined force of sailors and soldiers, under the command of Admiral Charles Watson (1714-57) and led by Clive, retook the establishment in early 1757. (7) Stibbert was part of that expedition, and in spite of being wounded (8) must have realised that his vocation lay in being a soldier and not a sailor. He went on to serve as an Ensign during the Battle of Plassy (1757) 'and amongst other officers was presented with an honorary Medal by the Nawab Jaffah Ali Khan'. (9)

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This was the start of his distinguished army career in the service of the Honourable East India Company. (10) The Company was originally established by Royal Charter, under Queen Elizabeth, in 1600 to trade directly with suppliers of spices and cloth in the East Indies, thereby bypassing the Venetian and Portuguese monopolies on these goods. Other countries, notably the Netherlands and France, also founded trading companies around that time and competition could be fierce. Over a period of years, the Company came to realise the potential of trading in Indian textiles, the main source of which was Bengal, and in due course its principal establishment or factory ceased to be Surat/Bombay to become Calcutta instead. (11) The season in which the Company could trade was determined by the Monsoon winds, so it was necessary to accumulate goods in quayside warehouses during the rainy season in order that they would be ready to load on to ships immediately favourable winds returned. …

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