The other day I wandered into the spiritual mysteries of a Tibetan thangka. Yesterday’s excavation surfaced the actual receipt for its purchase: from Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. London, 1970. Jim’s note says: “collected by John Morris in Nepal or Tibet on 1st Himalayan Expedition by the British in 1924, 1st attempt to climb Everest.” Now we are perhaps in Indiana Jones territory… or at least Passion and Peril on the Silk Road territory.
I had to google the facts, of course — first discovering that the 1st British Mount Everest Expedition was not in 1924, but in 1922. And there was no John Morris on the 1924 roster. Frowning. But then, under the 1922 listing, there along with George Mallory was John Morris! Army officer, Captain C. John Morris, whose function was “translation and organisational tasks.” Grinning.
So now I want the rest of the story. The British Empire was a little infamous for taking what it pleased wherever it explored, conquered or colonized. Archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein had set an unfortunate precedent earlier in the 20th century by excavating and stripping western China of invaluable artifacts (hence the phrase “foreign devils on the Silk Road”).
On the other hand, a small expedition like this probably engaged in lots of gift exchanges. Maybe Captain Morris exchanged a pouch of tobacco for a colorful curiosity while resting up in Darjeeling. Or maybe part of his duties (esp. since he apparently spoke the language) was to specifically collect trunkloads of cultural artifacts for educational purposes… Barter or booty, we’ll probably never know — although there may be diaries, etc. that describe more than just the climbing.
Clearly this thangka (and the one purchased with it) were not in British Museum territory. Morris held on to them, perhaps until he died and his estate was sold. And Jim bought them for next to nothing at a London booksellers’ shop. And here I study it 89 years after the first Westerner laid eyes on it.