Professor Deborah Swallow

Professor Emerita

Alongside Professor Deborah Swallow’s commitment to education and curation, she is a distinguished proponent of the broadest possible appreciation of art and its histories, and a specialist in Indian art and anthropology.

Under her leadership as Märit Rausing Director of The Courtauld and its Gallery from 2004 to 2023, The Courtauld grew as the world’s foremost academic centre for art history, curation, and the conservation of painting, and its Gallery flourished. Professor Swallow spearheaded the landmark transformation project, Courtauld Connects; within this, the reopening of the new Gallery was the first major step in bringing to fruition a visionary overarching ambition for The Courtauld, to broaden the reach and impact of its unique offering.

Professor Swallow is a champion of Samuel Courtauld’s founding vision for The Courtauld, summarised as ‘art for all’. She is committed to a fully inclusive form of art history, not only embracing artistic production from all cultures and eras, but seeking to ensure that this can be accessed, understood and enjoyed by everyone. With this in mind, she led The Courtauld’s drive to ensure greater diversity, inclusion and organisational commitment to antiracism, including steps to decolonise the curriculum. And throughout her career at The Courtauld, she has sought to ‘open’ its offer: through outreach programmes, touring loan exhibitions and a deeply-felt commitment to widening participation in higher education and art history.

Deborah Swallow took her MA in English literature at New Hall, Cambridge. A year teaching in India gave her a deep interest in the arts, culture and religion of the Subcontinent. Returning to Cambridge, she took a PhD in social anthropology at Darwin College, based on further fieldwork in Orissa. Teaching and curatorial posts in anthropology followed at the University of Cambridge, until in 1983 she joined the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Indian department. There she oversaw the creation of the Nehru Gallery of Art and a series of major exhibitions on the arts of the Subcontinent, before becoming Keeper of a newly formed Asian Department and Director of Collections in 2001, and joining The Courtauld as Märit Rausing Director in 2004.

As educator and scholar Professor Swallow continues to be active as a speaker, lecturer, specialist advisor and contributor to journals. She is a Fellow of King’s College London, a Trustee of Asia House, Trustee of the Helen Hamlyn Trust, founder Trustee of the Nehru Trust for the Indian Collections and the V&A, and a former Trustee of Art Fund. She has written and spoken on contemporary art, women in leadership, women collectors and 19th-century colonial art. Her specific research interests are in Indian art from around 1850 to the present with particular interest in Indian textile history and the history of heritage and museums in colonial and post-colonial India.

In spring 2023, Professor Swallow was announced as the Getty’s President’s International Council Scholar for 2023/2024, for her research project The future of museums: debate and practice in the Indian context.

Recent lectures and public engagements

  • ‘The Courtauld Gallery Refurbished’, Friends of Kenwood, London, May 2022
  • ‘Art and its Institutions: a view from London’s Somerset House’, The James F. Haley ’50 Memorial Lecture, Princeton University, USA, April 2019
  • Ruth Borchard Portrait Prize 2019, member of judging panel, London, UK, 2019
  • ‘Conversations on Collecting: the Historical Collection – Elizabeth Courtauld’, Hauser + Wirth, Bruton, UK, May 2019
  • Gods and Monsters, Frieze Masters Talks, panellist with Jennifer Higgie, Ann Demeester and Anne Pasternak, London, UK, 2018
  • SPoKE: the national art history documentary film-making competition, member of the judging panel, London, UK, 2018 and 2019
  • ‘The Museum in South Asia – South Asia in the Museum:  dilemmas and opportunities in the display of the arts of South Asia’, Loughborough University, UK / Gilbert Lloyd Art Lecture, Bedford School, Bedford, UK, 2017
  • Professor Deborah Swallow in conversation with Sir Charles Saumarez Smith, for Students’ Union Business of Art Society, The Courtauld, 2019
  • Convenor, with Dr Zehra Jumabhoy, Prof Faisal Devji and Mallica Kumbera Landrus, of ‘The Art of Independence. Visions of the Future in India and Pakistan’, University of Oxford and The Courtauld, October 2018
  • Convenor, with Prof Chris Green, of ‘The Painter John Golding and 20th Century Art History’, The Courtauld, December 2015

PhD students


  • Sanjay Dhar, ‘Assessing and Managing Risks to Buddhist Wall Paintings in Ladakh’, supervised with Professor Christine Stevenson and Dr Emily Howe.
  • Emilia Terracciano, ‘Discrepant Modernism: Art, Emergency and the Emergence of Modernity in India’ (2013), co-supervised with Professor Julian Stallabrass, AHRC joint doctorate with the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Selected essays and publications

  • Introduction to Alumnae, a special number of The Courtauld’s student publication, The Courtauldian, to commemorate the centenary of the women’s vote, 2018
  • ‘John Lockwood Kipling: a post-imperial perspective’ in Julius Bryant and Susan Webber (eds),  John Lockwood Kipling, publication to accompany an exhibition of the same name at the Bard Centre New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016-17
  • ‘Introduction’ to: Digital reprint of Forbes Watson, John. The Textile Manufactures of India. 2nd ser. (originally published London: India Office, 1873–78), Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad, 2015
  • ‘Production and control in the Indian garment export industry’ in From Craft to Industry: the Ethnography of Proto-industrial Cloth Production, E N Goody ed.Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, 1982, 133-165
  • ‘The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms: Collaborating with a Community’, (with Eithne Nightingale), in Museums and Source Communities, Laura Peers and Alison K Brown, eds., Routledge, London, 2003, 55-71
  • ‘The Victoria & Albert Museum and its Asian Collections’, in Louis Mezin (ed), The Heritage of the East India Companies in European Museums and Public Collections, Cahiers de la Compagnie des Indes, no 5/6, Port Louis, 2000
  • ‘The India Museum and the British-Indian textile trade in the late nineteenth century’, Textile History, 30 (1), 1999,  29-45
  • ‘Colonial Architecture, international exhibitions and official patronage of the Indian artisan’ in Tim Barringer and Tom Flynn eds., Colonialism and the Object: Empire, Material Culture and the Museum, Routledge, London, 1998, 52-67
  • ‘Curzon’s ivory chairs at Kedleston: a puzzle of patronage in Anglo-Indian furniture’ with Amin Jaffer, Apollo, April, 1998,  35-39

Professional associations

  • Fellow, King’s College London
  • Trustee, Asia House
  • Trustee, Helen Hamlyn Trust
  • Trustee, Nehru Trust for the Indian Collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum, New Delhi, India
  • Member, Collegiate Council, the University of London
  • Member, the Warburg Institute Advisory Council