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Simon Digby’s Collection at the Ashmolean

Simon Digby


In a small room below the major space devoted to Francis Bacon and Henry Moore,  is a selection of delightful miniature paintings collected by my friend Simon Digby and bequeathed by him to the Ashmolean Museum where, in the eighties, he was Assistant Curator (the only paid job he ever had).

The selection shows Simon Digby’s unerring eye for line, humour and originality. It’s hard not to smile when looking at his pictures because he was such an original himself. When I was at the School of Oriental and African Studies (in the sixties it was widely regarded as an accessory of MI5), Alan Milne took me to meet Simon in his terrace house in Camberwell. You entered his living room directly from the pavement: an Alladin’s treasure trove of richly carpeted floor and shelf after shelf of priceless South Indian bronzes. Just beyond the  door to the adjoining room I could see a pile of empty cans of sardines and baked beans (or so my memory serves me!) Simon welcomed us wearing his customary straggly beard, rumpled shirt, trousers and bare feet in sandals.

I lost touch with Simon for many many years, but bumped into him  on the verandah of the India International Centre, drinking tea and eating pakoras. I was amazed that he remembered my name. He warmly  invited  me to join him and we spent the  next two hours in enjoyable gossip.  Apart from his prolific research on Muslim India,  he had compiled a bibliography of children’s stories about baba logs in India, one of them titled, “Little Henry and his Bearer” by Mrs Sherwood.  Little Henry is left orphaned and destitute in Dinapore (Bihar) and adopted by a charitable but unfeeling English lady. Having done her duty she then gives the child over to the care of Boosy the servant. Another English lady teaches Henry about the Gospel and he becomes an evangelist. Here he preaches to Boosy:


There is a country now,” said Henry, “where there are no castes; and where we all shall be like dear brothers. It is a better country than this: there are no evil beasts; there is no more hunger, no more thirst; there the waters are sure; there the sun does not scorch by day, nor the moon smite by night. It is a country to which I sometimes think and hope I shall go very soon: I wish, Boosy, you would be persuaded either to go with me, or to follow me.”

“What!” said Boosy, is sahib going to Willaet?” [country: but generally applied to Europe]. And then he said, he hoped not; for he could never follow him through the black water, as the Hindoos call the seas.

Henry then explained to him, that he did not mean England, but heaven. “Sometimes I think,” said he, “when I feel the pain which I did this morning, that I shall not live long: I think I shall die soon, Boosy. Oh, I wish! I wish I could persuade you to love the Lord Jesus Christ!” And then Henry, getting up, threw his arms around Boosy’s neck, and begged him to be a Christian. “Dear Boosy,” he said, “good Boosy, do try to be a Christian.” But poor little Henry’s attempts were yet quite ineffectual.”

It is a fine example of the nauseating sentimentality  of  so much 19th century children’s  literature. Simon Digby was especially interested in stories of English children ( particularly the “little boy lost”)  sent “Home” and separated from their parents, just like  he (and Kipling) had been sent away. There was some talk of my working on the topic with him and I very much enjoyed reading his paper   “Kim and his Kin”, with his acerbic comments and clever detective work . He also told me about “Kullu of the Carts”, “Fringhee Bacha”, “Lost Among the Afghans”  and “Sonny Sahib” which one can read  online.
However, Simon was not fond of Kipling’s masterpiece and he hated the “sly knowingness” of the author, but he also had a certain admiration and sympathy for him as a writer and unreserved admiration for his father Lockwood Kipling’s illustrations.  Simon’s  comments on illustrations reveal  his depth of appreciation and knowledge of art, early fostered by his mother who was an accomplished painter.
“In format The Story of Sonny Sahib is a …well-produced book with tipped-in coloured illustrations by A.E. Jackson. These show at some removes the influence of Rossetti, Burne-Jones, beardsley and Whistler. They are close to the ‘orientalist’  watercolour book-illustrations of Edmund Dulac, Frank  Brangwyn and  Norman Ault. There is probably a direct influence from the brightly coloured Indian watercolours of Mortimer Menpes, a pupil of Whistler.”
There are many testimonies to Simon’s friendship, generosity, scholarship and eccentricity and now that his art collection is in the safekeeping of the Ashmolean I hope that Andrew Topsfield will continue to exhibit  Simon’s treasures. A fitting memorial to a great person.


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