Untold lives blog

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15 June 2023

Remembering Stringer Lawrence & forgetting Robert Clive

In 1775, the East India Company commissioned a huge memorial in Westminster Abbey dedicated to Major General Stringer Lawrence (1698-1775).  It was completed in 1777 at a cost of £750, making it the most expensive artwork the Company had ever commissioned.  Unlike other soldiers who were memorialised in Westminster Abbey for dying in the line of duty, Lawrence died at home, almost 20 years after he retired.  What made him so important to the East India Company?

Stringer Lawrence memorial in  Westminster Abbey - image copyright: Dean and Chapter of Westminster.Memorial to Stringer Lawrence in Westminster Abbey by William Tyler.  Commissioned by the East India Company in 1775, completed in 1777.  Image copyright: Dean and Chapter of Westminster.

In 1746, the Company appointed Stringer Lawrence to establish a private army in India.  This militarisation accelerated the Company’s transformation from a mercantile business to an imperial power.  Lawrence’s most famous protégé was Robert Clive.  In the 1750s, they fought side by side, in a series of proxy battles against the French known today as the Carnatic Wars.  Lawrence and Clive commanded troops out of the inland fortress-town of Tiruchirappalli, an important base during these battles.  By 1756, Clive succeeded Lawrence as the Company’s Commander-in-Chief of the East Indies.

In 1760, to celebrate its military successes, the East India Company commissioned marble statues of Lawrence and Clive dressed as Roman soldiers.  These were placed in the General Court Room of East India House, the Company’s headquarters in London.  Lawrence may have founded the Company’s army, but Robert Clive, the younger of the two men, was by then considered more important, and was certainly more famous.  Clive’s fame worked against him in the early 1770s, when he was exposed as financially and morally corrupt, and on 22 November 1774, at the age of 49, he died after cutting his throat.

Sculpture of Robert Clive in Roman military costume

Sculpture of  Stringer Lawrence in Roman military costumeSculptures of Robert Clive and Stringer Lawrence in Roman military costume by Peter Scheemakers. Commissioned by the East India Company in 1760, completed in 1764. Clive’s raised left hand indicates authority. British Library, Foster 53 and 54. Both statues are now in Britain’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office.

The East India Company went silent on all matters pertaining to Clive.  How could it divert attention away from his inauspicious end?  The answer came along seven weeks later, on 10 January 1775, when Stringer Lawrence died at the venerable age of 77.  The Company fixated on memorialising the respectable 'father' of its army by commissioning the enormous and costly monument in Westminster Abbey.  At its centre, two female figures, one an angel and the other a personification of the East India Company, flank a sculpted landscape of Tiruchirappalli, the fortified town where Clive and Lawrence commanded troops during the Carnatic Wars.

Detail of the fort of Trichinopoly at the centre of Stringer Lawrence’s memorial  Westminster Abbey - image copyright: Dean and Chapter of Westminster.Detail at the centre of Stringer Lawrence’s memorial, Westminster Abbey. Image copyright: Dean and Chapter of Westminster.

In the 18th century, before the formation of museums and art galleries, Westminster Abbey was one of London’s most popular public attractions.  Stringer Lawrence’s conspicuous memorial was placed in an extremely prominent location, next to the Abbey’s main, west facing entrance.  To secure this location, the Company paid for a pre-existing monument to be moved to another part of the Abbey.  By memorialising Lawrence this way, the East India Company drew attention away from Robert Clive’s scandalous death.

CC-BY Jennifer Howes
Art Historian specialising in South Asia

Creative Commons Attribution licence

Further reading:
Howes, Jennifer. The Art of a Corporation: The East India Company as Patron and Collector. New Delhi: Routledge, April 2023. Pages 85 and 114-116.
Payments to William Tyler for the construction of Stringer Lawrence’s memorial British Library, IOR/B/92, pages 326 and 688.
Charges to the East India Company for relocating a pre-existing monument. Westminster Abbey Library, Chapter Act Book, CH/02/01/011.


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