THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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51 posts categorized "Visual arts"

11 September 2020

eReading Karma in Snakes and Ladders: two South Asian game boards in the British Library collections

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This guest blog post is by Souvik Mukherjee, an Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of English at Presidency University in Kolkata. His research looks at the narrative and the literary through the emerging discourse of videogames as storytelling media and at how these games inform and challenge our conceptions of narratives, identity and culture. 

Salman Rushdie, in his novel, Midnight’s Children, writes about the game of Snakes and Ladders that ‘all games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner; and for every snake, a ladder will compensate’ (Rushdie 2016, 160). Whether Rushdie is aware one does not know but Snakes and Ladders indeed has its beginnings as a game of morals, or even more than that – a game about life and karma. When Frederick Henry Ayres, the famous toymaker from Aldgate, London, patented the game in 1892, the squares of the game-board had lost their moral connotations. There were earlier examples in Victorian England and mainland Europe that had a very Christian morality encoded into the boards but the game actually originated in India as Gyan Chaupar (it had other local variations such as Moksha Pat, Paramapada Sopanam and other adaptations such as the Bengali Golok Dham and the Tibetan Sa nam lam sha). Victorian versions of the game include the Kismet boardgame (c.a. 1895) now in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection (fig. 1). There were other similar games such as Virtue Rewarded and Vice Punished (1818) and the New Game of Human Life (1790) although the latter did not contain snakes and ladders on its board.

http://media.vam.ac.uk/collections/img/2006/AU/2006AU4145_2500.jpg
Fig. 1. Kismet, c.1895. Chromolithograph on paper and card. Designed in England, manufactured in Bavaria. Victoria & Albert Museum, MISC.423-1981. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    In the Indian versions, it was not a racing-game as it became in its Western adaptations. It was a game that did not end in square hundred but one that people could play over and over until they reached Vaikuntha (the sacred domain of Vishnu) after journeying though many rebirths and corresponding human experiences. Every square in the game signified a moral action, a celestial location or a state of being all of which were important in the Karmic journey. Here is the story of two game-boards in the British Library’s archives and how an Indian game designed to teach the workings of Karma and religion became the Snakes and Ladders that children play the world over, today.

    One of the oldest Gyan Chaupar boards that have been traced so far is now in the British Library (Topsfield 1985, 203-226), originally in the collection of the East India Company officer Richard Johnson (1753-1807) (fig. 2). There are claims that the game originated much earlier – in the Kridakaushalya section of his 1871 Sanskrit magnum opus Brihad Jyotish Arnava, Venkatarama Harikrishna of Aurangabad states that the game was invented by the Marathi saint Dnyaneshwar (1275 – 1296). Andrew Topsfield lists around forty-four game-boards in his two articles published two decades apart and these boards belong to multiple religious traditions, Hindu, Jain and Muslim (Sufi). Topsfield mentions older boards that date back to the late 15th century and also ones that have 128 squares, 84 squares or a 100 squares instead of the 72 squares as on the Johnson board. There is, however, another board in the British Library that has probably not been written about yet. Listed as the Paramapada Sopanam Pata (fig. 3), it is described in the catalogue as: ‘Lithograph in Blockwood printing. of the game Paramapada sōpānam, a traditional Indian indoor game: in a chart titled: Paramapada Sopanam, in which the highest ascent indicates reaching Heaven and anywhere else where the pawn lands indicate various worlds according to Hindu mythology. Language note: In Kannada and Devanagari’. These two boards tell the story of the transculturation of a game that started out as a pedagogical tool to teach the ways of karma and ended up as Hasbro Inc.’s Chutes and Ladders.

Snakes and Ladders board game on paper from Lucknow
Designs for a game of snakes and ladders, gyan chaupur, commissioned by Richard Johnson, Lucknow, 1780-82. Johnson Album 5,8.  CC Public Domain Image

Snakes and Ladders board game, printed on paper, from Karnataka, 19th century
Paramapada Sopanam Pata, board game printed in Karnataka, c. 1800-1850. British Library, ORB 40/1046. CC Public Domain Image

    Around 1832, a Captain Henry Dundas Robertson would present what he called the Shastree’s Game of Heaven and Hell to the Royal Asiatic Society in London where the 128-square Vaishnav Gyan Chaupar board can still be seen. Around 1895, when the game was being sold in England as a children’s game, the civil servant Gerald Robert Dampier was sending a detailed report on the game to North Indian Notes and Queries. Around a century before Dampier and fifty years before Robertson, Richard Johnson’s possession of a Gyan Chaupar board around 1780-2 is in itself a curious affair. This board is now part of the British Library’s collection. Johnson, the deputy resident at Lucknow, is among the lesser-known Orientalists despite his prodigious collection of Indian art and his close connection with orientalists of greater repute such as Sir William Jones. Johnson was supposedly a competent official but he made a fortune through corruption and was called ‘Rupee Johnson’; he was also involved in Warren Hastings’s infamous looting of the Begums of Oudh. In his two years in Oudh (1780-82) Johnson was, however, seems to have been popular and was given the title Mumtāz al-Dawlah Mufakhkhar al-Mulk Richārd Jānsan Bahādur Ḥusām Jang, 1194 or ʻRichard Johnson chosen of the dynasty, exalted of the kingdom, sharp blade in war’, 1780 together with a mansab and an insignia by the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam. Johnson was also an eclectic collector and commissioned work by many Indian artists and scholars  of which 64 albums of paintings (over 1,000 individual items) and an estimated 1000 manuscripts in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, Sanskrit, Bengali, Panjabi, Hindi and Assamese form the ‘backbone of the East India Company library’ (now at the British Library, see Sims-Williams 2014). While other orientalists such as Jones and Hiram Cox wrote on Chess, Johnson seems to have been interested in other games. Besides the Gyan Chaupar board, the Johnson collection contains the Persian game of Ganj (Treasure) and sketches for Ganjifa cards – the round playing cards that were common in India before the advent of European cards (British Library, Johnson Album 5).

    Johnson’s contribution to boardgame studies is no less important than that of the other orientalists although it has taken over two centuries to appreciate this. The Gyan Chaupar board was in his possession a good century before the game was imported to the West and transformed into a race-game. Johnson seems to have been interested in the original game and besides the Devanagari script, each square also contains a farsi transliteration. The words are not Persian but the script is.[i] It is difficult to identify the painter or the source – Malini Roy points out that ‘artists affiliated with Johnson’s studio include Mohan Singh, Ghulam Reza, Gobind Singh, Muhammad Ashiq, Udwat Singh, Sital Das, and Ram Sahai’ (Roy 2010, 181). Whether Johnson read the game-board is a moot question but he certainly cared to get the words transliterated into Persian. Beginning the game on utpatti or ‘origin’, the player can move to maya or ‘illusion’ (square 2), krodh or lobh – ‘anger’ and ‘greed’ respectively (squares 3 and 4) and ascend higher towards salvation via the ladders in the squares that represent daya or mercy (square 13) or Bhakti or devotion (square 54). Bhakti will take the player directly to Vaikuntha and salvation from the cycle of rebirths and the game ends here. For a game purportedly invented by a major figure of the Bhakti Movement, this is no surprise. If the throw of the dice takes the player beyond square 68, then the long snake on square 72 brings the player back to Earth and the cycle of rebirths continues. Johnson’s board is unique among the Gyan Chaupar boards that are known to scholars in that it contains two scorpions in addition to the snakes and the ladders also look somewhat serpentine.

    One more detail is not obvious from the board. None of these boards comes with playing pieces or dice but writing in 1895, Dampier claims that the game was played with cowrie shells as dice and he also adds that the game is ‘very contrary to our Western teachings […] it is not clear why Love of Violence (sq. 72) should lead to Darkness (sq. 51)’. Dampier notes that the game has been ‘lately introduced in England and with ordinary dice for cowries and [with] a somewhere revised set of rules been patented there as a children’s game’ (Dampier 1895, 25-27).

    Dampier’s short but detailed account of Gyan Chaupar provides a clearer entry point into how and why an ‘oriental’ game of karma needed to be Westernised as a children’s game. The transition from the karmic game to the game on Christian morality and then to a race-game for children embodying competition rather than soul-searching is evident from his pithy notes sent to the journal North Indian Notes and Queries. One might assume that the principles working here would have been very different from Johnson’s approach to the game. The story, nevertheless, does not end here. I was fortunate to discover another game-board in the British Library as I mention above. The Paramapada Sopanam or the Ladder to Heaven is similar to the Johnson board in most ways except that there are only snakes on the board. Some snakes help the player ascend and the others are for descent (I purposely eschew terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ here). Square 54 or Bhakti, a many-headed serpent leads the player to Vaikuntha (the board is damaged here) and one might assume that it is Ananta, the celestial snake on which Vishnu reclines. There are some differences with the Johnson board although both relate to the Vaishnav sect of Hinduism. While Gyan Chaupar is largely forgotten in Northern India (except in the Jain tradition where it is reportedly played by some during the Jain festival Paryushan), Paramapada Sopanam is regularly played on the festive day of Vaikuntha Ekadasi in the Indian states of Telengana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In fact, Carl Gustav Jung supposedly obtained a copy of the game when he visited Tamil Nadu in 1938 and took it back to Zurich; Sulagna Sengupta concludes that Jung read the matrix of the game as the play of opposites in the psyche (Sengupta 2017).

    From the karmic game to Jung’s model for the play of psychological opposites, Gyan Chaupar in its many forms is certainly much more than the race game that it has been changed into after its appropriation by the colonial apparatus. Recent research has been able to identify many of these game-boards and these two boards in the British Library are crucial for the ‘recovery research’ into Gyan Chaupar and its variants as well as the cultures in which they were conceived. Recent research on games talks of ‘gamification’ or the application of ludic principles to real-life activities – a closer look at the original Gyan Chaupar will show its merit as a gamified text, an instructional manual on the ways of life and on Indic soteriology.

 

Notes
[i] I am indebted to Ms Azadeh Mazlousaki Isaksen of the University of Tromso, Norway, for the translations. Ms Isaksen initially struggled to translate the words as she found them unfamiliar. The reason was that these were Hindi or Sanskrit words written in the Persian script.

 

Bibliography
Cannon, Garland, and Andrew Grout. “Notes and Communications.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 55, no. 2, 1992, pp. 316–318. 

Dampier, Gerald Roberts. “A Primitive Game.” North Indian Notes and Queries V (1895): p. 25-27.

Roy, Malini. “Origins of the Late Mughal Painting Tradition in Awadh.” India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow. Ed. Stephen Markel and Tushara Bindu Gude. Los Angeles: Prestel, 2010.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnights Children. London: Random House, 2016.

Sengupta, Sulagna. “Parama Pada Sopanam : The Divine Game of Rebirth and Renewal.” Jungian Perspectives on Rebirth and Renewal: Phoenix Rising. Ed. Elizabeth Brodersen and Michael Glock. London ; New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

Sims-Williams, Ursula. “‘White Mughal’ Richard Johnson and Mir Qamar al-Din Minnat.” British Library Asian and African Studies Blog, 1 May 2014.

Topsfield, Andrew. “The Indian Game of Snakes and Ladders.” Artibus Asiae, vol. 46, no. 3, 1985, pp. 203–226. 

 

By Dr. Souvik Mukherjee CCBY Image

22 July 2020

Bombay Plague Visitation, 1896-97

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In the collection of the British Library, an extraordinary photo album (Photo 311/1) titled Plague Visitation, 1896-97 documents the city of Bombay at the onset of the devastating bubonic plague pandemic of 1896, which would spread throughout the entire Indian subcontinent until finally subsiding in 1914. The British Library's album was commissioned by the Bombay Plague Committee and compiled by the British photographer Francis Benjamin Stewart. Apart from the British Library, the Wellcome Institute (fig. 1) in London and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles each hold an album with very similar photographs in their collections. While the British Library album contains 142 prints in total, the Wellcome volume contains 125 prints and the Getty album contains 138.

Wellcome_Plague Visitation Album Cover cover
Figure 1. The cover of the Plague Visitation, Bombay 1896-97 photo album held by the Wellcome Collection. noc

    In the British Library album, Stewart contributed 8 albumen prints, while the remaining gelatin silver prints have been attributed to Captain C. Moss of the Gloucester Regiment. The albums appear to have been distributed to various British government officers. For instance, it is likely that the British Library’s photo album had been given to Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Peers Dimmock, the Director of the JJ Hospital in Bombay, by the Bombay Plague Committee. In addition, the images circulated within a larger public sphere (see catalogue record). Photographs from the albums were reproduced in the British weekly-illustrated newspaper The Graphic not long after the production of the album (fig. 2).

The Graphic Newspaper showing the reproduced photographs from the Bombay Plague Visitation album
Figure 2. Reproduced photographs in The Graphic, September 18 1897, p. 394. (c) Illustrated London News/Mary Evans Picture Library

    The third pandemic of the bubonic plague began in Yunnan province in southwestern China around 1855 and reached Hong Kong in 1894. From there, the disease spread to other parts of the world, including India, Brazil, Madagascar, and the United States, primarily through maritime trade, resulting in an estimated fifteen million deaths across the world. Twelve of these fifteen million deaths occurred in India. From the very onset of the epidemic, the British government in India invested its full powers to prevent the spread of the disease, implementing invasive and destructive plague control measures at an unprecedented scale. To bring the plague under control the Bombay municipality implemented draconian measures, increasingly so as the epidemic continued to spread through the subcontinent. The colonial state sanctioned British and Indian troops to enter into the private homes of the city’s residents to locate afflicted or deceased persons. The infected were dragged to various hospitals within the city where they invariably died, while their clothes and belongings were burned at street corners. Others were directed into plague camps where they received inoculations while their houses were flushed, fumigated, and lime washed, effectively destroying their possessions in the process (Arnold 1993). Yet, despite these strategies of control, the colonial state failed to contain the disease. As the disease spread across the world, it not only left a long trail of casualties but also a substantial visual archive on the first large-scale bio-political crisis to be captured through the photographic lens in colonial India and worldwide.

    Scholars have identified epidemiological photography as a new genre of photography that emerged at the turn of the century—one that brought together the conventions of ethnography and documentary photography to document the broader ecology of epidemics, including factors relating to their outbreak, their modes of transmission, and their destructive consequences (see Lynteris 2016 and Englemann 2017). Indeed, rather than following the conventions of nineteenth-century medical photography, which focus on the physical manifestations of disease, the photographs in the Bombay photo-albums highlight the effects of the plague in the city alongside the colonial state’s role in preventing the propagation of the disease. One sees medical staff and hospitals, preventative measures such as the cleaning of streets and houses, health inspections, corpses and burial grounds, and infantrymen on duty (fig. 3 and 4).

‘House to House Visitation. Burning Infected Bedding’. Photograph by Captain C. Moss. 1896-97. British Library, Photo 311/1(91)
Figure 3: ‘House to House Visitation. Burning Infected Bedding’. Photograph by Captain C. Moss. 1896-97. British Library, Photo 311/1(91)  noc

Bombay plague observation camp: spraying detainee with disinfectant'. Photographed by Captain C. Moss, 1896-97. British Library, Photo 311/1(139)
Figure 4: 'Bombay plague observation camp: spraying detainee with disinfectant'. Photographed by Captain C. Moss, 1896-97. British Library, Photo 311/1(139)  noc

    As a whole, the photographs appear to present a narrative of plague reform and colonial intervention. For example, in Stewart’s photograph “Flushing Engine Cleansing Infected Houses,” (fig. 5) one can see government officials flush clean seawater onto tenements that have been contaminated by the plague in order to sanitize the space.

Wellcome_Flushing Engine
Figure 5: Photograph of 'Flushing engine cleaning [plague] infected houses'. Photograph by F.B. Stewart, 1896-87, Wellcome Library no. 24258i. Another copy at British Library, Photo 311/1(108).  noc

At the same time, the photographs foreground the gradual, even uneven, development of colonial scientific epistemologies and the different fields of thought that constituted discourses of tropical hygiene and medicine. The Bombay photo-albums were produced in the last decade of the nineteenth century, at a time when conflicting theories of disease causation characterized medical discourse. British health officials in London had accepted the germ theory of disease causation, wherein diseases proliferate through the spread of pathogens. However, many colonial administrators found it difficult to discard earlier ideas of disease and miasma and, within colonial scientific discourse, environmental factors such as noxious miasmas, heat, moisture, poor ventilation were believed to be responsible for the causation and propagation of disease (Kidambi 2007, 52). Accordingly, European officials at the time believed that water, specifically seawater, could cleanse infected spaces and flush out diseases, and by the end of 1896, three million gallons of salt water were being flushed daily through Bombay’s drains and sewers to clean the city’s irrigation and sewage systems (Catanach 1998, 146).

In addition to water, air and sunlight were also active agents in the eradication of the plague epidemic in late nineteenth-century Bombay. Captain C. Moss’s photographs, “Plague-stricken houses unroofed to let in sun and air” (fig. 7) depict thatched huts that have been unroofed to allow sunlight and air to enter into their interior spaces.

Alibag, Kolaba. Infected houses un-roofed'. Photographed by Captain C. Moss, 1896-97. British Library, Photo 311/1(50)
Figure 6. 'Alibag, Kolaba. Infected houses un-roofed'. Photographed by Captain C. Moss, 1896-97. British Library, Photo 311/1(50).  noc

Moss’s photographs not only reflect concurrent colonial epidemiological theories, which focused on the unsanitary and climatic factors that enabled diseases to thrive, but also prefigure the dramatic reconstruction of Bombay facilitated by the colonial government in the early twentieth century in response to the plague pandemic. The government’s new city improvement schemes would include the reclamation of land from the sea, the building of broad boulevards that would bring breezes, deemed healthful, from the ocean to the neighborhoods; and the conversion of local agrarian lands into “garden suburbs.” (see Chopra 2011 and Rao 2012) Thus, the British Library’s photo-album serves as a significant archive of British colonial epidemiological, visual, and urban practices.

Bibliography:

David Arnold, Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-century India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

I.J. Catanach, “Plague and the Tensions of Empire: India 1896-1918” in Imperial Medicine and Indigenous Societies, ed. David Arnold (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988).

Swati Chattopadhyay, Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism, and the Colonial Uncanny (London: Routledge, 2005)

Preeti Chopra, A Joint Enterprise: Indian Elites and the Making of British Bombay (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011)

Myron J. Ehrenberg, “City of the Plague: Bombay, 1896” in Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague, 1894-1901 (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 47-78.

Lukas Engelmann, “What Are Medical Photographs of Plague?” REMEDIA, January 31, 2017, https://remedianetwork.net/2017/01/31/what-are-medical-photographs-of-plague/.

Prashant Kidambi, The Making of an Indian Metropolis: Colonial Governance and Public Culture in Bombay, 1890-1920 (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007).

Christos Lynteris, “The Prophetic Faculty of Epidemic Photography: Chinese Wet Markets and the Imagination of the Next Pandemic,” Visual Anthropology 29, no. 2, (2016): 118-132.

Nikhil Rao, House, but No Garden: Apartment Living in Bombay's Suburbs, 1898-1964 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

Shivani Sud, "Water, Air, Light: The Materialities of Plague Photography in Colonial Bombay, 1896–97," Getty Research Journal, no. 12 (2020): 219-230

 

Shivani Sud is a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley. Her recently published article on the Getty's album is listed above.

 

 

08 May 2020

Portrait miniatures of the young sons of Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh

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Among the extensive holdings at the British Library including visual resources relating to the history of Awadh, there are only but a few historic manuscripts, paintings and photographs that document the last King of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah (1822-1887) during his rule and while in exile in Calcutta. The photographic portraits of Wajid Ali Shah and members of his extended family taken by local photographer Ahmad Ali Khan (active 1850s-1862) have become increasingly well known in the last three decades through publications and exhibitions. These included portraits of his second wife, Akhtar Mahal Nauwab Raunaq-ara (whom he married in 1851) and Nawab Raj Begum Sahibah (British Library, Photo 500(1-4). Additionally, Ahmad Ali Khan was able to capture an informal group portrait of Wajid Ali Shah seated on a western style sofa with both his Queen Akhtar Mahal and their unnamed daughter. The depiction of the wives and at least one daughter now directs us to the question of visual records of Wajid Ali Shah’s sons and potential heirs to the throne. Ahmad Ali Khan's photographs from the 1850 and later works by Abbas Ali in the 1870s, in An Illustrated Historical Album of the Rajas and Taaluqdars of Oudh, do not record any photographs of the sons.

Picture of Nawab Raj Begum Sahibah one of the concubines of the Sultan ... aged 23 years. Dated 1271 (1854/55) .. of the kingdom of Lucknow', photographed by Ahmad Ali Khan, c. 1855.
'Picture of Nawab Raj Begum Sahibah one of the concubines of the Sultan ... aged 23 years. Dated 1271 (1854/55) .. of the kingdom of Lucknow', photographed by Ahmad Ali Khan, c. 1855.
British Library, Photo 500(3) CC Public Domain Image

In February 2018, the Visual Arts section acquired two portraits painted on ivory, reputed to be two young sons of Wajid Ali Shah. These portraits predate the early photographic portraits by more than a decade. In the late 18th century, British and European artists such as John Smart and Ozias Humphrey introduced the concept of painting portrait miniatures on ivory to local artists in northern India. The practice of painting on ivory would flourish and artists expanded the subject matter to include genre scenes and topographical views. Based on stylistic grounds, the portraits of the young sons date to c. 1840. One of the two portraits, pictures a young male child of no more than 12 months in age, based on the fact he is pictured supported by a bolster and cannot sit up properly. The second of the two, is a slightly older child of no more than 2 years in age who is pictured seated in a European style chair. Inscribed on the reverse of the frame, in a 19th century handwriting style, it is written  ‘These are said to be the children of the last Nawab of Oude, India. I was given the miniatures by one of his descendants, whose grandfather, after the mutiny, had sought refuge in Bhagdad [sic].’

J.P. Losty (formerly the Head of Visual Arts) suggests that these two sitters were most likely to be the second and third sons of Wajid Ali Shah, as the first-born was deaf and mute and hence passed over. The second son being Falak Qadar ‘a fine looking boy’ who would die prematurely of smallpox at the age of 11 (Llewelyn-Jones 2014, 77) and the third son being Hamid Ali (1838-74) would become the prince-apparent. Hamid Ali would later visit Britain in 1857, photographed by Leonida Caldesi at an exhibition In Manchester in July 1857 (Llewellyn-Jones 2014, fig. 18).

Pair of portraits painted on ivory, showing the two young sons of Wajid Ali Shah
Portraits of the two young sons of Wajid Ali Shah, the King of Awadh by an unknown Lucknow artist, c. 1840-42. British Library, Add Or 5710-5711. Photographed by Patricia Tena, 2019.

On acquiring these ivories the Visual Arts section arranged to have these portraits assessed and obtain proposals for the long-term preservation and storage. The miniatures were transferred to conservation in late 2019, as part of the annual conservation programme.  The objects were both very vulnerable in the present storage box as the ivory substrates were effectively loose in the box.  Both the watercolour media and the ivory substrate were in a stable condition. However, over time, there was considerable media loss mainly on the edges, probably caused by a change in frame/enclosure and being in close contact with a frame or glass that rubbed against the paint layer. Unsuitable materials such as adhesives and poor quality paper or card used for the framing will have contributed to the discolouration, accretions and staining on the edges.

Close up of one of the miniatures showing loss of media, accretions and discolouration on edges.
Close up of one of the miniatures showing loss of media, accretions and discolouration on edges. Photographed by Patricia Tena, 2019.

As part of the treatment proposal, the pair of portraits did not require conservation treatment apart from cleaning prior to their rehousing. Conservation designed new enclosures that were built in order to accommodate a very hygroscopic material such as ivory. 

Ivory miniature in tray
The ivory portraits in their new housing. Photographed by Patricia Tena, 2019.

With the pair of ivories in their new housing, it is now possible to make the works available for consultation to registered readers by appointment. For further details regarding the conservation treatment by Patricia Tena, please see the accompanying blog by Collection Care.

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts, and Patricia Tena ACR, Conservator

 

References and further reading

S. Baburi, 'Sources for the study of Muhammad Vajid Ali Shah’, Asian and African Studies Blog, 2015. 

S. Gordon, “A Sacred Interest”: The Role of Photography in the ‘City of Mourning”, in S. Markel and B. Gude (ed.) India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow, Prestel 2010, pp. 145-163.

R. Llewelyn-Jones, The Last King in India: Wajid Ali Shah, Hurst & Company, London, 2014.

 

07 February 2020

Moloch gibbons and sloth bears: the work of the Bengali artist Haludar

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The British Library has loaned twenty paintings and manuscripts to the Wallace Collection in London, for the ‘Forgotten Masters' exhibition, running through April 2020. Included are a selection of four works by the relatively unknown artist Haludar, whose natural history drawings are on display for the very first time. When the exhibition curator William Darymple started scoping paintings to be included in the exhibition, I brought to his attention the natural history drawings in the collection commissioned by the Scottish surgeon Dr. Francis Buchanan-Hamilton (1762–1829, hereafter referred to as Buchanan) at the turn of the 19th century. When I showed him the delicate paintings of a moloch gibbon, asloth bear, a long-tailed macaqu and the gerbils painted by the artist Haludar, Dalrymple was intrigued and we started considering the conservation aspects in displaying these works for the first time.

Illustration of a moloch gibbon in three ways
Moloch gibbon drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, c. 1799-1806. British Library, NHD 3/499 Noc

Sloth bear NHD 3/489
Sloth bear drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, c. 1799-1806. British Library, NHD 3/491 Noc

In researching the Buchanan collection at the British Library, which consists of several hundred natural history alongside countless volumes of his notes, I met with Dr Ralf Britz an ichthyologist (or fish scientist) at the Natural History Museum, who was working on Buchanan's volume on Fishes of the Ganges held in the British Library. When I mentioned my plans to work on the drawings of mammals in the Library's collection and researching the artist Haludar, he immediately sent me a scientific article by the French zoologist Henri de Blainville. In 1816, de Blainville  (1777–1850) wrote in the Bulletin des sciences, par la Société philomathique de Paris, that a new species of Cervus niger could be identified ‘after a very beautiful coloured drawing that was completed on site by Haludar, an Indian painter’. After reading this article I started to look at other early 19th century periodicals to see if any other zoologists were looking at de Blainville's work or by chance also mentioned Haludar.

NHD 3 (501) copy
Indian sambar deer, Cervus Niger, drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, c. 1799-1806, Barrackpore. British Library, NHD 3/501 Noc

I discovered that in 1819,  the German naturalist Lorenz Oken’s periodical Isis also made reference to C. niger, stating it was ‘painted on the spot by the master painter Haludar’. Both references to Cervus niger, which is an Indian Sambar deer, provided only brief descriptions of the species, and omitted to give details regarding the source of the scientific information as well as the location of the artwork by Haludar. However, in cross-referencing C. niger with Haludar, we are directed to a single drawing in the British Library’s collection that was commissioned by Francis Buchanan inscribed with the artist’s name, that had been deposited at the Company’s library on Leadenhall Street, London in 1808. This painting of Cervus niger is one of 28 natural history drawings now held in the British Library that are inscribed Haludar Pinxt and that were prepared between 1795 and 1818, when Buchanan was working as a surgeon for the East India Company and actively documenting botanical and zoological specimens during his travels across the subcontinent.

Mildred Archer, art historian and author of Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, suggested that Haludar most likely was one of the artists retained by William Roxburgh, the superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Gardens. Roxburgh and Buchanan were in regular correspondence; Archer suggests that Roxburgh referred Haludar to Buchanan. Haludar was first employed by Buchanan from 1795-97, in Lakshmipur (in southeast Bangladesh), where the Scottish surgeon worked for the Company's factory until 1798 and spent his time studying the freshwater fishes in the Ganges River. During this time, we know that he 'hired a young Bengali artist to drawing various species he encountered'. According to Ralf Britz, Haludar was responsible for illustrating the freshwater specimens. While Buchanan-Hamilton examined and prepared written descriptions for each species, Haludar accurately depicted each fish with meticulous precision. He used pen-and-ink for the outlines, with pulversized silver to colour in the specimens (see BL IOR Mss Eur E72).

Following Buchanan’s posting at Lakshmipur, it is unclear whether Haludar accompanied Buchanan over the next few years when Buchanan was in Chittagong, Mysore and Nepal conducting surveys or sent on official visits on behalf of the Company from 1798-1803. Haludar may have returned to Calcutta in 1799 when Buchanan was temporarily placed in charge of the Botanic Gardens as Roxburgh was recovering in the Cape of Good Hope from ill health.

On returning from Nepal in 1803, Wellesley appointed Buchanan as his surgeon at Barrackpore, which had been converted as the residence for the Governor-General in 1801. On the grounds, Wellesley established the Barrackpore Menagerie which Buchanan would run as superintendent from 1803-05. Specimens from across the subcontinent were collected and brought to the menagerie. Based on archival evidence in the British Library, we know that Haludar was one of several artists to illustrate birds and mammals at Barrackpore. This information is documented in the series of illustrations that were sent in two batches from Barrackpore to London, first in 1807 and the second in 1818. A document titled ‘List of Drawings of E. Indian Quadrapeds and Birds made under the inspection severally of Mr Gibbon and of Dr Fleming and Buchanan – and deposited in the Library of the Honourable East India Company [Received on 24 August 1808]’,listed twenty-six mammals and twenty-eight birds. Of these works, Haludar was the artist of twenty-six drawings. In the second batch of a further 108 drawings sent under the authority of acting superintendent Nathanial Wallich in 1818, two additional works inscribed with Haludar’s name was sent to London. Among the wider collection of natural history drawings from Barrackpore in these two phases, the work of Haludar’s contemporaries Guru Dayal of Chittagong, Mahangu Lal and Bishnu Prasad are included.

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts Ccownwork

Further reading:

Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, H.M.S.O., 1962.

Ralf Britz (ed.) Hamilton’s Gangetic Fishes in Colour: A new edition of the 1822 monograph, with reproductions of unpublished coloured and illustrations, London: Natural History Museum and Ray Society, 2019

Malini Roy, 'The Bengali Artist Haludar', in W. Dalrymple, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

Mark F. Watson and Henry J. Noltie, ‘Career, collections, reports and publications of Dr Francis Buchanan (later Hamilton) 1762-1829: natural history studies in Nepal, Burma (Myanmar), Bangladesh and India. Part 1,’ in Annals of Science, 2016.

Mark F. Watson and Henry J. Noltie. (2019). The Buchanan-Hamilton collection of botanical drawings at the Linnean Society of London. Marg 70(2): 81–84.

 

21 December 2019

Chinese Botanical Paintings in the British Library Visual Arts Collection

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Rita dal Martello is completing her doctorate at UCL and has completed a doctoral placement at the British Library in November 2019. 

In 2019 the Visual Arts team has been pleased to welcome Rita Dal Martello as the section’s PhD placement focusing on Chinese works on paper. Rita has primarily been working on translating, identifying and cataloguing a collection of over 300 watercolour painting of botanical subjects along with additional paintings related to Chinese furniture and interiors, methods of torture and also the Macartney Embassy to China in 1792-1794. This blog will explore some of Rita’s research related to the Chinese botanical paintings cared for by the Visual Arts team.

In 1975, a collection of Chinese botanical paintings was received from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office comprising of 6 volumes of mostly quarto-size sheets of watercolour illustrations. On four different types of paper, the majority of the paintings are on paper watermarked Whatman 1794 II or Whatman 1794 I, whilst a small percentage are on cartridge type paper and a few on a very thin paper.

The paintings are provisionally dated to c. 1800, and are by unknown Chinese artists. 234 of the paintings represent flowering plants belonging to over 60 families, which have now been identified as including Rosaceae, Orchidaceae, Rutaceae, Fabaceae, Lythraceae, Ericaceae, Theaceae, Malvaceae, Magnoliaceae, Annonaceae, Apocynaceae, Asteraceae, Myrtaceae, Paeoniaceae, and Sapindaceae families, which have multiple examples across the collection. The remaining 76 illustrations in the collection are of unidentified flowering plants.

Over half of the identified plants are Asian ornamental flowers, such as orchids, azaleas, camellias, roses, chrysanthemums, peonies, magnolias and lilies among other.

Illustration of a camellia
Pale pink Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica) by an unknown Chinese artist, c.1800. British Library, NHD 52/37  noc

The rest of the paintings illustrate mostly Asian economic fruit and legume species, such as oranges, peaches, pears, persimmons, wampees, kumquat, litchi, longan, Bauhinia, and rosary pea among other. Finally, a few examples of Asian trees are illustrated in the later volumes of this collection, including one example of a willow tree, Japanese oaks, pines, and tallow trees.

Nhd_55_032r copy

Sweet orange (Citrus x sinensis) by an unknown Chinese artist, c. 1800. British Library, NHD 55/32.  noc

Most of the paintings show one or multiple flowering leafy branches, with fruits illustrated on a separate, smaller branch on the side. The drawings and colouring are accurate, with detailed illustration of individual petals and stamens, and veins on the leaves’ surface.

The floral and fruit dissections are meticulously illustrated on the lower corners of the paintings; individual pedicels, sepals, pistils, stamens and petals are all represented in these dissected illustrations; for fruit dissections fleshy interiors and seeds are often represented both within the fruit and separately on the side, often dissected themselves. Leaves, flowers, and fruits are illustrated at different stages of their life cycle, including in buds, at full bloom, and decaying, as well as immature and mature for fruits.

The depiction of floral and fruit dissections was becoming the norm in botanical paintings and allowed botanists to accurately identify different plant species from illustrations rather than from living or dried specimens, which could die or become damaged in transit.

At least one third of the paintings present visible pencil underdrawings; these most often represent changes in the final painted outcome, but rarely whole flowers and fruits are drawn in pencil on front and have not been painted. One instance of upside-down pencil sketches mirroring the front painting is found on the reverse of NHD56/49.

Numerous inscriptions are present on the front and reverse of the paintings. On the front, these usually include a set of Chinese characters, written in ink either on the lower right or lower left hand corner; these typically relate to the Chinese common name of the illustrated plant, some have folkloristic names which have now become obsolete. On the front, always written in ink on the lower left hand corner, there is one of two sets of initials – ‘W. Ch.’ on 152 paintings, and ‘H. Sh.’ on 129 paintings. Additionally, about a third of the paintings also have Latin plant names, rarely with English translation, written in pencil on the front lower right hand corner.

On the reverse, Chinese characters and their corresponding Cantonese transliteration are written on the lower right corner in pencil; these usually match the characters written on front, but in a few paintings additional characters are written on reverse, indicating the edibility of the plants or other noteworthy characteristics. The Cantonese transliteration are written in European script.

On a number of paintings, flowering times are indicated through Chinese characters written in ink on the reverse lower left hand corner; this is present only in paintings that bear the front inscription of H. Sh.; flowering times are given in individual months, and these match current known flowering times of the species illustrated in South China.

During my time at the British Library, I spent many hours transcribing and translating all the different inscriptions on the paintings, including updating plant Latin names according to the most recent scientific knowledge. I also compared the British Library collection with other Chinese botanical paintings such as the William Kerr collection held at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, as well as consulted online and printed Chinese floras. This allowed for the accurate taxonomic identification of many of the plant depicted which were previously catalogued as unidentified botanical illustrations. This will enhance greatly future research and discoverability of this collection.

The records of each individual painting, including detailed information regarding plant species depicted (both common English names and Latin names when available), painting composition, and inscriptions (both front and reverse) can be found on the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue, by searching for the specific references of the collection (NHD52, NHD53, NHD54, NHD55, NHD56, NHD57), or otherwise by searching for specific plant names.

These paintings are also available for consultation on appointment only, through contacting the Asian and African Studies Print Room Staff in advance.

Rita dal Martello, doctoral candidate at UCL  ccownwork

20 June 2019

Islamic Painted Page: Growing a Database

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Today's post is by Stephen Serpell announcing the launch of the new version of his online database Islamic Painted Page, now hosted with the University of Hamburg. In a world where individual institutions still maintain their idiosyncratic approaches to locating and displaying digitised images, this resource is a major breakthrough.

Since its launch in 2013, Islamic Painted Page (IPP) has grown into a major online database of Islamicate arts of the book, with over 42,000 references to paintings, illuminations and bindings from over 270 collections around the globe – of which the British Library is one of the most important.

Headerimage

IPP is found at www.islamicpaintedpage.com and it does two things. First, it enables users to locate and compare works worldwide using a single database, displaying images wherever possible; and second, it signposts users onward to more authoritative sources, with hotlinks direct to the specific image pages of collection websites where available, and page-specific references for printed publications.

The website enables users to search by picture description, collection, accession number, date, place of origin, manuscript title or author, or publication – or any combination of these. So it is possible, for example, to find with a single search 77 different interpretations of the famous scene where Khusrau sees Shirin bathing, with IPP itself showing images of 36 of them.

Five British Library versions of “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”
4 out of 77: Five British Library versions of “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing” (BL Add. 6613, f.42r, IO Islamic 138, f.75r, Or. 2265, f.53v, Or. 2933, f.19v)

Or one could look into the development of non-figurative illumination and page decoration during the reign of Sultan Ḥusayn Bāyqarā in Herat, 1469-1506 (70 different results); or search under an accession number to locate reproductions of works not currently published online, such as the paintings from the Topkapi Royal Turkman Khamsah H762; or search by a particular classical author, for example to study the star charts in different manuscripts of the Ṣuwar al-kawākib of al-Ṣūfī. And one can even search the contents of a publication, perhaps to check if it contains relevant illustrations, or to cross-check for metadata that was left out of the printed text (IPP is good for filling in missing details).

IPP aims to help users find not just images of works, but also articles and commentaries about them; so its search results list all the publication references it holds on each item, with the collection website location topmost if one exists. This means that well-known works return multiple “hits” in a search; for example the Miʻraj painting in the British Library’s celebrated Khamsah of Shah Tahmasp (Or. 2265, f.195r) is one of the most-published of all Islamicate miniatures and comes up with 25 references. However very few works achieve such fame, and in fact the database currently holds about 42,500 references for its total of about 30,000 separate items - so on average, each item only appears in 1.4 publications.

“The Miʻraj of the Prophet” from the Khamsah of Shah Tahmasp (BL Or. 2265 f.195r).
Multiply published: “The Miʻraj of the Prophet” from the Khamsah of Shah Tahmasp (BL Or. 2265 f.195r). Public Domain

This illustrates a further use of the database; its very large size means that it could be used as a starting point for statistical analysis, for example to chart the production of particular illustrated works against place of production or by date, or how the popularity of certain scenes has varied over time.

Islamic Painted Page, main search page

Finding needles in haystacks: Islamic Painted Page, main search page

The database originated simply from one individual’s frustration over the difficulties of studying Islamicate miniature paintings and illuminations, since they are dispersed all over the planet and references to them are scattered throughout a daunting corpus of literature; and even though many are now published online, it can still be very laborious to find relevant links. This led to a personal database that soon grew to point where it seemed likely to be useful to others, if only it could be placed online. A grant from the Iran Heritage Foundation made the website possible in 2013 with an initial 12,300 entries. Subsequent support from the Islamic Manuscript Association in 2015 improved the website’s utility for manuscript studies, including proper attention to transliteration. By this time the database had already grown to 20,600 references and had built in item-specific links to VIAF, WORLDCAT and FIHRIST so that users can just click to find fuller, authoritative information on authors and works, print publications, and - for UK items - manuscript details. Needless to say, a private sideline had by then become a mega-hobby.

However the most exciting subsequent step has been adding actual images of the paintings, illuminations and bindings wherever possible. Copyright prevents the database from reproducing illustrations in printed works, but IPP also covers works published online; and in many cases this has enabled IPP to show images that have been published as Creative Commons or Public Domain, or where a collection has given special permission.


Example search results (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)
Example search results (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)


Flyout details for one result (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)
Flyout details for one result (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)

It was a particular pleasure in 2018 to receive permission to incorporate images for the British Library, since it houses one of the world’s most important collections of Islamicate manuscripts and has been digitizing many of its finest holdings. Together with coverage of 19 other collections, IPP is now able to display thumbnails and larger images for about 50% of its references so far; and it is the inclusion of images that transforms the usefulness of the site for most researchers. It should be stressed that every thumbnail and every flyout image in IPP acknowledges the collection source and provides a folio-specific weblink to the relevant collection webpage, together with a recommendation to proceed to the collection website for authoritative images and other details.

Along the way, IPP has had to confront some difficult issues. Users need to be able to search efficiently, especially if they are trying to find a painting of a particular scene; but this requires consistent descriptions, whereas different authorities give different titles to the same scene (eg Khusrau sees Shirin bathing; Khosrow spies Shirin bathing; Shirin bathes observed by Khusrau….). To help manage this, IPP uses just one consistent description for each scene, but also holds the corresponding alternative descriptions. This ensures that users who cannot find what they want among the “consistent descriptions” can still search among the “alternative descriptions” if necessary.

The price for this simple-sounding device is that IPP not only has to check for consistent titling across the entire database for every new entry, but also has to maintain entire sub-databases of descriptions listing every scene encountered in each of about 30 of the most popular painting cycles, such as those illustrating the Khamsah of Niẓāmī (where artists have represented over 300 different scenes), the Haft Awrang of Jāmī and the Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī (which extends to over 1,000 scenes and where the work of the Cambridge Shāhnāmah project must be fully acknowledged). Hobbyists, beware!

RAS239-7r RAS239-16v RAS239-32v RAS239-44r
Four scenes from the Shāhnāmah painting cycle (Royal Asiatic Society MS 239, ff. 7r, 16v, 32v, 44r)

Different authorities also ascribe different dates and places of origin to the same items. IPP respects this but it does result in inconsistent metadata between the relevant IPP references. And even authorities can make mistakes, or fail to provide essential details, and publications can suffer misprints; IPP has filled in a lot of missing accession numbers and corrected a lot of wrong ones.

IPP includes thousands of references to non-figurative illuminated pages and bindings, as well as covering figurative pictures; and an important upgrade is in hand to improve the detail of its 2,500 references to decorated Qurʼan pages.

Non-figurative examples – bindings, illuminations, decoration
Non-figurative examples – bindings, illuminations, decoration (BL Add. 16561, Add. 18579, IO Islamic 843 f.34v, Or. 12988 f.2r)

IPP is an academic resource and its future clearly needs to lie with an academic institution, not with an individual. For that reason, about a year ago IPP began a relationship with the University of Hamburg’s Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures that aims to enrich the database’s features and extend the coverage of works published online as well as in print. One of the first fruits of this collaboration has been the re-launch of the IPP website hosted and supported by the University of Hamburg, with a new look and a number of improvements to the user interface.

Meanwhile the database continues to grow and it is planned to include more images, enlarge its coverage of collections and secondary sources from the Muslim world, and extend its geographical scope. In this way, it is hoped that IPP can act as a multi-disciplinary resource and assist not only art historians and manuscript scholars, but also contribute to digital humanities and wider cultural studies.

The author would like to thank Dr. Barbara Brend, Professor Charles Melville and Dr. Teresa Fitzherbert, as well as his own wife Elizabeth, without whose support, encouragement and patience Islamic Painted Page would never have come into being.

Stephen Serpell, Islamic Painted Page
Research Associate, Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC), University of Hamburg
stephen.serpell@uni-hamburg.de
https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4547af8200c-pi

26 April 2019

Vijayanagara Research Project at the British Library

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In January 2019 the British Library began a new research project with the Centre for Art and Archaeology (CA&A) at the American Institute of Indian Studies in New Delhi, focused on our Visual Arts collections. The project has been funded through a grant from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the project is part of  the Rutherford Fund – a major UK Government investment launched in 2017 to promote international research collaboration.

The Vijayanagara Research Project examines both the Visual Arts collection of material (prints, drawings and photographs) related to Hampi Vijayanagara, a UNESCO World Heritage site in south India, including a recently acquired collection of modern architectural and topographical plans of the site produced by Dr George Michell and Dr John Fritz over a 30 year period. Sagera Kazmi, the Rutherford Fellow hosted by the British Library is researching and editing the metadata for the collections that will be made available later this year through Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue.

Photograph picturing Sagera Kazmi with John Fritz (left) and George Michell (right) reviewing the original drawings in February 2019.
Sagera Kazmi with John Fritz (left) and George Michell (right) reviewing the original drawings in February 2019.

On 25th March, we hosted a a day long workshop to bring together colleagues and researchers from relevant institutions who work on Hindu temple architecture and sacred spaces in South Asia. Participants included Dr Purnima Mehta (Director General, AIIS), Dr Vandhana Sinha (Director, CA&A), Rizvi Syed (Librarian, CA&A), George Michell, John Fritz, Richard Blurton (British Museum), Nick Barnard (V&A), Crispin Branfoot (SOAS), as well as colleagues from the British Library. The aim of the workshop was to introduce the project and provide a forum to discuss how the VRP can have an impact on future academic research, digital humanities and cultural heritage management.

Photograph Sagera Kazmi introducing her research at the British Library's workshop. Also pictured, Luisa Elena Mengoni (Head of Asian and African Collections, BL), Alan Sudlow (Head of Research, BL), Crispin Branfoot (SOAS), and Nick Barnard (V&A).
Sagera Kazmi introducing her research at the British Library's workshop. Also pictured, Luisa Elena Mengoni (Head of Asian and African Collections, BL), Alan Sudlow (Head of Research, BL), Crispin Branfoot (SOAS), and Nick Barnard (V&A).

Photograph showing John Falconer (British Library), Vandana Sinha (CA&A) and Purnima Mehta (AIIS) looking at photographic collections.
John Falconer (British Library), Vandana Sinha (CA&A) and Purnima Mehta (AIIS) looking at photographic collections.

As part of the day, Sagera Kazmi, the Rutherford Fund Research Fellow who is currently being hosted by the British Library from the AIIS CA&A, presented material from the VRP collections, including some of those produced by Michell and Fritz. Work undertaken by Michell, Fritz and their teams since 1986, has resulted in over  pencil and ink drawings of the architectural features of numerous buildings and temples found at Hampi Vijayanagara which have recently been donated to the British Library. These important archaeological records provide a chronological continuation of the Library’s established historical collections related to this site and will act as an important resource for researchers in a variety of fields.

Pencil drawing showing the north elevation of the Raja Mahal, Chandragiri, scale 1:100.
Pencil drawing showing the north elevation of the Raja Mahal, Chandragiri, scale 1:100. 

Wider collection items were also displayed during the workshop, including a plan of the site produced between 1780 and 1820. This map, part of the MacKenzie collection, shows the topography and fortifications found at the site during Colin MacKenzie’s survey of the Ceded Districts in the early nineteenth century. Other collection items included watercolour paintings of some of the buildings at the site and also photographs from the Archaeological Survey of India photograph series.

Map of Vijayanagara from the Mackenzie Collection, c.1780-1820. British Library, WD 2646.
Map of Vijayanagara from the Mackenzie Collection, c.1780-1820. British Library, WD 2646. Noc

 

Cam Sharp Jones, Sagera Kazmi and Malini Roy 

15 April 2019

The 'Gilbert artist': a possible pupil of Sita Ram

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When writing an essay recently on the artist Sita Ram for a forthcoming exhibition in the Wallace Collection in London of great artists of the ‘Company’ period, I started rethinking to what extent he influenced Kolkata artists and indeed artists of other Indian schools. There is of course his obvious influence on the beginnings of the ‘picturesque’ school in Delhi asociated with Ghulam ‘Ali Khan and his circle, but Sita Ram’s own picturesque style, the culmination of the Murshidabad style with its loose, expressive brushwork, seemed to have had no followers (for Sita Ram see Losty 2015); and Kolkata painting thereafter reverted to a harder style exemplified by Shaikh Muhammad Amir and his circle.  Yet there is one artist, little known, who perhaps did work with Sita Ram and followed in his footsteps in producing picturesque topographical drawings with occasional forays into portraiture and natural history painting. This was an as yet anonymous artist who worked for Lieutenant-Colonel Walter Raleigh Gilbert (1785-1853).

Bridge of boats across the Ganga at Kanpur and Major Gilbert’s house. By Sita Ram, 1814-15.  BL Add.Or.4747
Bridge of boats across the Ganga at Kanpur and Major Gilbert’s house. By Sita Ram, 1814-15.  BL Add.Or.4747 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

As Mildred Archer remarked in 1972, Gilbert and his wife Isabella belonged to a circle which was intensely interested in drawing and painting. Gilbert began his distinguished career in India with the 15th Bengal Native Infantry in 1801. From June 1812 to May 1813 he was A.D.C. to Sir George Nugent, the Commander-in-Chief, whose wife was an avid collector of paintings by Indian artists (see Add.Or.2593, Add.Or.2600, and the great volume of Agra architectural drawings, Stowe Or. 17).  On 1 June 1814 he married Isabella Ross, whose sister Eliza in the following year married Charles D’Oyly, the skilled amateur artist and later patron of Indian artists in Patna.  The sisters were cousins of Flora Hastings, wife of Lord Hastings, the Governor-General 1813-23, who were soon to embark on their long journey up-country, for which they employed Sita Ram to make a visual record of what they saw.  In 1814 Gilbert was barrack-master at Kanpur when Hastings and his party arrived in October. Indeed Sita Ram included, so the inscription tell us, a view of the Gilberts’ house above the River Ganga when depicting the newly erected bridge of boats to enable easier communication with the encampment of the new Nawab of Awadh, Ghazi al-Din Haidar, who had just arrived on the north bank of the river, which was part of Awadhi territory.

Gilbert and his wife then would certainly have been aware of Sita Ram and his place in the household of his wife’s cousin, and possibly even then they started commissioning their own paintings. Gilbert returned to Kolkata as Commandant of the Calcutta Native Militia, while Charles D’Oyly was the Collector there 1812-21. Besides owning a number of standard sets by Kolkata artists (still in private hands when examined by Mildred Archer), the Gilbert couple’s most interesting collection documented the next stage of their life when Gilbert was Commandant of the Ramgarh Battalion based on Hazaribagh (Jarkhand) from 1822 to 1828.  From 1825 to 1827, he was also Political Agent for the South West Frontier with head-quarters at Sambalpur (Odisha).  The BL has fifteen large drawings from this period, twelve acquired in the early 1960s (Add.Or.2514-25, see Archer 1972, no. 56), while three more were acquired privately by the Archers and entered the collection later (Add.Or.3949-3951). Seven other drawings from the set were acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum (I.S. 10-1963 to I.S. 16-1963, see Archer 1992, no. 74).

The artist the Gilberts employed was trained in the Murshidabad style as practised at Kolkata, favouring the yellow and blue tonality often found in that style as opposed to the pink and brown favoured by Sita Ram. He must have been part of Sita Ram’s artistic circle in Kolkata and received the same sort of training in watercolour techniques.

The Gilberts’ bungalow at Sambalpur on the bank of the Mahanadi. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1825-27. BL Add.Or.2517
The Gilberts’ bungalow at Sambalpur on the bank of the Mahanadi. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1825-27. BL Add.Or.2517 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

He had already mastered the picturesque style when he makes his first appearance and he uses the same techniques as Sita Ram, of soft, impressionistic brushwork and the tricks of aerial perspective. Unusually he sometimes employs a very low viewpoint showing off his grasp of recession, as in his view towards the Gilberts’ house in Sambalpur on the bank of the Mahanadi, and he uses the same viewpoint in his view of the fort at Sambalpur.

The fort at Sambalpur on the banks of the Mahanadi River. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1825-27. BL Add.Or.2519
The fort at Sambalpur on the banks of the Mahanadi River. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1825-27. BL Add.Or.2519 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

Here the artist is demonstrating his grasp of aerial perspective.  Little now seems to remain of the fort or the palace within it. The Rajas of Sambalpur, Chauhan Rajputs, had been dispossessed by the Marathas in 1797, but the captive Raja Jait Singh was restored by the British in 1817 (see O’Malley 1909 for details of this period in Sambalpur).  His young son Maharaj Sai succeeded in 1820.  The last Raja died without an heir in 1849 and the state lapsed to the government.

The old palace in the fort at Sambalpur. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1825-27. BL Add.Or.2521
The old palace in the fort at Sambalpur. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1825-27. BL Add.Or.2521. https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

Again in his view of the palace in the fort he uses a typical picturesque device, making use of a tree on the left as a repoussoir to throw the foreground into shadow.  Our artist also follows in Sita Ram’s footsteps in occasionally including his patron in his paintings.  Thus in his view of the palace above, we see Gilbert on a caparisoned elephant approaching the palace for an audience with the young raja and his advisers.

Temple of Maa Samaleswari in the fort, Sambalpur. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1825-27. BL Add.Or.2520
Temple of Maa Samaleswari in the fort, Sambalpur. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1825-27. BL Add.Or.2520 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

Sambalpur owes its name to Maa Samala or Samaleswari, a mother goddess of great sanctity in western Odisha and Chhatisgarh.   The temple has a square sanctum wherein the goddess resides and a vaulted arcade surrounding it for worshippers to perform pradakshina,features which are carefully depicted by our artist. Here he also includes features of village life – a cattle shelter, a little shrine with a worshipper, men working a well, and a sepoy of the Ramgarh Battalion standing guard outside a hut where other sepoys must have been stationed judging by the rifles stacked neatly outside.

Gilbert and other British officers being entertained with a nautch by the Raja of Sambalpur. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1825-27. BL Add.Or.2522
Gilbert and other British officers being entertained with a nautch by the Raja of Sambalpur. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1825-27. BL Add.Or.2522 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

 Later in the series is a lively painting of Gilbert and his staff attending a nautch organised by the young Raja, who sits between his guests and his advisers all in European chairs. Our artist’s elongated figures like those of Sita Ram are derived of course from earlier Murshidabad painting, but in his familiarity with internal light sources in his paintings and in his treatment of the dark sky our artist comes close to Sita Ram’s work in his night scenes. 

Landscape with huge banyan tree beside a river. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1822-28. BL Add.Or.2525
Landscape with huge banyan tree beside a river. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1822-28. BL Add.Or.2525 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

He follows Sita Ram again in his penchant for making great trees the subject of his pictures. A great banyan tree beside a river with villagers bathing, unfortunately uninscribed, dominates another of our paintings.  It recalls in its massive and dominating bulk with small figures scurrying around beneath it Charles D’Oyly’s contemporary painting of the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya (Losty 1995, fig. 16) and its associated drawings done in 1824/25.  D’Oyly and his wife passed through Hazaribagh, Gilbert’s permanent station at this time, early in 1823 on their way overland to Patna (sketches in the D’Oyly album BL WD2060, Archer 1969, pp. 163-68) and must have stayed with Lady D’Oyly’s cousin Isabella, since D’Oyly drew her bungalow there. The D’Oylys would have been back again at Christmas 1824 when several drawings of the Bodh Gaya temple and its great tree were added to the album.  All in all it is very likely that our artist saw D’Oyly’s work in this field and was influenced by it.  A second great banyan tree near Surguja (Chhatisgarh) is the subject of another of his pictures (BL Add.Or.2523, Archer 1972, pl. 31), but this is more in Sita Ram’s manner and is less overwhelming. Surguja was another of the small tributary states on the borders of Orissa, Jarkhand and Chhatisgarh – the view of the palace there is in the V&A (I.S. 15-1963).

Gilbert’s munshi and diwan working in Gilbert’s bungalow.  By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1822-28.  BL Add.Or.3949
Gilbert’s munshi and diwan working in Gilbert’s bungalow.  By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1822-28.  BL Add.Or.3949 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

Occasional portraiture too comes within our artist’s purview, albeit less successfully, as in a double portrait of two men who appear to be his diwan and munshi, the men who looked after Gilbert’s official accounts and Persian language correspondence.  Another of his group portraits is of the Gilberts’ ayah and their table servants in red livery (BL Add.Or.2524, Archer 1972, pl. 31).

Gilbert’s race-horse, ‘Beggar Girl’, standing on the race course at Hazaribagh. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1822-28.  BL Add.Or.3950
Gilbert’s race-horse, ‘Beggar Girl’, standing on the race course at Hazaribagh. By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1822-28.  BL Add.Or.3950 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

The natural world too could engage our artist’s attention, as in his depiction of Gilbert’s racehorse standing on the course at Hazaribagh. Like Sita Ram he is concerned with a naturalistic approach reproducing the animal’s volume and skin covering rather than anatomical details.  Gilbert was famous as a patron of the turf and could organise races anywhere he found himself posted.  It would seem certain that the walls of the Gilberts’ bungalows would have been covered with prints of famous racehorses posed against landscapes, by artists such as Stubbs and his successors, whose compositions Gilbert would have directed his artist to follow.  This is one of the earliest of the genre in Kolkata painting, and perhaps experimental, in that the right foreleg is wrongly positioned (the legs are often wrongly positioned in traditional Indian horse portraits too), a type that was later brought to perfection by Shaykh Muhammad Amir. 

Also in the BL collections are two other drawings of his racehorses which were given to James William Macnabb, son of another Ross cousin Jean Macnabb, when Gilbert was Military Member of the Supreme Council in Kolkata in 1852-53 (BL Add.Or.4305-06). On leaving Hazaribagh in 1828, he took a long leave until 1844.  When he returned to duty he was stationed in the north-west at Agra and Ferozepur and took part in both Sikh wars.  Since both these portraits of horses were done by a Kolkata artist but set against a slightly hilly landscape, he must have taken this artist up-country with him after his return to India.  He does not seem to have been based in Kolkata again until 1852.

A pink lotus (Nelumbo nucifera/family Nelumbanaceae).  By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1822-28.  BL Add.Or.3951
A pink lotus (Nelumbo nucifera/family Nelumbanaceae).  By the ‘Gilbert artist’, 1822-28.  BL Add.Or.3951 https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef0240a4428c8a200c-pi

Our artist could also turn his hand to botanical drawings as in his pink lotus. He shows the full plant including stem and root, with close-ups of leaf, flower, fruit and seed of a particularly fine specimen, but like Sita Ram before him he was more interested in endowing the flower and leaf with shade than with the niceties of botanical requirements. His drawing of a maize plant somewhat similarly arranged, showing the full plant with details of leaf, flower and cob, is in the V&A (I.S. 16-1963).

As so often with Indian artists, whether working under Indian or British patronage, we have no documentation to help with the identification of Gilbert’s artist, and his name never appears on any of his works. It seems likely that he was a junior colleague of Sita Ram venturing down the same ‘picturesque’ path, but Sita Ram was a special case whose extraordinary talent accorded him special treatment and recognition; but we still do not know where he was trained before he appears with the Hastings in 1814 and what happened to him after they had both left India by 1823.  The ‘Gilbert artist’ is even more anonymous and we only know of his existence for a tantalisingly brief glimpse from 1822 to 1828.

 

J.P. Losty, Lead Curator, Visual Arts (Emeritus)  ccownwork

 

References

Archer, M., British Drawings in the India Office Library, HMSO, London, 1969

Archer, M., Company Drawings in the India Office Library, HMSO, London, 1972

Archer, M., Company Paintings: Indian Paintings of the British Period, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1992

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

Losty, J.P., Sita Ram: Picturesque Views of India – Lord Hastings’s Journey from Kolkata to the Punjab, 1814-15, Roli Books, New Delhi, 2015

O’Malley, L.S.S., District Gazetteers of British India – Sambalpur, Calcutta, 1909