An English curator and scholar, John C Irwin is best known for his writings on Indian textiles and art history, as well as his contributions to the Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London, UK.
Irwin was born in Madras (now Chennai), but moved to England at a young age. He attended school in Dorset in southwest England, and later went on to work as a journalist. He was on active military duty in World War II until 1942, when he suffered an injury to his leg. After that, he was chosen to be aide-de-camp (and, later, private secretary) to the Governor of Bengal and returned to India, serving on the Bengal Famine Relief Committee. His time in Bengal sparked an interest in Indian art, history and textiles, and he co-wrote the first biography of painter Jamini Roy in 1944.
On his return to England in 1945, Irwin took up the position of Assistant Keeper of the India Section at the V&A, which had a large collection of textiles. In the years that followed, he researched and authored several books on traditional Indian textiles. In 1959, he was promoted to Keeper of the India Section. A notable publication from this period is The Origin of Chintz (1970), co-authored with Katherine Brett of the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada. The book was the result of a collaboration between the two museums and focused on their respective collections of chintz textiles. Some other works include Batiks (1969) and The Kashmir Shawl (1973).
From 1950 onwards, Irwin also made numerous trips to India on the invitation of Gautam and Gira Sarabhai – founders of the Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad. Here, he researched and catalogued the historical textiles at the museum, and authored works such as Studies in Indo-European Textile History (1966), Indian Painted and Printed Fabrics (1971) and Indian Embroideries (1973). He was also the editor of the Journal of Indian Textile History, published by the Calico Museum, between 1955 and 1967.
In addition to textiles, Irwin’s research interests included Buddhist architecture (particularly stupas), religious iconography and symbolism, and ancient Indian texts. In 1975, he was awarded the British Academy Fellowship and travelled around India to study the sites of the Ashoka Pillars. He also served as a UNESCO expert on museums on missions to Indonesia and Malaysia from 1956–57, and was in charge of the V&A’s Oriental Department from 1970 to 1978.
Irwin passed away in England in 1997.
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