Artists from Afar: Paintings and Watercolours of India by European Artists 1780-1947

Up until 1770 Europeans had no visual concept of India that was based on first hand observation by a European artists. The line engravings published prior to that were done by engravers who had never been to India. They were invariably based on amateur sketches and very often they contained extraordinary fantastical errors.

This all changed after 1770 when Professional painters began to visit the Subcontinent and look at the country and its peoples through European taste. They made watercolours and oil paintings both for local Indian residents but more often for European residents. Others artists made sketches that were then worked up back home into oil paintings or prints. In both the North and South of the country British administration was no longer confined to the coastal settlements and far greater numbers of British were travelling to India as military and civil officers and it was from these people that the demand for both landscapes and portraits arose.

The first professional landscape artist to visit India was William Hodges (1744-1797). He was also the most widely travelled artist of the 18th Century having spent three years circumnavigating the world with Captain Cook from 1772-1775. He arrived in Madras in 1780 and went on to Calcutta in February the next year and through the generosity and patronage of the Governor General he was able to travel extensively through Upper India as far as Lucknow, Agra and Delhi recording both the landscape but also the great Mughal monuments. For Augustus Cleveland the administrator he painted some very different scenes – the jungle tracts inhabited by an aboriginal people the Paharias. His work is characterized by a keen observation of landscape forms, the Indian light and atmosphere and a sympathetic understanding of Indian people. His pioneering work and his engravings done back in England in 1787 were to have a profound influence on many of the artists who followed including many of who works are included here.

More important from the point of view of broadening the popular visualization of India was the work of Thomas Daniell and his nephew William. They spent eight years in India travelling even more extensively through the subcontinent making numerous drawings of monuments (view of the Firoj Minar at Gour), temples and the landscape many of which were later worked up into watercolours, oil paintings and prints. They both worked unremittingly during their time in India and their output was huge leaving an invaluable legacy for us today. They like Hodges had a huge influence on those that artists that followed

The observation of India by Professional artist was vastly extended by the work of amateurs. Many were highly talented and it was regarded in England as an important part of a young person’s education. Topographical and architectural drawing was particularly important for engineers who had to make surveys. They were instructed during their cadetships in various English colleges often by influential professional artists. The more educated often spent their leisure time in India making both watercolours and even occasionally oils of the countryside wherever they were stationed

The four wars against Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan produced a great many drawings of the breathtaking landscape of Mysore and also the picturesque temples in South India with their richly carved gopurams or gateways. Artists like William Hunter as well as the professional artist Robert Home all made accurate drawings of the scenes that they saw on their travels. At its best the work of these amateur artist contributed to a highly original construal of the landscape. Many were worked up into sets of prints and published in England.

During the 19th Century painters both Professional and amateur travelled to India in far greater numbers. Most of the archives collection of watercolours and oils by European artists are from this period. The highly gifted artists George Chinnery and William Havell each made numerous watercolours and drawings of the landscape – the archive contains a particularly fine drawing by Chinnery and a rare and exceptional watercolour of the Peshwa’s Palace in Pune (then Poonah).  Both Chinnery and Havell each had numerous pupils. Amateur artists like Sir Charles D’Oyly and William Prinsep (the archive contains numerous works of both artists) became almost as good as their teachers. D’Oyly’s work mostly done in Bihar is of great sensitivity and captures the mood of the landscape with accuracy and poetic charm.

The archive is particularly rich in the work of painters that visited India from all over Europe in the second half of the 19th Century when artists had to compete with photographers in the depiction of Indian subjects. Amateur artists – both Men and Women were able to travel to areas seldom visited by their predecessors like the Kashmir Valley with its magnificent landscape and picturesque lake views and also to areas like the Western Ghats and the deep south. Some professional painters were commissioned to make works for both the Queen and for senior British Officials. Hugo Van Pedersen was one such and his views of the Taj Mahal are particularly impressive.

While the energetic depiction of the Indian was taking place, other artists were more interested in the depiction of the people of India. The Professional artists were attracted to the Princes both by the enormous fees that were paid for portraits but also because of their magnificent costumes and jewellery. The graceful Indian women particularly charmed European artists but the purdah system made it almost impossible for men to depict women of rank. They usually painted village women and dancing girls. But Mrs. Belnos being a woman had better access to women and her depictions of Indian women are both sensitive and have real charm.

The Flemish artist Francois Balthazar Solvyns made an extensive study of the people, occupations, castes, modes of transport and ceremonies of Bengal. Over a number of years in the 1790s he made numerous delicate watercolours in Bengal which he then engraved for a magnificent publication issued both in Calcutta and in Paris. It was enormously influential both for Indian ‘Company school artists’ who painted for the British but also Solvyns’s work encouraged European painters to study similar Indian people for their work. Again the archive has a fine and extensive collection of works of  depictions of Indian people – particularly notable are portraits by the gifted painter Benjamin Hudson – the leading portraitist work in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the 2nd quarter of 19th Century; …

In the age before photography and even in the later period the huge output of paintings and watercolours by European artists provides India with an invaluable historical visual record – albeit seen and interpreted through European eyes – of the Indian landscape, its architectural heritage and its people. The Swaraj collection of such works allows us to see into India’s rich past and appreciate the landscape and monuments some of which no longer survive.

Curated by the Swaraj Team (Curatorial advisor: Charles Greig) at the India Art Fair 2017.