The story begins in the 1790s in India where the ‘Honourable’ East India Company was struggling to maintain control of the entire sub-continent.
Sultan Tipu, ruler of the state of Mysore was a particular thorn in the British side. His resistance to British rule was emboldened by support from the French. Such temerity earned him the nickname Tiger Tipu. And the tiger became his proud emblem, enhancing his image and winning him admiration from far and wide, much to the alarm of the British.
Imagine the rebellious Sultan’s delight when he heard the news that a British officer had been killed by a tiger. The symbolism of this event was not lost on the Tipu. Here’s what happened: In 1792 Lieutenant Hector Monroe was having a picnic with friends when the call of nature obliged him to retire to some undergrowth. When his natural caution was diverted, he was pounced upon by a tiger and killed before anyone could intervene.The victim was not very important (though his father was a general) so the incident was not destined to appear in history books. But for the Sultan it was such a cause for celebration that he commemorated the event by commissioning a life-size replica of the attack. Carved out of local jackwood, the tiger is depicted in flagrate delicto atop the helpless Hector, who is splendidly attired in redcoat uniform for the occasion of his death. Housed inside the tiger is the latest automation technology from Europe (supplied no doubt by Tipu’s French allies). It includes an organ designed to emit the sounds of roaring and screaming to simulate a re-enactment of the attack. And the mechanism even animates the arms of the officer in futile self-defense.
This contraption was originally displayed in Tipu’s palace music room, where it provided entertainment and amusement for guests. But the sultan’s defiance was not to last. In 1799, in the last of four wars fought against the rebellious state of Mysore, Tipu’s fortress of Seringapatam was stormed, he was killed, and his palace was looted. Initially the tiger automaton was overlooked because it did not appear to be of intrinsic value. But when its significance was realized, it was brought back to London and exhibited at the EIC HQ as a war trophy and object of fascination. It certainly drew crowds and made the news, which is how it came to the attention of a potter in Staffordshire named Obadiah Sherratt.
Sherratt was renowned for producing grizzly spectacles in clay to cater to a taste for the macabre that was prevalent at the time. His ceramic depictions of bull and bear baiting were already popular. This pearlware figure, decorated with overglaze enamels, is just over ten inches long and was made in 1815, the same year that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. It is a very rare and desirable piece and can be seen to its best advantage at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Alternatively, you can see an example on the top floor of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, though it is poorly displayed and you’ll have to hunt for it.
A better reason for visiting the V&A would be to see the one-and-only Tipu’s Tiger automaton magnificently exhibited on the ground floor. Though if you wish to see it in action you need to turn to Youtube.
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