This Temple is not a Temple: The Taylor Collection at MAA

6 minute read

The Taylor Collection is divided between two museums within the UCM consortium: MAA and the Fitzwilliam Museum. It was accumulated by Robert Taylor, a University of Cambridge alumnus who worked for the British East India Company and occupied administrative roles in Imperial India during the 19th century. The objects that comprise the Taylor Collection were donated to the Fitzwilliam Museum between 18711906 by Taylor and his children. In 1924, the Fitzwilliam Museum Syndicate agreed to transfer some of these objects to MAA thereby creating two Taylor Collections. One such object, relocated to MAA, was a sandalwood model temple. 

A group of people are standing around a model temple from the Taylor Collection at MAA. Behind them is a large black and white painting, and on the left are some pictures in frames.

Figure 1. Mark Elliott, Olivia Maguire, Lucie Carreau, Kirstie Williams, Lorena Bushell, Alice Bernadac, and Tommy Chung in the Babington workroom at MAA on Wednesday 12 August 2015. Source: Mark Elliott and Kirsty Williams. 

The model temple is large and pleasantly scented. It is made up of individual pieces, including ten intricately carved pillars. Despite being in the museum for nearly a century, MAA practitioners only recently learnt of the model temple. For decades, its roof and platform were thought to be a Tibetan table and some of the individual pieces were believed to have been acquired by different or unknown collectors. In 2015, a team was assembled to test the assumption that there was no connection between the model’s individual pieces. In this context, it was discovered that the pieces could indeed be fitted together to form a model temple. This realisation meant that the model could finally be paired with the correct MAA catalogue card.   

 In addition to crediting the collector and recording its relocation from the Fitzwilliam Museum, the catalogue card stated that the model was carved by the Madras School of Arts in 1872 and that it imitated ‘a portico of a South Indian temple’ with each pillar being a copy of ‘some temple’. The way in which the catalogue card described the Taylor model implied that aspects of it were meant to be reproductions of multiple temples, but it didn’t specify which temples these were. I presumed and hoped that this information would be provided by retrieving the model’s original documentation which had remained at the Fitzwilliam Museum. However, doing so led to further confusion. According to the Fitzwilliam documentation, the model was presented in 1906 by Robert Taylor’s children and, contrary to the MAA catalogue card, it claimed that the model was an imitation of a single, unidentified ‘Hindu temple carved in the Madras School of Art’. These inconsistencies raised a modest but important question: what temple or temples was the Taylor model depicting? 

An Imitation or An Invention? 

To answer this, I analysed and compared the model and the engravings on each of its pillars to a number of temples in India. As well as consulting contemporaneous photographs, I sourced photographs of temples that were taken and printed by the students from the Madras School of Arts; two of these were taken by Taylor himself and are currently located at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Months went by. Although some small features of the Taylor model did correspond to the temples that I considered, neither a single pillar, nor the object as a whole, directly matched with any of them. So, I adopted a different approach and researched the history, policies, and ideologies of the Madras School of Arts. It was here that I discovered that the model was never meant to imitate any temple. 

Two intricately carved columns. Male and female figures and a horse are visible in the column on the left, and two figures mounted on another animal are visible in the column on the right.

Figures 2 and 3. Two of ten upright columns carved out of sandalwood. Tamil Nadu, India. Collected by Robert Taylor. Donated by the Fitzwilliam Museum. Left – MAA Z 28243 B. Right – MAA Z 28243 A.

The Madras School of Arts was founded in 1850 by the resident surgeon of Madras, Dr Alexander Hunter. Colonial art schools, such as the Madras School of Arts, coincided with concerns surrounding the designs of decorative arts in Britain and Imperial India. Following the Great Exhibition of 1851, which displayed exhibits from around the world, British art administrators praised the designs of Indian decorative arts but observed that their technical craftsmanship had declined. With British decorative arts, the inverse was believed to be true. Relying on objects from the visual past as models for study was considered the best strategy to prevent this parallel decline and it was soon integrated into British and colonial art education.  

At the Madras School of Arts, architectural sites such as temples were designated as the objects of Imperial India’s visual past. Students were encouraged to photograph temples and study their styles until they possessed an inventory of templates that they could combine and modify to create new forms. They would then be trained with the technical knowledge and skills to create works with these new designs. Many of these items were made using the most ideal local resource which had been identified through surveys and experiments initiated by Hunter. Taylor’s model at MAA was thus not meant to be an imitation of one or many temples. Rather, it was intended as an object of improved artistic quality that selectively pieced together motifs from multiple, unattributed temples, and was constructed from a locally sourced material that could best showcase this. 

An Art Object or An Archaeological Object? 

Gaining clarity on what the Taylor model was, spawned yet another question: if it was a decorative art object produced by a colonial art school, why was it removed from the Fitzwilliam Museum and transferred to MAA? Although an explanation could not be found in the Fitzwilliam’s 1920-1934 Management Syndicate Book nor MAA’s 1920s committee Minute Books, exploring why objects from colonial art schools entered museum collections enabled some insight.  

Initially, the objects collected by or produced at colonial art schools were distributed to British art institutions as examples to improve the design of British decorative arts. Yet, during the late-19th century these interests changed. Instead of being used as models for study, these works became part of an ever-increasing archive of knowledge about Imperial India’s visual past and represented British authority over its history and culture. The need by colonial art schools to locate and document India’s visual past was consequently felt and undertaken by other colonial organisations including archaeological institutions. Extensive efforts were made by the latter to document ‘ancient’ monuments and temples in India and circulate their findings through text, images, and objects like those created by colonial art schools. Art and archaeology were therefore linked in the collection, production, and dispersal of colonial knowledge about India’s past. This connection may have ultimately been the reason why the Taylor model was transferred to MAA.  

The Taylor model was constructed by and was a sample of the strategies and techniques implemented by the Madras School of Arts. But by the time it was deposited at the Fitzwilliam Museum its original purpose was obscured and meaning altered. Over the course of three decades, the Taylor model transformed from a decorative art object to a three-dimensional representation of India’s ‘ancient’, excavated past. In the absence of definitive reasons by the 1924 Fitzwilliam Museum Syndicate, the transformation of the model’s meaning goes some way towards explaining why it was considered better suited to the domain of archaeology and why there were long-lasting ambiguities about what it was meant to be and depict.  


  1. Naina C says:

    Interesting perspective of how to uncover the context behind a historical sandalwood model temple that was shrouded in academic mystery. Rhea has asked the important questions and summarized the ways she has researched the correct details to add validity and rectify some of the misattributions.

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