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The James Collection: Connecting Sussex with Somalia and Sudan through thefts of cooking pots and gifts of cloth

Europeans who ‘explored’ and hunted in eastern Africa in the later nineteenth century engaged local caravan traders to act as guides and protectors on their journeys from the coast to the interior. Each with loads carried by more than 200 porters, caravans brought trade goods into the region, and took out the material culture collected by the Europeans. Fleur Martin discusses how these processes of exchange – and theft – can be understood, highlighting the violence and agency that lies behind imperial collections in a case study of the James brothers’ journeys through Somalia and Sudan. Their collection of eastern African material cultural heritage is now housed at West Dean, an arts and conservation college in Sussex.


“Orchids of the greatest rarity of Colombia”: collecting orchids in the Northern Andes in the 1840s

Orchids are one of the most popular plants in the world. But back in the nineteenth century, orchids, specially the tropical ones, were a botanical curiosity and an exotic and expensive item only a few could afford. Those plants were extracted from the tropical jungles of South America to be sold in auctions in Britain. In this blog post, Camilo Uribe Botta shows how the networks created between Colombia, Belgium and Britain in the 1840s led to a constant supply of plants from the tropical Andes and also to new botanical discoveries and innovative methods on how to cultivate them in Britain.


‘The Most Delicate Rootes’: Sweet Potatoes and the Consumption of the New World, 1560-1650

What does the sweet potato tell us about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England? We may now associate this root vegetable with Thanksgivings or modern food trends, but the sweet potato had a considerable vogue in the early modern period, one that sheds light on the international nature of English foodways and the early rise of global consumption. In this blog post, Serin Quinn argues for the inclusion of the sweet potato, and other indigenous American foods, in discussions of the trade in luxury foods in pre-modern England, and for a revision of the narrative that American foods were met with fear and suspicion upon their arrival in Europe.


Rendering the Surface: Representing Lacquerware in Early Modern European Paintings

The art of lacquer involves a glue-like material applied in layers to the surface of objects to make them visually dazzling. From the early sixteenth century, lacquerwares made in Asia were increasingly brought to Europe and highly valued for their quality. Later they were also included in European paintings. How did artists choose to represent this precious and mysterious material? In this blog post, Cheng He shows that a liquid substance like lacquer could be expressed on canvas with different emphases. It was at the same time assimilated into different genres and contexts in paintings, which conversely enriched the cultural meanings of lacquer.