08 May 2023
Drawings of a gharial, llama and tiger for Lady Hasting
The British Library’s current exhibition Animals: Art, Science and Sound, features more than 120 objects that explores the different ways in which animals have been written about, visualised and recorded over the last two thousand years. The exhibition brings together both geographically and chronologically diverse collections together for the first time.
With the Library holding more than 5000 natural history drawings produced in South Asia, South East Asia, and East Asia, only a selection could be featured in the exhibition. One particular album, excluded from the exhibition due to its sheer size, features the work of the South Asian artist Sita Ram and his wider network. The album includes watercolour drawings of big cats, aquatic animals and birds and is demonstrative of the extensive interest in documenting regional flora and fauna in Bengal during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.
A watercolour of a tiger painted in Bengal by a Calcutta artist, c. 1820. The watercolour measures 375 x 540mm. This album is representative of the large scale size of natural history watercolour drawings produced in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. British Library, Add Or 4960.
Sita Ram was retained as the official artist by Francis Rawdon (1754-1826), the Marquess of Hastings, and his wife Lady Flora, to document their journey from Calcutta to the Punjab in 1814-15. Within a short period, Sita Ram beautifully executed more than 200 paintings in watercolour of topographical views, political encampments, palaces they visited, alongside the extravagant receptions laid out by local nobility in northern India. Additionally, two of the albums includes zoological drawings that are attributed to Sita Ram as well as unnamed Indian, British and Chinese artists. Sita Ram’s distinctive painterly approach in which he adapted the western picturesque idiom for his drawings of natural history specimens are immediately recognisable in these albums.
Sita Ram was a trained artist who was trained in Murshidabad in eastern India. His artistic style differentiates from the traditional regional painting style as he was highly influenced by the picturesque idiom that was introduced to the region through the works of British and European artists who travelled through the region including Anglo-British artist Sir Charles D’Oyly, whose own work features heavily in the Hastings albums. Sita Ram preferred a more painterly approach and ensured specimens were illustrated within a landscape setting. Sita Ram’s natural history paintings were apparently assembled into two albums by Lady Hastings by 1820. His approach is visibly distinctive for its impressionistic brushwork and lifelikeness as visible in his watercolour of a gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), a critically endangered aquatic crocodilian that is native to South Asia.
A gharial or Gangetic crocodile face to face with a grass-hopper. Sita Ram, 1820. British Library, Add Or 5008.
While Sita Ram painted examples of local wildlife, he also included illustrations of a cassowary, an ostrich, a platypus and a llama which were not native species. However, it is quite likely that he was drawing from live specimens. Exotic animals including the cassowary were known to be brought to regional courts as part of cultural diplomacy. Of the few illustrations of these unique animals, the illustration of the llama and pair of monkey is quite curious, as one questions how a South American specimen was brought to South Asia and if this is indeed drawn from life or derivative from another unidentified source. Given Sita Ram’s connection to the Hastings, it is most probable that he spent time at Barrackpore Menagerie, near the Governor-General’s country home Barrackpore House which was outside of Calcutta.
A llama and a pair of monkeys in the Barrackpore Menagerie. Sita Ram or one of his followers, c. 1820. British Library, Add Or 5002.
Sita Ram’s paintings are part of the wider series of albums compiled and arranged for the Earl of Moira (afterwards Marquess of Hastings) and his wife when Hastings was Governor-General of Bengal 1813-23. The Hastings collection was purchased by the British Library from the descendants in 1995 with the assistance of the National Art Collections Fund.
J.P. Losty, The rediscovery of an unknown Indian artist: Sita Ram's work for the Marquess of Hastings, Asian and African Studies Blog, 4 January 2016.
Losty, J.P., Sita Ram: Picturesque Views of India – Lord Hastings’s Journey from Calcutta to the Punjab, 1814-15, Roli Books, New Delhi, 2015 .
M. Roy, C. Sharp Jones and C. Tipp, Animals: Art, Science and Sound (London: British Library, 2023)