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Early Views Of Chennai - Sketches of Chennai

The sketches of Chennai made by the British landscape artists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries depict vividly how the city looked like in its early days.

An oil painting of Chennai, almost the first known drawing of Fort St. George, is one of a set of six main factories of the East India Company at Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, Tellicherry, Cape Town and St. Helena. Commissioned in 1731 for the Directors’ Court Room in the East India House in London from the famous landscape artist, George Lambert and marine artist, Samuel Scott, they now from part of the collection of the India Office Library and Records.

William Hodges, the first British professional landscape artist to visit India between 1780 and 1783, made a charming oil painting of the Armenian Bridge, which is now part of the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Centre for British Art. The bridge was on the road from Chennai to St. Thomas’s Mount which may be seen in the distance.

The most exquisite early views of Chennai were, however, drawn by Thomas and William Daniell, the most important British professional landscape artists to visit India (1786-93). They visited Chennai in 1792 and made a number of sketches of the beautiful buildings in the city, six of which were turned into aquatints for their magnum opus Oriental Scenery.

One of their aquatints, titled South East View Of Fort St. George brings out vividly the major drawback of Chennai not having a natural harbour. It shows brilliantly the sea breaking with its usual turbulence on the coast in the foreground, while part of the Chennai roads can be seen in the distance to the right. Of the buildings towards the left of the picture, the higher one is St. Mary’s Church. A similar scene was also rendered by William Daniel in a delightful oil painting.

Another charming aquatint captioned Western Entrance of Fort St. George depicts the colonnaded verandah of the Government House rising above the fort wall to the left. The Daniells also made a fine view of the Armenian Bridge, which had been painted by William Hodges earlier.

Six views of Chennai were published between 1803 and 1805 as coloured engravings from the paintings of Colonel Francis Swain Ward, a highly talented amateur artist. These were part of the engravings from the paintings of Ward and Thomas Daniell which were in the collection of Richard Chase, the Mayor of Chennai at the turn of the century. Five of these depict scenes in Fort St. George while the sixth one shows the place of the Nawab of Arcot.

An outstanding series of watercolours made by John Gantz and his son Justinian Gantz in the first half of the 19 century are refreshing delineations of typical Chennai flat-top houses as well as some public buildings of Chennai. Though not British-born, both lived and died in India in the service of the East India Company. They also ran a lithographic press, producing sets of lithographs depicting Chennai buildings.

Two amusing aquatints after drawings by J.B. East (1837) which became very popular, depict lively scenes at the time of landing and embarking at Chennai. As Chennai had no natural harbour, the ships had to lay quite some distance out to sea and passengers and freight had to be transported through the surf on boats. Quite often the young officers of the East India company would go down to the beach on arrival of a ship and help carry some young lady passengers to land.

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