Tea and the Margaret Williamson Collection

8 minute read

In the collection of photographs that Margaret Williamson donated to MAA, there are four which depict the drawing room of the British Residency in Gangtok, Sikkim, where she lived with her husband Frederick, during his posting as a Political Officer of the region. In the first photograph, we get just a glimpse of the room, of the mantlepiece, the fireplace, the wall hangings, the chintz armchair… But the photograph seems to have been accidental, as if Margaret was preparing her camera to photograph the room, but inadvertently pressed the shutter release.

A room full of furniture and objects displayed on mantelpieces and walls. Objects on the mantelpiece include various sorts of teapots. A chair can be seen on the left of the image.

Figure 1. Interior of the drawing room in the British Residency in Gangtok, Sikkim. Photographed and donated by Margaret Williamson in 1934. MAA P.147778.WIL.

In the second photograph, we get a better sense of the room and of what is of particular interest to this post, the objects with which the Williamsons decorated it.

A drawing room full of furniture and objects purchased and collected by Margaret Williamson. There are two fireplaces in the room, one straight ahead and one to the left. There are lots of Buddhist paintings on cloth on the wall. A three-seater sofa can be seen on the right.

Figure 2. Interior of the drawing room in the British Residency in Gangtok, Sikkim. Photographed and donated by Margaret Williamson in 1934. MAA P.147779.WIL.

From these objects, the ones that caught my attention the most were those relating to tea – tea pots, cups, carriers, jugs, and servers of all sorts. All three mantle pieces in the Williamsons’ drawing room are full of teaware; in fact, it even seems that teaware by far outnumbered other types of objects in the room. Looking at this rich collection made me wonder: How did the Williamsons acquire it? Under what contexts? Were they perhaps avid collectors of teaware? Or had these objects been gifts that they received from the various people whom they met? And furthermore, what does their collection tell us about the sociocultural significance and use of tea in the Himalayan regions which they called home during the 1930s? But first, an introduction to the Williamsons.

Meet the Williamsons

Margaret Marshall was born in 1906, and brought up in the Wilmslow district of Cheshire. Frederick Williamson was born in 1895 in Bury, Lancashire, brought up in Australia and later moved back to England. The two were familiar with each other through friends and family. But they only fell in love in the summer of 1932, when Frederick was the Acting Political Officer in Sikkim, and had come home to England on leave. It all happened like this: Margaret had offered to drive Frederick’s aunt down to Torquay to visit him. Once she got there, the two love birds found themselves drawn to each other. Long walks and endless conversations eventually led to Frederick asking Margaret to accompany him to Sikkim. At first she was taken aback, but then she said yes. She convinced her parents, gathered all the money that she needed, and on 4th March 1933, set sail for India.

Marriage hadn’t been discussed, but it was certainly on the table. After a few weeks of Margaret settling in and a 7,000–feet trek up to the Penlong Pass (East Sikkim), Frederick finally asked for Margaret’s hand in marriage, in response to which she said, ‘Yes… Now that I know I can stand the height’. And for the next two years, the British Residency featured in the photographs above became her home.

As these photographs probably convey, the British Residency was an impressive site, built and sustained through the labour of the local population, and testament to the privileges available to British civil servants in India. In her memoirs Margaret describes it as such:

‘At first sight, the Residency struck me as looking just like an English country house, except that it had a corrugated iron roof of a dull reddish colour. The verandahs, where meals were taken when the weather was suitable, were hung with wistaria. The grounds were extensive and descended in three tiers to two lily-ponds. On the top terrace there were spacious lawns, a fish-pond and the great flag-pole where the Union Jack fluttered proudly when the Political Officer was in residence. The flag went with him on tour, when it was hoisted on each camp. A hill rose up at the back, concealing the servants’ quarters. All around there were masses of flowers, trees and tree-ferns. But the crowning glory of the place was the magnificent view that it commanded of the Kanchenjunga range to the west. Claude White, the first PO Sikkim, who had built the Residency between 1888 and 1890, had certainly chosen a perfect setting for it’ (Williamson and Snelling, 1987: 52).

Just as the exteriors of the Residency were lavish, so too were its interiors, decorated with all sorts of objects and furnishings that the Williamsons had acquired during their time in the Himalaya. As is also evident in the photographs above, some of these objects included ཐང་ཀ (thangkas, Tibetan Buddhist paintings on cotton with silk appliqué usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene or mandala), swords, shields, prayer wheels, incense burners, water carriers, and teaware amongst other things.

A collage of three images of three objects. On the left is a box with inscriptions on its surface. In the centre is a vase-like object used for burning incense. It is stood on a stand made of the heads of three elephants. On the right is a stupa made of a brass.

Figures 3, 4, and 5. Left – A copper charm box with a leather strap and decorated with the ashtamangala (eight auspicious symbols) around the seed syllable or Kālacakra monogram. Tibet. Probably presented to the Williamsons as a gift. MAA D 1976.35. Centre – Chinese cloisonne incense burner on a stand made of three elephant heads. Sikkim. MAA D 1976.120. Right – མཆོད་རྟེན་དཀར་པོ། (chorten or stupa) made of brass with a lotus motif on the top and the ashtamangala on the base. Tibet. MAA 1988.522. Donated by Margaret Williamson.

Quite a few of these objects (approx. 280) found their way to MAA. At some point during the 1970s, Margaret donated them as well as a collection of over 6,000 photographs to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in memory of Frederick who had been a student there. The College then deposited the collection at MAA in 1976, with further items added to the collection in 1988. Most of the teaware that we see in Margaret’s photographs of her drawing room were deposited at MAA in 1976. So, we know how these objects got to the Museum. But the question still remains, how did they come into Margaret and her husband’s possession in the first place? The Museum’s catalogue records, and Margaret’s memoirs provide us with some clues to piece this puzzle together. Let us consider this ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji, teapot or tea kettle) from Bhutan for example, visible on the left mantlepiece in the photograph of the Williamsons’ drawing room.

A collage of two images. Image on the left is of a copper teapot. Its stout and handle are made in the shape of an aquatic mythical creature and a dragon respectively. Image on the right is a close-up of a mantle piece in a photograph, on which this teapot is placed.

Figures 6 and 7. Left – A copper ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji) with the a silver gilt handle in the shape of a dragon and a spout in the form of a ཆུ་སྲིན་ (makara). Bhutan. Presented to the Williamsons as a gift by the Maharajah of Bhutan, H. H. Sir Jigme Wangchuck. MAA D 1976.94. Right – Detail of the photograph of the Williamsons’ drawing room showing the copper ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji) on one of the mantle pieces. Photographed by Margaret Williamson in 1934. MAA P.147779.WIL. Donated by Margaret Williamson.

A symbolically rich gift

According to its catalogue description this ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji) is one of only five made. It is made of copper, has a silver gilt handle, a banded spout, and two medallions. The catalogue description simply does not do justice to the symbolism in which this ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji) is immersed. So, allow me to expend a few words and elaborate.

Looking for similar ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam jis) in the collections of other museums (see for example, this one at the National Museums Liverpool and this one at the British Museum) revealed that the handle is cast in the shape of a dragon, whereas the spout is in the form of a ཆུ་སྲིན་ (makara), an aquatic mythical creature which has been typically depicted as half mammal and half fish.

A collage of two images. Image on the left is of the handle of a teapot, in the shape of a dragon. Image on the right is of the stout of a teapot, in the shape of an aquatic mythical creature.

Figures 7 and 8. Left – Detail of the copper ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji) showing the silver gilt handle in the shape of a dragon. Right – detail of the copper ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji) showing the spout in the form of a ཆུ་སྲིན་ (makara). Bhutan. Presented to the Williamsons as a gift by the Maharajah of Bhutan, H. H. Sir Jigme Wangchuck. Donated by Margaret Williamson. MAA D 1976.94.

Across cultures which practice and have been influenced by Buddhism, amongst which Bhutan has been one, the dragon is an important symbol for power, fortune, prosperity, protection, and loyalty. It is often depicted in the material culture of those cultures. The symbolism and iconography of the ཆུ་སྲིན་ (makara) is perhaps a bit more complex and differs throughout Hindu and Buddhist cultures. In Vajrayana Buddhism, the form of Buddhism practised in Bhutan, Tibet, and other Himalayan states, the ཆུ་སྲིན་ (makara) is a hybrid creature, formed from a number of animals that collectively possess the nature of a crocodile. In his handbook of Tibetan Buddhist symbols, Robert Beer informs us that the ཆུ་སྲིན་ (makara) is widely represented on a number of weapons as a symbol of strength, and on temple roofs as rainwater gargoyles as a symbol of the water element. Its head may also appear at the source of a spring, as a carved stone waterspout. It is in this form that the ཆུ་སྲིན་ (makara) features on the ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji) above, as the source of the tea that may be poured from it.

A gold-coloured medallion on a copper teapot.

Figure 9. Detail of the copper ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji) showing one of the medallions on its body.  Bhutan. Presented to the Williamsons as a gift by the Maharajah of Bhutan, H. H. Sir Jigme Wangchuck. Donated by Margaret Williamson. MAA D 1976.94.

On the body of the ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji) are two openwork medallions featuring the མིའམ་ཅི (miamchi) or ཤང་ཤང (shang shang), part human and part bird mythical figure that symbolises enlightenment in the forms of Buddhism practised in Tibet and Bhutan. The lid of the ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji) is finished with a silver lotus, a symbol of purity, spiritual awakening, and faithfulness. On the body are engraved the བཀྲ་ཤིས་རྟགས་བརྒྱད (tashi tag ye), also known as ashtamangala (eight auspicious symbols) in Sanskrit, which include the གདུགས་ (dug, parasol), an embodiment of wealth, royalty, and protection; the གསེར་ཉ་ (ser nya, golden fish), representing the view that those who practise ཆོས་ (dharma) need not be afraid of drowning and can freely migrate like fish in water; the བུམ་པ་ (bumpa, treasure vase), a symbol of long life, wealth, and prosperity; the མེ་ཏོག་པད་མ་ (meto pema, lotus), representing the complete purification of the body, speech, and mind; the དུང་དཀར (dungkar, conch shell), symbolising the deep, far reaching, and melodious sound of Buddha’s teachings; the དཔལ་བེའུ (palbheu, endless knot), which represents the nature of reality where everything is interrelated and only exists as part of a web of karma and its effect; the རྒྱལ་མཚན (gyeltshen, victory banner), symbolising the victory of Buddha’s teachings over the evil forces in the world; and the འཁོར་ལོ (khorlo, dharma wheel), which represents the Buddhist teachings.

Illustrations of the eight auspicious symbols in Buddhism. From left to right on the top line, parasol, golden fish, treasure vase, and lotus. From left to right on the bottom line, conch shell, endless knot, victory banner, and dharma wheel.

Figure 10. The ashtamangala (eight auspicious symbols). Photograph: Visit Bhutan.

The ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji) represents the symbolically rich nature of teaware in the Williamson Collection. Quite a few of the symbols that appear on it are also featured on other tea pots, cups, spoons, carriers, and servers.

The religious symbolism in which these objects are immersed makes one think that they were made for use in a religious context, for example, in rituals or monasteries. But this was not the case for all of them. The ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji) was actually made at the request of H. H. Sir Jigme Wangchuck, the Maharajah of Bhutan from 1926–1952, for the purpose of gifting it to the Williamsons. It was immersed in religious symbolism as religion was an important aspect of Wangchuck’s life, identity, and politics; he had received a religious education and oversaw the renovation of several dzongs and monasteries in eastern Bhutan. He had commissioned five such ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam jis). We know that one of them was gifted to the Williamsons and later made its way to MAA through Emmanuel College, Cambridge. But, unsurprisingly, we do not know what happened to the remaining four.

Acquisition networks

As a gift the ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji) represents one of the ways through which some of the teaware in the Williamson Collection was acquired by the Williamsons. Margaret’s memoirs provide some insight into their lives in Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet, which featured many instances of the exchange of gifts, most of which involved tea and rice, and some of which involved teaware. For example, on arriving at Trongsa Dzong in Bhutan, Wangchuck’s brother, Dasho Gyurme Dorji, welcomed the Williamsons with tea, saffron rice, cheese, and barley beer. On leaving Bumthang, Wangchuck himself endowed the Williamsons with several presents including handwoven materials, baskets, boxes, traditional Bhutanese clothes, gold rings, cigarette boxes, and small ivory bowls lined with silver (Williamson, 1987: 74–78). It is possible that within this context of leaving Bhutan, Wangchuck also presented the Williamsons with the ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji) above.

The Williamsons also acquired some of the objects in the Williamson Collection through purchase. Most of their travels around Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet were diplomatically motivated, and so entailed spending time with several religious and political leaders of the region. But between these official visits, they managed to find some time for sightseeing and purchasing souvenirs. For example, in her memoirs Margaret recounts that after lunch at the Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet, they were able to purchase some souvenirs including ‘a pair of the heavy iron maces carried by the shengos (monastic proctors) and an earthenware teapot with brass decoration’ (Williamson, 1987: 121). In addition to this, catalogue records of the Williamson Collection state that at least eight objects are from one monastery or the other. I could not find a record of the ‘earthenware teapot with brass decorations’ that the Williamsons purchased in Drepung. But I did find the record of a large copper དཀར་མེ (butter lamp) that they also purchased there, and of a porcelain ཇམ་སྦྱིས (jam ji) or ཇ་པྲ (jatra in Tibetan) with brass decorations, which they purchased at the Samye Monastery in Lhasa, but which potentially resembles the one that they bought in Drepung.

A collage of two images. Image on the left is of a copper butter lamp. Image on the right is of a brass and copper teapot with floral decorations.

Figures 14 and 15. Left – A large copper butter lamp. Purchased by the Williamsons at Drepung Monastery, Tibet. MAA D 1976.19. Right – A porcelain teapot with decorations in brass. Purchased by the Williamsons at Samye Monastery, Tibet. MAA D 1976.21. Donated by Margaret Williamson.

Some inconsistencies

It is difficult to deduce exactly what objects in the Williamson Collection the Williamsons purchased where, or what objects they were given by whom. This is because the information provided in both the museum’s catalogue records for these objects and Margaret’s memoirs is sparse. At times, the former mentions something that the latter does not and vice versa. For example, the museum’s catalogue records note that at least four objects were purchased in Samye, one at the Sera Monastery in Lhasa, and one other in Drepung. Although Margaret accounts for time spent at these monasteries, she makes no mention of purchasing objects at any other monastery except Drepung.

A spread from the MAA Accession register for the Williamson Collection.

Figure 16. Accession register for the Williamson Collection, noting objects purchased at the Drepung and Samye monasteries in Tibet.

Similarly, in her memoirs, Margaret accounts for the reception of small ivory bowls lined with silver amongst other things, from Wangchuck as farewell presents on leaving Bumthang. But I could not find these bowls in MAA, nor some of the other things.

These inconsistencies leave us with several questions. First, had Margaret decided to donate some objects to Emmanuel College, Cambridge and others not? Or, relatedly, had the College decided to deposit part of Margaret’s donation in MAA, and retain a part of it? Second, Margaret’s memoirs have been used to collate a lot of the information in the catalogue records for both objects and photographs in the Williamson Collection. But some objects are not mentioned in the memoirs. And since this is the case, then it might be asked: how does MAA have information about these objects? Was there a session at some point in the past, after the Williamson Collection had been accessioned at MAA, when Margaret was invited to provide more information about some of the objects in the Collection? Where else did this information come from?

Catalogue records for photographs in the Williamson Collection list the names of two anthropologists of the Himalaya, Mark Turin and Sara Shneiderman, and a Curatorial Assistant, Alex Nadin, who at some point during the early 2000s, researched the Collection and improved their records. It might be possible that they were able to provide some of the information not referenced in Margaret’s memoirs. And yet, I remain unsatisfied with this answer.

Concluding remarks

But perhaps, these are not the questions we ought to be asking. Perhaps, we ought instead to be grateful for Margaret’s memoirs and the information that we do have (albeit disparate and inconsistent) to supplement our understanding of the Williamson Collection. Not all collections at MAA are supplemented by such resources. Those about the Williamson Collection provide great insight into the methods through which objects are acquired by collectors and the networks through which they enter museum collections. As for tea in the Himalaya, these resources demonstrate the extent to which this substance has been integral to social and cultural life in the region; tea is not only had and shared, but tea and its associating material culture has been an important part of gift exchange.


Williamson, M. D. and Snelling, J. (1987). Memoirs of a Political Officer’s Wife in Tibet, Sikkim, and Bhutan. London: Wisdom Publications.


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