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The Discovery of India – India on Canvas

One would expect a native artist to feel best the pulse of his country. So, it comes as a surprise to learn that British artists were the first to capture India on canvas.

It seems difficult to believe now, but until the last quarter of the 18th century, when the visiting British landscape artists made sketches of the Taj Mahal at Agra and the Jama Masjid and the Qutub Minar at New Delhi, nobody who had not been to Agra or Delhi could have known what these magnificent monuments look like. One had to visualize their grandeur from the written accounts alone. Because until then there had been no visual record of India owing to the absence of the genre of landscape painting in an otherwise rich Indian art. The visiting artists’ sketches not only provided the first ever visual pictures of India to the outside world, but the pictorial record left by them also amounted to a discovery of India by Indians themselves.

William Hodges was the first British professional landscape artist to land in India in 1780. He made two tours in Upper India, in the course of which he made drawings of the Ganga scene, the colourful ghats of Varanasi, and the wonderful monuments at Lucknow, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri and Gwalior. He could not, however, visit Delhi because of the political instability prevailing in the area at that time.

The next professional landscape artists to visit India were Thomas Daniell and his nephew William Daniell who arrived at Calcutta early in 1786. The most prominent of all British landscape artists to visit India, they travelled extensively across the country as no foreigner, and indeed very few Indians, had ever done before. The Daniell made two grand tours of India.The first was a journey through North India, from September 1788 to November 1791.

Travelling by boat up the Ganga as far as Cawnpore (now Kanpur), they sketched the monuments and picturesque sights along the river. They then travelled overland to Delhi in the company of some British military officers, sketching the magnificent Mughal monuments in Agra en route. They were the first foreign artists to visit Delhi, and made a large number of drawings of the city during the three weeks that they spent there.

Some of the Daniells’ sketches of the monuments in and around Delhi are of special interest as they depict buildings that no longer exist, for example the Qudsia Bagh and an ancient building near Kotla Firuz Shah. Of similar importance is their sketch of the Qutub Minar near Delhi, because it is not only the first view of the Qutub made by any artist, but it is also the only original print which shows the complete minar. The top seen in their aquatint was shattered by an earthquake in 1803.

From Delhi, the Daniells toured the Garhwal Himalayas for almost a month. Leaving for the plains again early in 1789, they set off on the return journey to Calcutta, stopping at Lucknow on the way. During their travels, they built up a large stock of drawings.While they made a number of oil paintings during their stay in India, on returning to England they published their monumental work, Oriental Scenery, consisting of 144 aquatints in six parts between 1795 and 1808. Of these, their views of the Himalayas were the first ever visual impression of the Himalayan ranges and the eleven aquatints of Delhi vividly bring to life the monuments of the city as they were 200 years ago.

While the British professional landscape artists were assembling the first ever visual impressions of India, a host of amateur artists were simultaneously observing the recording the Indian scenes. Many of them were highly talented, and often the finds a very thin line demarcating their work from that of the professionals. A number of such amateur artists were busy drawing in north India in the early years of the 19th century. They were mostly army officers in the employ of the East India Company and their sketches were, in a number of cases, eventually published as engravings or lithographs.

One of the highly accomplished amateur artists who deserves particular mention was Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Ramus Forrest who served in India in the first quarter of the 19th century. He sailed along the Ganga and Yamuna, and the views of the scenes encountered by him during the trip were engraved and published in 1824 along with his account of the journey entitled A Picturesque Tour along the Rivers Ganga and Yamuna, in India. His views of the Ganga scene easily excel those of all other amateur artists, while two especially fine plates of his views along the Yamuna are those of the Taj Mahal and the Palace of the King of Delhi, Taken from the Principal Mosque.

An equally talented amateur artist was Colonel Robert Smith who was posted a Garrison Engineer in Delhi from 1822 to 1830. He painted numerous monuments in an around Delhi, but the whereabouts of very few of his paintings are now known. He has executed a series of excellent watercolor drawings of the picturesque scenes as he sailed down the Ganga after his retirement in 1830.

Commander Robert Elliot was an other exceptionally gifted amateur artist. He travelled widely during his stay in north India and made numerous sketches of the places he visited. Major john Luard’s View in India, Saint Helena and Car Nicobar appeared around 1833. As lithography was gradually replacing the medium of aquatint by that time, the plates in Luard’s book are uncoloured lithographs. Some of the finest tinted lithographs of views of Delhi and north India were views of Delhi and north India were executed from drawings by T.C. Dibdin and David Roberts after sketches by Lieutenant Thomas Bacon. Published under the Oriental Portfolio in 1841, these included two particularly fine views of the Chandni Chowk and the mausoleum of Safdarjung.

One of the few amateur artists outside the ranks of the East India Company officials who made some of the finest sketches of the Himalayas as well as Calcutta was James Baillie Fraser. He came to Calcutta in 1813, and went on an expedition into the Garhwal Himalayas to the sources of the rivers Yamuna and Ganga two years later. He became the first European to reach Gangotri and made many sketches of the enchanting mountain scenery en route.Twenty of his drawing were turned into aquatints by the famous engraver Robert Havell and published in 1820 as vies in the Himalaya Mountains in a large portfolio volume. These not only supplemented the Daniells’ views of the Garhwal Himalayas, but some of Fraser’s views even excel those of the former. His sketch of the Gangotri temple sin particular captures the breathtaking beauty of the mountains as no other artist has ever done.

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