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A Victorian Dundee doctor and his treasures of the East

a scroll painting showing a lama surrounded by various deities.

Tibetan Thangka. Courtesy The McManus, Dundee.

The McManus in Dundee unpacks the cabinet of Dr Wise and his treasures of the East

Dr T.A. Wise (1802-1889) collected everything from Egyptian amulets to Irish copper axes. He wrote treatises on subjects as varied as the Hindu system of medicine, the Buddhist imagery found on Pictish stones, diseases of the eye and the preservation of ice. And quite naturally he travelled the globe pursuing his interests.

This polymath and collector of curiosities was born in Dundee on January 12 1802 at his physician father Thomas’ estate of Hillbank, and he followed in his father’s footsteps by studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1824.

And like his father, who had been a physician in Jamaica, the newly qualified Dr Wise was drawn to the wider world.

In 1827 he took up a position in the Indian Medical Service in Bengal. He had two brothers already working in India, younger brother Josiah Patrick as a merchant and an older brother in the military branch of the East India Company. It proved to be the perfect place to pursue his interests and develop his passion for collecting objects.

a photo of a round bronze disc with an engraved scene showing stalks, reeds and blossoms

Japanese mirror. Courtesy The McManus, Dundee.

a colour sketch of a monk wearing a headdress

One of Wise’s sketches of a Tibetan monk. Courtesy The McManus, Dundee.

a portrait of Victorian man with white hair and beard seated at his desk

Thomas A Wise studio portrait. Courtesy The McManus, Dundee.

Wise Ways: Travels of a Dundee Doctor draws on artefacts from the city’s collection and includes a spectacular set of maps on loan from the British Library as part of a show examining the life of Thomas Wise and his expeditions around Tibet, India, China and Japan.

Dr Wise retired from India in 1851 and returned to Scotland, where he dedicated his life to archaeological and educational interests and a variety of scientific and antiquarian societies. He later moved to London where he died in 1889.

The collection he left behind now resides at the McManus and is a treasure trove of objects revealing the beliefs and values of the people and places he visited.

a flat map style illustration showing a classic pagoda style monastery

Samye Monastery, the first gompa built in Tibet. Courtesy British Library.

a woodblock with a carved image of a monkey on it

Printing woodblock. Courtesy The McManus, Dundee.

a map showig a river flowing past a palace

area north and south of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Courtesy British Library.

Dr Wise also acquired a spectacular set of maps of Tibet (also on display in the exhibition) which are thought to have been made by a local Tibetan lama but originally commissioned by William Edmund Hay (1805-1879) the former assistant commissioner in Kulu in what is today Himachal Pradesh in Northwest India.

The maps date from a time of pervasive British influence in the Indian Subcontinent, although Tibet and its interior was the one Himalayan territory that the British Empire hadn’t subsumed. In fact it was still something of a mystery to British explorers, soldiers and administrators. It would be another 50 years before Younghusband would lead his brutal military expedition into Lhasa under the auspices of British interest.

Which begs the question: why were such potentially important maps offered to Dr Wise? Interestingly, during this time of imperial consolidation, the good doctor spent some of his time in India making valuable contributions to both medicine and education, founding a hospital and college and becoming the Secretary to the Committee of Public Instruction in Calcutta.

a sketch with notes describing a Hundus goddess on a horse carrying a small child

Dr Wise’s drawing of Setula, the Hindu goddess said to prevent smallpox. Courtesy The McManus, Dundee.

an illustration of a Tibetan temple courtyard with various exotic figures illustrated

Illustration of a ceremony taken place in the courtyard of the Nechung Monastery in Lhasa, seat of the former Tibetan State Oracle. Courtesy The British Library.

an ilustration showing Chinese and other European figures from the nineteenth century

This drawing shows different people and a selection of different types of tents – supplemented by English and Tibetan captions. Courtesy The British Library

The maps he acquired during his stay are now cared for by the British Library and comprise six large picture maps that were drawn on a total of 27 sheets. Placed together they measure over 15 metres long and depict a panorama covering 1,800 km between Ladakh and Central Tibet.

They are filled with notes and annotations and although not cartographically correct they are packed with detail – monasteries, forts and military centres, market places and trading centres, forests, mountains, rivers and bridges, roads and other important infrastructure.

Perhaps of more interest to Dr Wise were the accompanying 28 drawings illustrating the costumes and the monastic rituals and ceremonies that took place in the locations shown on the maps. Together they are a rich source of topographical, social and political information – as well as making the perfect accompaniment to an inquisitive Victorian’s cabinet of curiosity.

an ornately decorated bronze bell

A bronze Tibetan bell ghanta, dating to the 18th -19th century, collected by Wise. Courtesy The McManus, Dundee.

an illustration showing bells and bronze decorations next to text and clippings

Wise’s notes on his Tibetan bell, alongside an excerpt from a book about Pictish stone inscriptions. Courtesy The McManus, Dundee.

a photo of a golden deity This elegant sculpture shows Buddha with multiple hand gestures or mudras. Two arms are in an attitude of prayer, two in meditation and the remaining hands hold a scroll, a book - which is the symbol of transcendental wisdom - and a vase symbolising the flowing of compassion.

A Chinese Buddhist deity in gilded and bronzed carved wood. Courtesy The McManus, Dundee.

a fine pencil sketch of a wooden pot with lid

Dr Wise’s drawing of a relic casket from India. Courtesy The McManus, Dundee.

Wise Ways: Travels of A Dundee Doctor is at the McManus Dundee until Sunday August 25 2019. Admission is free.


The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum, an award-winning Victorian, Gothic building, is home to Dundee's main collection spanning 400 million years and has been at the heart of art and culture in the City since 1867. Eight beautiful open gallery spaces house fascinating exhibitions of art, history and the…

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