Calcutta to Bihar: an artist's journey
As part of the Visual Arts collections at the British Library, we hold an extensive collection of drawings, sketches and watercolours by amateur British and European artists who travelled through the Indian subcontinent. In 2015, we acquired a wonderful little sketchbook, measuring a mere 80 x 204 mm, by an unknown artist who documented his/her journey from Calcutta to Bihar in the winter of 1849. Unfortunately, none of the sketches are signed or offer any details regarding the artist’s identity. The sketchbook contains 12 double-sided pages, each filled with sketches in either pen-and-ink or done in watercolours. The subjects include topographical views, portraits studies of locals, as well as documentation of crafts and transportation methods. Each illustration is annotated by the artist providing details of the subjects and documenting the shades of colour – such as ‘very white’ or ‘yellowish’. It is most likely that this incomplete series of sketches were preparatory studies that could be worked up at a later stage.
The illustrations in the album include studies of relatively well known buildings such as Government House and Fort William in Calcutta to lesser known spots along the Ganges and Hoogly Rivers. The artist’s impressions demonstrate a quick study and artistic impressions rather than providing an accurate visual record. One of the first views in the series is that of Government House (Raj Bhavan) that was designed by Captain Charles Wyatt and constructed from 1799-1802. The artist prepared the study from a position on Esplanade Row facing north. This neo-classical building, inspired by Robert Adam’s Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, was the official residence of the Governor-Generals and the Viceroys until 1911. Along the parapet of the central building, the artist sketched the East India Company’s coat of arms featuring lions. It is most curious that the artist featured the coat of arms on the south front of the building as they in fact are positioned along the parapet of the north face and main entrance to the building. A drawing by Lady Sarah Amherst, dated to 1824, shows the correct position.
On another folio, the artist illustrated a distant view of Fort William. Designed by Captain John Brohier and built during the 1750s and 1760s, the octagonal fortification was built close to the banks of the Hoogly River, just south-west of Government House. On the left, the artist wrote ‘white dark pinnacle’ and ‘church’ which is likely to be a reference to St Peter’s Church that was built in 1826.
Aside from architectural and topographical views, the artist also documented local inhabitants and customs. On folio 14, he wrote ‘Hindoo Temples of Tin and Coloured Paper’ and provided pen-and-ink sketches of what he assumed to be local and religious crafts. He meticulously documented the colour scheme of these objects. However, in finding comparative material in contemporary drawings and later photographs, it appears that the artist may have documented painted structures called ta'ziya, instead of ‘Hindoo temples’ that were created for the Muslim festival of Muharram. Examples of ta’ziya used in processions were recorded in paintings and photographs by local as well as British artists during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The album contains several charming river scenes that document forms of river transportation, from small row boats to a steamer. From the sequence of illustrations and the inscriptions provided, it is possible to document the artist’s journey along the Hoogly and then the Ganges rivers from Calcutta to Bihar by way of the Rajmahal Hills, Monghyr, Patna, Dinapur and Ghazipur.
Archer, M. British Drawings in the India Office Library, Volume 1: Amateur Artists, London, 1969
Losty, J.P., 'Charles D'Oyly's voyage to Patna', Asian and African Studies Blog, September 2014
Losty, J.P., ‘A Career in Art: Sir Charles D’Oyly’, in Under the Indian Sun: British Landscape Artists, ed. P. Rohatgi and P. Godrej, Bombay, 1995, pp. 81-106
Rohatgi, P., and P. Godrej, Under the Indian Sun: British Landscape Artists, Bombay, 1995
Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator