An exhibition at Keynes College, University of Kent, Canterbury
15 September – 15 December 2017
Felted landscapes by Victoria Smith, paintings by Gabrielle Nesfield, prints by Bay Lees, photographs by Oliver Smith
The Red Earth of Kerkiecoondah, Karnataka, India
When I, together with my sister Bay Lees and my husband Oli Smith, visited India in 2016, we took a trip up Elephant Hill to seek out this view that had been painted by our great-grandmother, Ellen Browne, over the ancestral coffee estates. I was unprepared for the intense emotional impact that this would have on me. Our father and his forefathers, who had known this land so intimately, stood alongside us as ghosts in this very particular place, as we looked out over this, their landscape.
This heritage forms the basis of my textile explorations.
The Great British Cuppa
The industrialising Victorians were a thirsty bunch and a cheap source of tea was needed to fuel the factory workers in the second half of the nineteenth-century. Tea, with milk and sugar, had replaced beer as the beverage of choice – it was non-alcoholic, therefore safer for machine operatives, nutritious and refreshing. Thus was the Great British Cuppa born.
The Tea Trade
By the mid-nineteenth-century, due to British involvement in the opium wars, things had become tricky with China, who controlled the tea trade. An alternative source of tea needed to be found quickly and the mountainous districts of India provided just the right climate and soil. Thus was the Indian tea trade established.
Nineteenth-Century Pioneer Planters
In Mysore State, South India, enterprising young adventurers from Europe were encouraged to seek their fortunes by becoming planters. Whatever land they had under cultivation within three years was theirs to keep for one rupee an acre, payable to the Maharaja of Mysore. This is how the Browne family came to be in India.
Seventy Years of Browne Family Planters in India
In 1876, our nineteen-year-old great-grandfather, Charles Herbert Browne, set sail from Ramsgate for Bombay, to learn planting from a veteran planter and to build a life for himself. Ten years later, with the help of elephants and many local people, he had cleared a thousand acres of jungle, laid roads, built a smart bungalow for himself and planted millions of tea and coffee plants. His estate, still known as Kerkiecoondah, prospered and developed.
CHB, as he was affectionately known, was a charming, energetic and enterprising young man, unafraid of hard physical work. When he was thirty, having been in India for only eleven years, he was considered old enough and wealthy enough to marry, so he came back to England to find himself a wife. Ellen and Charles were married in Walmer, Kent and returned together to India, where Ellen gave birth to six children in their bungalow at Kerkiecoondah. Four of these children stayed on to become planters themselves, raising families of their own, and, in the case of our grandmother, dying and being buried there.
India became their home. For three generations and seventy years they lived and worked there. The Browne family left India in 1947 after Indian Independence, suffering irreversibly from the disasters of two World Wars and the catastrophic collapse of tea prices during the 1930s. The estates then passed into Indian hands and continue to be expertly managed by Badra Estates.