George Birdwood

Other names: 

Sir George Christopher Molesworth Birdwood

Date of birth: 
08 Dec 1832
City of birth: 
Country of birth: 
Date of death: 
28 Jun 1917
Location of death: 
London, England

George Birdwood was born in India into what might be described as typical ‘Anglo-Indian’ family circumstances. The son of a soldier, General Christopher Birdwood, and Lydia Birdwood, the daughter of a Reverend of the London Missionary Society, Birdwood, like so many children of the British Army in India, was sent back to Britain to complete his education (schools in Plymouth and Scotland, and a degree from the University of Edinburgh), becoming a surgeon in 1857 and returning to India as an assistant surgeon with the Bombay medical service. Something of a Victorian polymath, Birdwood’s interests lay not only within the medical field. He was heavily involved in the cultural affairs of Bombay and became the Registrar of the newly-founded University of Bombay. It was, however, as a cultural administrator that Birdwood had most visible and lasting impact, occupying the posts of curator of the government art museum, Secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society and Sheriff of Bombay.

His return to England in 1868 (due to ill health) did not lead to a quiet retirement, but a continued vigorous involvement in Indian cultural affairs, especially in the form of international exhibitions and the museological display of Indian art and artefacts. He was appointed keeper of the Indian Museum at South Kensington (now incorporated into the Victoria and Albert Museum collections). His reputation as an authority on Indian art and manufacture was firmly established with the publication of The Industrial Arts of India which championed the production of Indian arts and crafts in heavily paternalistic tones and praised small-scale village organization and traditions for the production of crafts. This tome influenced a large number of British designers and craftsmen, including William Morris and Owen Jones.

In 1879 he was appointed to a specially created post in the India Office, publishing work on its historical records and retiring in 1905. He was knighted in 1881 and made KCIE in 1887. Birdwood kept up a close correspondence with M. M. Bhownaggree, in the lead up to Bhownaggree's election as a Conservative MP in Bethnal Green in 1895. His reputation as a champion of Indian art was somewhat challenged at a now infamous event which took place whilst chairing the Indian Section meeting of the annual meeting of the Royal Society of Arts on 13 January 1910. After a paper given by the former colonial arts administrator and writer on Indian art, E. B. Havell, Birdwood made the claim that India possessed no 'fine art' which he had come across in all his years in India, and that a ‘boiled suet pudding would serve equally as well as a symbol of passionless purity and serenity of soul.’ This prompted a wave of counter claims and protest, most notably a letter sent to The Times in February 1910 penned by William Rothenstein and counter-signed by twelve other prominent cultural figures, and led to the foundation of the India Society


Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownaggree, Manchershaw Pithawala (Birdwood wrote an article in appreciation of Pithawala in 1911).

India Office, Royal Asiatic Society.

Involved in events: 

Empire of India Exhibition, 1895

Comment at Royal Society of Arts talk regarding lack of Indian fine art led to outrage from Havell, Rothenstein and others and to formation of India Society, 1910

Published works: 

Handbook to the British Indian Section, Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878 (London, 1878)

Report on the Government Central Museum and the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of Western India, for 1863, in Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government (Bombay, 1864)

The Industrial Arts of India (London, 1880)

Clarke, Caspar Purdon and Birdwood, George C. M., Catalogue of the Collection of Indian Arms and Objects of Art presented by the Princes and Nobles of India to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, on occasion of his visit to India in 1875-1876, now in the Indian Room at Marlborough House (London, 1898)

Contributions to periodicals: 

'To the Temple’, Journal of Indian Art and Industries (January 1898)

Secondary works: 

Chirol, Valentine, ‘Birdwood, Sir George Christopher Molesworth (1832–1917)’, rev. Katherine Prior, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) []

Guha-Thakurta, Tapati, The Making of a New “Indian” Art: Artists, Aesthetics and Nationalism in Bengal, c.1850-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

Mitter, Partha, Art and Nationalism in Colonial India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Mitter, Partha, Much Maligned Monsters: History of European Reactions to Indian Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977)

Archive source: 

Mss Eur F 216, correspondence and papers, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

Correspondence with Lord Kimberley, Bodleian Library, Oxford

Correspondence with Lord Hardinge, Cambridge University Library