Elihu Yale’s name is famous for the great educational institution, Yale University, of which he was an early benefactor. He made his fortune in India, mostly through trading in diamonds. Arriving in Madras in 1672, through his outstanding abilities he rose through the hierachy of the East India Company from clerk to governor. When he returned to London in 1699 he brought with him Indian gems, furniture and textiles. In the milieu of portrait painter Sir Godfrey Kneller and physician Sir Hans Sloane he established a fashionable household where in the end he had assembled some ten thousand items, including fine English furniture.
Yale’s collection was dispersed at seven auction sales after his death in 1721, and the catalogues of those sales survive, providing information about the lively London art market. Hitherto neglected by historians, the Yale sales prove to be a landmark in the history both of collecting and of auctioneering art in early 18th-century England. In addition, the detailed analyses of the various categories throw light on Yale’s personality and interests: he is revealed as a Fellow of the Royal Society, a dedicated churchman and a philanthropist, totally in tune with the English Enlightenment.
The authors explore Elihu Yale’s life in the society of Madras and London, and his interests, including musical and scientific instruments and books, and then turn to a study of Yale as a dealer (particularly in gems) and a collector of diamonds and jewelry and works of art – some of which are now at Yale University, and some in national collections around Britain.
The story is one with many appeals: the society of the East India Company and of early 18th-century London; furniture, both Indian and English; the fashion for things Oriental in the West; gemstones and jewelry; and collecting works of art.