John Clarke (1954-2020): scholar of Ladakhi and Tibetan metalwork

By John Bray

John Clarke, who passed away in September, spent his entire professional life at London’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum. His special field of interest was the study of the art of metalworking in Ladakh and Tibet. With this note, I wish to celebrate his contribution and point to his academic legacy.

John Clarke at the V&A, 2013. © V&A.

John joined the V&A in 1979. Alongside the day-to-day demands of his regular work, he was encouraged to conduct academic research, and between 1986 and 1991 made a series of visits to Ladakh, Dharamsala, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. His journey to Ladakh during this period served as the foundation of much of the rest of his life’s work. Crucially, he was able to travel to the village of Chiling on the Zangskar river. The village’s inhabitants are said to be the descendants of a group of Newari craftsmen who came to the region in the 17th century at the invitation of King Sengge Namgyal (r.1616-1642). Their first tasks included the construction of the copper-gilt images of the Maitreya at Basgo monastery and the Buddha in Shey. Ever since, Chiling craftsmen have specialised in the working of copper, bronze, silver and gold. They are particularly well-known for the production of spoons, ladles, teapots and beer jugs as well as religious objects such as copper-gilt chortens for monastic and family temples. John was able to observe their work at first hand.

I first met John in 1989 when IALS founder Henry Osmaston convened the fourth Ladakh Studies conference at the University of Bristol. Before the main conference, we organised a study day in London, and John arranged for us to see behind the scenes at the V&A. I remember being impressed at the sheer extent of the collection of Ladakhi and Tibetan artwork that is kept in storage, crammed closely together to save space.   At the conference itself, John presented “A survey of metalworking in Ladakh”, and this was published in the conference proceedings in 1995. The paper discussed the roles of blacksmiths across Ladakh and of goldsmiths in Leh as well as the Chiling craftsmen. John noted that copper- and goldsmiths in Ladakh enjoyed a higher social status than their counterparts in Tibet. Strikingly, he was able to document the links between successive generations of Chiling craftsmen with key patrons, notably the Kalon family in Changspa.

Nineteenth century teapot from Ladakh, originally the property of Hemis monastery. Victoria & Albert Museum. Curzon Bequest. IM.112-1927. © V&A.

John’s work on Ladakh evolved into a chapter of his Ph.D dissertation at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The dissertation, which he defended in 1995, is available online at the British Library’s EThOS website, and carries the title “A Regional Survey and Stylistic Analysis of Tibetan Non-Scultural Metalworking, c.1850-1959.” It is based on a combination of field research, a close examination of metal artefacts from the region that are held in European museums, and a careful reading of travel accounts by Western travellers since the 19th century. The thesis covered a broad geographical range from Central and Southern Tibet to Kham and neighbouring regions in China and Mongolia, as well as Ladakh and Bhutan. John argued that the style of metalwork in these regions pointed to a broad cultural unity, but at the same time he was able to identify distinct regional variations in style.

In 1999 John made a further contribution to an IALS publication, a chapter on “The Tibetanisation of European Stoves in Ladakh”, which appeared in the proceedings of our eighth conference, which had been held in Aarhus (Denmark) two years earlier. Here he discussed the “hybridisation” of iron stoves introduced to Ladakh by Moravian missionaries. The original rather plain metal stoves have evolved into highly decorated artefacts decorated by local blacksmiths and goldsmiths using traditional motifs such as the ‘wish-fulfilling jewel’.

John made one more contribution to Ladakh studies with a chapter in Ladakh, Culture at the Crossroads, edited by Monisha Ahmed and Clare Harris (2005). Meanwhile, he continued to develop his expertise across the wider Tibetan cultural region, and his curatorial responsibilities extended beyond the Himalayas to Southeast Asia. He became the Lead Curator for the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Buddhist Art Galleries. These first opened in 2009 but closed temporarily in 2013 ahead of an extended period of building work. In 2015 the V&A opened a new gallery devoted to the image of the Buddha, and the other galleries reopened in 2017. As John explained in a blog article, he gave careful consideration on how best to present the Buddhist religious heritage in the context of a secular museum.  A key objective of the galleries is to make this heritage accessible to a wider Western audience without compromising the religious integrity of the artefacts displayed.

John was a regular contributor to academic seminars, conferences and workshops relating to Tibet and the Himalaya. He was himself the organiser of a major conference on Buddhist sculpture held at the V&A in 2010, and edited the proceedings. Other activities included serving as Visiting Professor at the University of Northumbria, which has become an important centre for the study of Asian art. Until his death, he was working on a proposed exhibition on the art of Buddhist Tantricism, to be held at the V&A in 2023.

Mahasiddha Virupa. China, early 15th century. IS.12:1-2010. © V&A.

At least two of his conference contributions are available online. The first is a brief presentation on “The Trance Walking Tradition of Tibet” presented at the Third International Conference on Vajrayāna Buddhism held in Bhutan in 2019. The second is a one-hour lecture on “Collecting Tibet at the South Kensington Museum: the legacy of the 1904 expedition and beyond,” which was presented to the Royal Asiatic Society in early 2019.   In the Royal Asiatic Society lecture, John discusses the sensitivities associated with the provenance of the V&A’s Tibetan collection. Many of the most important items were acquired as a result of Col. Francis Younghusband’s military expedition to Lhasa in 1903-1904, though there have also been several other sources. His slides for the lecture include an image of a thangka from Western Tibet collected in the 1850s by the Schlagintweit brothers who spent several months in Ladakh during the same period. He also showed an image of an ornate teapot, originally from Hemis monastery, which came from the bequest of British viceroy Lord Curzon. As John briefly acknowledged, the teapot served as a reminder of his own earlier researches in Ladakh. He concluded the lecture by presenting an image of a 15th century Sino-Tibetan brass sculpture of the Mahasiddha Virupa, which he had himself been able to acquire for the V&A from a museum in the west of England. This lecture reflects John’s deep engagement with the V&A’s Tibetan and Himalayan collection over several decades. In that respect, it perhaps serves as a kind of colophon to his own career.

In the last 18 months John had to take frequent sick leave in order to receive treatment for lymphoma, a cancer of the blood cells. At first the treatment seemed to go well, and John responded with what one of his colleagues calls his “characteristic quiet resilience”. He was looking forward to returning to work. Sadly, this was never to be.

Select publications by John Clarke

1989. “Chiling, a Village of Ladakhi Craftsmen and their Products.” Arts of Asia 19, No. 3, pp. 128-141.

1992. “A Group of Sino-Mongolian Metalwork in the Tibetan Style.” Orientations 23, No. 5, pp. 65-75.

1995. “Survey of Metalworking in Ladakh.” In Recent Research on Ladakh 4 & 5, pp. 9-17. Edited by Henry Osmaston and Philip Denwood. London: School of Oriental and African Studies; Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

1995. A Regional Survey and Stylistic Analysis of Tibetan Non-Sculptural Metalworking, c. 1850-1959. 2 vols. PhD dissertation. London: School of Oriental and African Studies

1997. Tibet, Caught in Time. Reading: Garnet Publishing Ltd.

1998. “Hindu Trading Pilgrims.” In Pilgrimage in Tibet, pp. 52-70.  Edited by Alex McKay. Richmond: Curzon.

1997. “Regional Styles of Metalworking”.  In Tibetan Art, Towards a Definition of Style, pp. 278-289. Edited by Jane Singer and Philip Denwood. London: Calman and King.

1998. “Hindu Trading Pilgrims.” In Pilgrimage in Tibet, pp.5 52-70.  Edited by Alex McKay. Richmond: Curzon.

1999. “The Tibetanisation of European Steel Stoves in Ladakh.” In Ladakh: Culture, History and Development, between Himalaya and Karakoram. Recent Research on Ladakh 8, pp. 58-71. Edited by Martijn van Beek, Kristoffer Brix Bertelsen and Poul Pedersen.Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.

2001. “Ga’u–The Tibetan Amulet Box.” Arts of Asia 31, No. 3, pp. 45-67.

2002. “Metalworking in dBus and gTsang, 1930-1977.” Tibet Journal 27, Nos 1-2, pp. 113-152.

2004. Jewellery of Tibet and the Himalayas. London: Victoria and Albert Museum.

2005. “Metalworking in Ladakh”. In Ladakh Culture at the Crossroads, pp. 44-55. Edited by Monisha Ahmed and Clare Harris. Bombay: Marg.

2006. “A History of Ironworking in Tibet: Centers of Production, Styles, and Techniques.” In Warriors of the Himalayas. Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet, pp. 21-33. Edited by Donald J.La Rocca. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

2011. “Non-sculptural Metalworking in Eastern Tibet 1930-2003.” In Art in Tibet, Issues in Traditional Tibetan Art from the Seventh to the Twentieth Century, pp. 171-182.  Proceedings of the 10th seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies. Edited by Erberto Lo Bue. Leiden: Brill.

2013. “A New Image of the Mahasiddha Virupa: a Major Addition to the Corpus of early Fifteenth-century Bronzes.” Art of Merit. Studies in Buddhist Art and its Conservation: Proceedings of the Buddhist Art Forum 2012, pp. 241-250. Edited by David Park, Kuenga Wangmo and Sharon Cather. London: Archetype Publications

2017. “The New Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Galleries of Buddhist Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum.” Orientations 48, No. 5.

2019. “Introduction to Papers on Buddhist Sculpture Given at, or Arising from, the Buddhist Sculpture Symposium Held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2010.”  Inner and Central Asian Art and Archaeology 2, 127-132. Special edition on New Research on Central Asian, Buddhist and Far Eastern Art and Archaeology. Edited by J.A. Lerner and A.L. Juliano. Turnhout: Brepols.

2020. “On the Road Back to Mandalay: The Burmese Regalia – Seizure, Display and Return to Myanmar in 1964.”   In Returning Southeast Asia’s Past. Edited by Louise Tythacott and Panggah Ardiyansyah. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press.

Statement of IALS President Sonam Wangchock on the Passing of leading Ladakhi scholar and IALS Patron Tashi Rabgias

“I am saddened to learn the passing away of Shri Tashi Rabgias, the patron of International Association for Ladakh Studies (IALS) this morning. I extend my most heartfelt sorrow and condolences on the loss of Ladakh’s historian and scholar whose contribution to language, literature and history of Ladakh is immense. It is an irretrievable loss to the people of Ladakh. May he attain Nirvana!”

– Sonam Wangchok