The unveiling of a new gift to the RAS’s collection underpins an upturn in the organisation’s fortunes since the millennium.

Presidents past and present raised a glass from their oil-on-canvas setting as their flesh-and-blood counterparts shared a drink and a chat with other guests at one of London’s most distinguished institutions.

The occasion was the June 16 unveiling of a group portrait entitled ‘Conversation Piece’, a gift to the Royal Asiatic Society from one of its previous presidents, Professor Francis Robinson, and painted by renowned Cambridge artist Louise Riley-Smith.

The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland was founded in 1823 by Henry Thomas Colebrooke, a retired East India Company official and leading Sanskrit scholar of his time. Originally dedicated to furthering the study of science, literature and the arts in connection with Asia, the RAS continues  to share and disseminate knowledge of South Asia, the Far and Near East, the Islamic Near East and the Ottoman Empire. It caters to a large range of Asia-based interests, providing a forum for knowledgeable individuals who have anything interesting or important to say or write about Asia, regardless of their professions or formal academic positions.

It was not always so. At one time, charges of elitism could have been aimed at the society, whose members during its first century were crowned heads of Europe, members of the British nobility, prime ministers and well-born entrepreneurs, as well as Indian princes and maharajas. This derived from a need to inform the British political elite about Asia’s importance to Britain, so that the RAS effectively acted as a lobby for various parties concerned with Asia in the decade in which Parliament would again decide the terms of the East India Company’s charter.

Although the society has today become far more accessible, with a more diverse membership, it maintains the great scholarly tradition for which it has been known from the start, with activities centred on building up the library and collections, members reading papers to each other, and in the decade it was established, publishing a journal and other transactions. Later in the 19th century, it was diligent in translating works from languages such as Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit, to make them more accessible to the English reading public.

Interview with Dr Gordon Johnson, president of the Royal Asiatic Society

What do you consider have been your biggest accomplishments during your two terms as president of the RAS?

I guess I strengthened the RAS’s Cambridge connection, having chaired the Cambridge University Press for 16 years and been a syndic of the university library for 30 years. The society’s journal was already with CUP but we’ve since published other things with CUP in India, for example, and an interesting run of reprinted books. I also arranged for three manuscripts deposited by the RAS at the British Museum Library around 1945 – a 15th century Shahnama manuscript from Central Asia and two Mughal manuscripts – to be moved to Cambridge University Library. The digitised versions, available from the beginning of July, can be accessed free from anywhere in the world. This is the sort of activity that is helping the society to broaden its appeal and become more useful in the world.
Is it difficult to get funding for new acquisitions, and in general?

Until 2015, it seemed unthinkable that we could have been in line to get a significant new deposit in our archives. Yet we managed to acquire the papers of [Sinologist] Thomas Manning, found by a London bookseller while moving house. Getting these important papers, which show attempts to understand China from 1808 to 1818, was a real coup for the RAS, though very expensive. It depended on grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Friends of the National Libraries, other public funds and donations from our own Fellows. Since Manning was a great friend of some of the Romantic poets, these papers could easily have been split up and sold off to private collectors for huge sums, so it was great that we persuaded these public bodies that the RAS was the right place for them. We’re now well on the way to digitising the whole of the Manning archive.

The RAS does not venture much into the current politics of Asia. Is this an advantage in the society’s work?

I think so. On the whole, the society has not gone into truly contemporary stuff, though that’s not to say there aren’t some events on contemporary politics. But we are acutely aware that the Central Asian Society – now the Royal Society for Asian Affairs – was founded in the early 1900s precisely because it was thought that the Royal Asiatic Society was not the right place to be dealing with contemporary Asian politics. The society has found it useful to positively state where our particular role is, in the deeper exploration of the historical and cultural side of things, rather than getting tied up with current events. Crucially the RAS was an attempt to provide a deeper context for interaction with Asia.

Apart from the publication of Tod’s Annals, what other plans are afoot for the society’s 200th birthday in 2023?

We’re going to have an exhibition in the Brunei Gallery at SOAS and will also be doing some smaller-scale publications. Effectively, we’re using the gift of Louise Riley-Smith’s portrait as the first signal that, 200 years on, this society has been revitalised, it is alive and well and doing the job it expected to do in the 1820s: lobbying successfully for British-Asian interests of a diverse sort and maintaining its serious scholarly purpose of sharing knowledge about and developing an understanding of Asia on which all trade, economic and political interests depend.

It also has a glorious art collection, which, says current president Dr Gordon Johnson, deserves to reach a global audience. Paintings, drawings, manuscripts and more than five thousand early photographs of India, China and Japan have been donated to the society, and the director and librarians have developed an on-line catalogue, circulated information to schools and universities via social media, and welcome visitors to enjoy lectures and exchange ideas at its premises near Euston Station and close to the British Library and London University.

Like many other learned societies, the RAS experienced serious challenges in its early years, including lack of endowment and membership income, perceptions of ‘stuffiness’ and management problems. But in the 20th century, most notably after 1945, the real dilemma it faced was the growing interest in Asia by Britain’s universities, old and new, which meant the society’s aims became integrated into ‘normal’ higher education. The result was an identity crisis that called into question the RAS’s very raison d’être.

However, by revisiting its original mission statement since 2000, the society has renewed its sense of purpose, revived public interest and turned its fortunes around, which meshed with a growing interest in Asia by Britain on various levels – political, economic, cultural – as Europeans began visiting Asian countries on an unprecedented scale, and both visitors and immigrants came in increasing numbers from Asia to Britain.

This renewed purpose was embodied in the freehold purchase of its own premises, improved management and professionalisation of the offices of director, librarian and archivist, increased activity in terms of lectures, seminars and events, as well as a far-sighted set of policies for conservation and accessibility of the society’s resources, plus new acquisitions to the archive (such as the Thomas Manning Papers in 2015), library and art collections.

Riley-Smith’s vibrant portrait is a homage to some of those who have contributed to the RAS’s ambitious growth in recent years, including current president Dr Gordon Johnson, director Dr Alison Ohta and former presidents Professors Tony Stockwell, Francis Robinson and Peter Robb. Although he does not appear in the painting, former treasurer Kit Naylor, a direct descendant of Henry Thomas Colebrooke, also played a key role in reviving the society by bringing imaginative financial discipline to its affairs.

In the words of its patron, HRH the Prince of Wales, ‘there is no doubt that the pace of globalisation is bringing people around the world inexorably closer together’. As it moves onwards and upwards towards its bicentenary in 2023 – by which time it hopes to have further increased its membership and co-published, with Yale University Press, a scholarly edition of Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, which has never been out of print in one form or another since the original two volumes came out in 1829 and 1832 – the Royal Asiatic Society will be able to celebrate its past and look forward to a future in which it continues to promote the science, arts, humanities and cultures of Asia and, in an ever more globalised world, share knowledge and ideas for the greater good and understanding of all.

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