Picturing India

Kristoffel Lieten

The East India Company (EIC), which preceded colonial domination by the British government, from 1757 to 1858 held control over vast tracts of the subcontinent. It succeeded doing so through military supremacy, fraud, subterfuge and a supreme commercial network; it extracted a massive economic surplus which caused famines and the disintegration of local empires. But it did more, and this book magnificently illustrates what it did: the application of visual arts for a multitude of political purposes. John McAleer has produced a comprehensive overview, with many insights to gain.

From the way in which arts and politics co-habited in the design of the EIC, one could even gain insights in reporting on distant lands, and wars in distant lands, in the present day. One could construe similarities between the military offensive against Tippu Sultan and the ultimate fall of his capital, Seringapatam in 1799, and the US-led war against the regime of Saddam Hussain in Iraq. In both cases, reporting was mainly, if not exclusively, from the point of view of the Western alliance and in both cases, reporting was done by embedded journalists/artists. McAleer mentions at least eight painters and engravers in London, Madras, and Calcutta who started to work on the British success. One of them produced an impressive panorama, 120 feet long, of the heroic battle. It was taken for exhibition throughout Britain and drew extensive crowds. Unfortunately, it got destroyed by fire. Many other paintings, engravings and drawings have survived.

Life in Indonesia, under Dutch control, was also recorded in visual representation, but it seems that, with one or two exceptions, Dutch, Danish, and German artists working in Dutch East India had been engaged as soldiers or in other capacities and did some drawing and painting while there, but nothing compared to the scale under the EIC. The EIC actively stimulated ‘Picturing India’. Many of the artists going to India actually could be regarded as embedded artists. Permission to go and work in the subcontinent had to be requested at EIC headquarters. Even when permission by the EIC had been granted, further endorsement by reliable sources was advisable. When the famous portrait painter Thomas Hickey in 1780 sailed to set up his trade in Calcutta, he even carried a letter of recommendation of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the society painter of that time. Other artists had been specifically invited by EIC officials. With one or two exceptions, they were mainly males. The number of painters who worked across the EIC territory and in the princely states under its control, must have been significantly high. It would have been a great service to the reader if McAleer had provided a table of the visiting artists, their periods of stay, their focus and their linkage with the EIC.

The importance of this book is not its artistic value, in the sense that it does not compare favourably to the then blossoming school of painting in England (and France). Most of the time, they had to satisfy themselves with drawings, engravings, and water colour paintings. Since the paint tube had not yet been invented (in the mid-19th century), oil painting in the tropics was cumbersome; without access to tubed paint the colour palettes remained limited.

Yet, some good work was done, either in Calcutta or Madres or back in England on the basis of drawings or engravings. Particularly William Hodges, William and Thomas Danielle, and Johan Zoffany did extremely well in exhibitions and auctions. The author mentions that one fifth of all the sales by Christies, the auction house, still operating today, were related to India. The visual representation of the exotic subcontinent definitely helped to shape the British perception of the dealings of the EIC positively.

Those who went to the East, did it in order to make a good living, more than what most of them could fetch in the home art market. In India, they were looked after as portrait painters, portraits of the EIC servants and portraits to be presented to the local princes as diplomatic bait. Others specialised in landscapes and extolled the beauty of territories under possession of the EIC. One of them, William Hodges, who had been brought to the Indian peninsula by EIC chief Warren Hastings, was in ecstasy by the sheer opulence of what he saw: ‘more tale of enchantment than a reality’ and ‘a perfect paradise’.

To the homeland, they would send back paintings and engravings that helped to make visual sense of ‘the jewel in the crown’. It is not surprising that real images of the harsh reality were not registered, and are not in the book. James Prinseps, Georges Chinnery, Arthur Davis, and particularly the Antwerp painter Frans Solvijns did depict local settings and ordinary Indians. But they did it in a romantic and exotic setting without the misery and a squalor which one learns from other sources. As much as one third of the population in Bengal perished in the famine of 1770, a disaster to which the land and revenue policy directly contributed. In later decades, the population of industrial hubs like Patna and Dacca, crumbled as a consequence of textile imports.

The chapters (British Views of India, Politics and Port Cities, Places, People and Portraits, and Patronage) would have been enriched by a chapter or sub-chapter on the blatant misuse of power by the EIC. One painting which had impressed me while studying the Indian Revolt of 1857 was a copy of The Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the Russian painter Vasily Vereshchagin, probably the first travelling war painter, visiting many war theatres. It depicts a series of field guns with Indian revolutionaries tied to the mouth of the cannon. Blowing rebels from a cannon was a tested means of execution. It is said that the British Crown bought the painting and had it destroyed.

McAleer in any case therefore could not have included this painting. It is not clear whether he had been looking for such critical visual representation of the EIC. He does introduce the customary question marks though. He sharply reminds us that it ‘is important to remember that the representation of India and the Company’s presence there in many European-produced images masks a wider story of dispossession and violence’ (p. 45).

The volume has brought together an impressive arsenal of paintings, drawings and engravings. A close reading will help to understand ‘the way in which art and architecture worked to define financial might, commercial wealth and political power’ (p. 27).