- Place of origin:
ca. 1793 (made)
- Materials and Techniques:
Painted wood with metal fixtures
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
South Asia, Room 41, The Nehru Gallery, case 28B
"Tippoo's Tiger" was made for Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore in South India (1782-1799). The almost life-size wooden semi-automaton consists of a tiger mauling a prostrate figure in European clothes. An organ is concealed inside the tiger's body, and when a handle at the side is turned, the organ can be played and the man's arm simultaneously lifts up and down. Intermittent noises are supposed to imitate the wails of the dying man.
The tiger was discovered by the British in the palace at Tipu Sultan's capital after the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799. The invading army stormed through a breach in the ramparts and, in the ensuing chaos, Tipu and a great many of his soldiers, generals and the citizens of the town were killed. The victorious troops then rampaged through the city, looting valuables from the palace and from private houses, until Colonel Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) gave an order for hanging and flogging which quickly restored order. The contents of the royal treasury were then valued and divided between the British army over the next weeks according to the conventional practice of the period. Some time later, the tiger was discovered in the music room of the palace and was shipped to London, where it arrived in 1800. It was sent to East India House, the headquarters of the East India Company which housed a library and new museum, and soon became one of the most popular exhibits. The Indian Museum, as it became known, moved several times before parts of the collection, including Tipu's tiger, were transferred to the South Kensington Museum, later renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The painted wooden shell depicts a man being savaged by a tiger. The man lies on his back while the tiger sinks its teeth into his neck. When the handle on the side of the tiger is turned, the man's left forearm moves back and forth between his mouth and the tiger's ear, while bellows inside cause the animal to growl and the man to emit a plaintive whooping sound. A flap near the handle can be opened to reveal organ pipes and a keyboard with button keys of ivory.
In August 2001, Susan North of the Textiles & Dress Department provided the following description of the man's clothing:
Overall, it looks as though the inspiration is perhaps coming from dress of about 1750-1770s, rather than the most up-to-date styles of the 1790s, which isn't unusual given India's remove from the centres of European fashion.
One aspect that might have hampered the depiction is that the carving (with the exception of the hat) has not allowed for any three-dimensional aspect of dress, ie: coat tails, shirt frills, etc.
Overall, the man is wearing the typical coat, waistcoat and breeches of 18th c. dress. He also has white stockings and black shoes. His coat is rather short and has no sleeve cuff, but the opening down the front with a flat rendition of applied silver braid (of a 1750s or 1760s style) echoes the arrangement for buttons & buttonholes. Clare has given her views on the fabric [see below]. It certainly isn't 1790s or European, but men's coats of the 1750s & 1760s were often brocaded in floral patterns. I wonder if there isn't some melding with military uniform, with the red background and metal braid?
The pleated wrist may be a flat rendition of the fine pleated muslin frills popular from the 1780s onward. The black line around his neck calls to mind the 'solitaire' a black velvet ribbon worn around the stock in the 1750s & 1760s.
The hat is very informal for the 18th century, not the formal tricorne or chapeau bras. It looks like what was known as a 'wide-awake', with a low round crown and wide brim. It was becoming more fashionable for day wear from about the 1770s onwards, and may well have been worn more widely in India because it offered better protection from the sun.
Clare Browne of the Textile & Dress Department has provided the following:
The man's jacket is indeed curious, with floral sprigs all over the red ground. This doesn't correspond to any type of fabric I can think of that a fashionable Englishman (or even an unfashionable one) would have worn in the 1790s. He also seems to have a yellow waistcoat underneath, with red buttons, though it was difficult to make out exactly what was going on through the glass [of the case]. The coat has a funny series of white tabs down the front which don't appear to correspond to normal button and button hole arrangement, and his cuffs of pleated linen are also a bit of an oddity.
He reminds me of a 17th century English embroideress's attempt at an elephant at three removes from the original engraved source.
Place of Origin
ca. 1793 (made)
Materials and Techniques
Painted wood with metal fixtures
Length: 178 cm, Height: 71 cm, Width: 61 cm
Object history note
The object was commissioned by Tipu Sultan of Mysore in about 1793-4 and was housed in the music room of his palace at Seringapatam. In May 1799 Tipu was killed during the siege of Seringapatam, and in 1800 the mechanical organ was despatched by Lord Wellesley to the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London. Wellesley had suggested the Tower of London as its final home, but the directors decided to retain it, and for some years after its arrival it was kept in storage at East India House. In 1808 it was formally listed as part of the collection of the East India Library and Museum and put on public display. In 1858, following the transfer of the Company's property to the Crown, it was temporarily stored in Fife House, Whitehall. In 1868 it was removed to the new India Office in King Charles Street, where it remained until 1874, in which year the India Museum was reinstalled in the newly built Eastern Exhibition Galleries in South Kensington (the site now occupied by Imperial College). In 1879 the Tiger was officially transferred to the Indian Section of the South Kensington Museum, and it was assigned its present Museum Number in 1880.
During the Second World War it sustained severe damage when workmen moving a plinth failed to notice the tiger on top of it. It was quickly repaired and put back on display. Between 1947 and 1956 it remained in the Eastern Galleries, apart from a short visit to New York in 1955. In 1956, in anticipation of the demolishing of the Indian Museum it was brought across the road to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it has remained ever since apart from a single day in 1982 when it was taken to the BBC Television Centre for showing live on the children's programme Blue Peter.
"Tippoo's Tiger", painted wooden semi-automaton consisting of a tiger mauling a prostrate figure, ca. 1793, Mysore
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
p. 27, pls. 1, 2 and 3.
Tippoo's tiger / Mildred Archer. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983 (c. 1959) Number: 0905209532 (pbk) :
Swallow, Deborah and John Guy eds. Arts of India: 1550-1900. text by Rosemary Crill, John Guy, Veronica Murphy, Susan Stronge and Deborah Swallow. London : V&A Publications, 1990. 240 p., ill. ISBN 1851770224, p.184, pl.162.
Correct title of S Stronge book is 'Tipu's Tigers'.
pp.62-63, nos. 64 and 65.
Stronge, Susan, Tipu's Tiger, London: V&A Publishing, 2009 ISBN. 9781851775750
Labels and date
The life-sized automaton of carved and painted wood represents a tiger devouring a prostrate European in 1790s dress. A crank handle operates two mechanisms to move the man’s jointed arm and simulate roars and groans. A flap in the animal’s flank conceals an organ keyboard, stops and pipework. The casing suggests South Indian workmanship, while the works are of European origin. Musical toys were popular in contemporary Europe and many Indian rulers also collected them. The model belonged to Tipu Sultan, ‘the Tiger of Mysore’, an inveterate enemy of the British, who knew him as Tippoo Sahib. It came into the possession of the East India Company following his death in 1799 at the battle of Seringapatam.
Musical semi-automaton, carved and painted wood
Transferred from the Indian Museum in 1879 [27/9/2013]
‘ Tippoo’ s T iger’
Tipu Sultan was killed when the East India Company army stormed Seringapatam
in 1799. The soldiers looted the city and parts of the palace. Order was restored
after two days by hanging and flogging some of the looters. As was usual, the
royal treasury was then divided up between the army.
The wooden tiger with an organ inside its body was discovered in the palace’s
music room and shipped to London. As ‘Tippoo’s Tiger’ it became one of the most
popular exhibits in the Company’s new museum. When visitors turned the handle
at the side, noises were produced that supposedly imitated the European victim’s
dying wails of agony. The tiger came to South Kensington when the Indian
Museum’s collection was split up in 1879. [27/09/2013]
Attribution note: Commissioned by Tipu Sultan of Mysore.
Wood; Paint; Metal; Ivory
Woodwork; Musical instruments
South & South East Asia Collection