Hidden Figures: Colonial artists and Calcutta as muse

Part of the Spotlight feature Jewel in the Crown

Hidden Figures: Colonial artists and Calcutta as muse - Bengal, Bengal Presidency

A view of Calcutta from ‘The Oriental Annual’ by Thomas and William Daniell

City of palaces. Gold rush city. A place where fortunes were made and high lives lived. At a time when Calcutta’s colonial inheritance was fast being built, soldiers, clerks, merchants, watchmakers, healers, company men and even artists flocked to the city in search of untold treasures. After being sacked in 1756, Calcutta was back on its feet, and nothing could rival its extravagance.

The city grew ever larger, engulfing native settlements, filling its burgeoning belly with construction. Sparkling public edifices, prominent government buildings, courts, town halls, neoclassical palaces, individual manors and splendid squares were all erected using Indian labour. It was as if vast maidans, sprawling boulevards and impressive esplanades were simply dreamt into existence. Finally, there stood a white town, its palisade holding out against the heathens on city limits.

Hidden Figures: Colonial artists and Calcutta as muse - Bengal, Bengal Presidency

From ‘Costume of Hindostan’ by François Balthazar Solvyns

This Calcutta, this celebration of ‘progress’, had to be captured in the British imagination — more houses meant more bare walls, badly in need of more and more paintings. The 18th– century aesthete lauded history painting, which combined both landscape and portrait, as the highest form of painting. The drama of the British conquest of India became the perfect setting, and Calcutta, the centre of British dominance in this colony, became the perfect muse. The Anglo artist’s horizons broadened as he was charged with a purpose, nay a calling, to accomplish that which architecture could not do — to supply the picturesque.

The picturesque is a composition style that was popular in 18th-century Europe. It presumes that nature is imperfect and needs to be organised, so its elements are tidied up: shadows to the left, trees to the right, rivers in the middle distance. Many artists even looked at their ‘scenespiration’ with convex lenses before drawing them. The picturesque of the colony is the manifestation of a desire to create order out of chaos. The picturesque of India is what India should look like.

Art offered a critical link in unifying homeland and imperial lands. No steamship or electric telegraphs existed yet, and it could take anywhere from a month or six to reach Calcutta from London — a major challenge in executing public policy. But when Britons, already familiar with the picturesque paintings of their countryside, looked at the colonies painted in the same style, they felt comforted and morally satisfied. These paintings were not just a reminder of the service of their expatriates, but a measure of the Empire’s growing power. As a result, scenes from Australia, Africa and India shared similar elements, and British artists had to achieve a certain balance between their proclaimed objective of accuracy and the inherited aesthetic. For this, they employed certain colonial codes.

Hidden Figures: Colonial artists and Calcutta as muse - Bengal, Bengal Presidency

By Charles D’oyly

One cannot write about colonial art in India without waxing eloquent about the famous artists Thomas and William Daniell. Tired of odd jobs like bricklaying and painting coaches, not to mention the inadequacy of opportunities to flex his art degree from the Royal Academy in London, Thomas picked up on the budding market trend in Oriental paintings. He roped in his nephew, William, and set out for India.

They were undoubtedly pioneers, and no sooner did they land in Calcutta than they started work on aquatints that immediately sold like hot cakes. They travelled from Calcutta to Kanpur, Allahabad, Delhi and all over India for more than a decade, sketching and painting. But this on-the-road style required them to start in one place and finish their paintings somewhere entirely different. Many of the Daniells’ sketches, which were first drawn in India, were later completed in England. This separation is important, as it allowed for the creation of shorthand symbols and representations.

The Indian figure was repeatedly marshalled into an immutable repository of tradition, and the inherent form of landscapes contributed to this process. Human figures were incidental, used to enhance scenery or as markers of scale and exoticism, never as fully realised individuals. In the book Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism, and the Colonial Uncanny, author Swati Chattopadhyay says that the Daniells would sometimes cast their own servants as models for Indian figures, rather than drawing them on site, and retrofitted them into paintings much later.

This is also true of the paintings of Calcutta, whose buildings were drawn to highlight the city as material possession. Where British construction was glorified, Indian architecture was presented in ruins or rearranged according to European standards of symmetry, visually establishing a white town. The Daniells’ success was very influential, with their voyage inspiring over 100 artists after them who reinforced the same aesthetic. A Picturesque Voyage to India by Way of China and The Oriental Annual, a rare book that is part of the Sarmaya collection, comprise illustrations and engravings based on their art.

Hidden Figures: Colonial artists and Calcutta as muse - Bengal, Bengal Presidency

From ‘Costumes of Hindostan’

Costume of Hindostan is another rare book you will find in the Sarmaya archive, full of illustrations of native Bengalis. The artist François Balthazar Solvyns was a Belgian, but this book is more popularly attributed to a British publisher, who pirated it. The people of Calcutta, as the book’s preface states, are etched for the amusement of the British. The figures are “naturally picturesque” — arranged in deliberate poses, wearing shy smiles, fantastically obliging and primitive, objects of the colonial gaze. It looks almost like the paintings have quite literally been white-washed. The colours seem bleached and softened, even on the costumes of dancers and the textiles being woven on the loom.

The busy servants in William Tayler’s and Charles D’oyly’s sketches, however, are significantly different. They are props in the foreground meant to enhance the background — usually British buildings. As well as an amateur artist, D’oyly was also an official posted in various locations in eastern India, in various capacities, in the early 19th century. His work merges the administrative with the aesthetic in commemorating colonial public works, with the focal point of his paintings being big British ships, or the lord who is being waited upon by several undifferentiated brown servants. The ships, key to victorious sea trade, and the white masters are brightly lit, in stark contrast to the dark, huddled masses of natives.

Hidden Figures: Colonial artists and Calcutta as muse - Bengal, Bengal Presidency

By William Tayler

With every reiteration of the Indian picturesque, with the same perspectives and depictions of racial relationships, colonial attitudes crystallised. As offensive as these works can be today, it is admittedly because of them that we can see tailors, milkmaids, vendors, boatsmen — common people who would otherwise perhaps not be considered worthy subjects of art. Figures frozen forever mid-turn or in a deep squat, their hands pouring, stitching, dusting, performing. The realism of the illustrations and details of the not-yet-decrepit houses are appealing.

A pale yellow awning and patterned screens. An intricate rug and a tilted mirror. Fashionable, curled jootis on unscratched, wood-panelled floors. The tragic beauty of fluttering, cloud-covered flags and synchronised boats of the tulipomaniacal, white town of Calcutta.

  1. Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism, and the Colonial Uncanny, Swati Chattopadhyay
  2. The picturesque and homogenisation of the empire, Jeffrey Auerbach
  3. The White Town of Calcutta under the Rule of the East India Company, P. J. Marshall
  4. Figures in a Landscape: Anglo-Indian Art
  5. Early British Artists in Calcutta
  6. CSun.edu: Picturesque