Visions of India

Elisabetta Marabotto of Saffronart shares a note on British Orientalist art in the 19th century

London: Concurring with the collection Visions of India on The Story I wanted to blog about some of the pieces in the collection and the history behind them.

The Hackery by John Gantz & Son. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35284

The Hackery by John Gantz & Son. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35284

During the 18th century many British artists undertook the journey to India hoping to make a fortune there so that they could come back home and live comfortably. However it wasn’t as easy as they imagined, and by 1825 this trend began to slowly disappear. Especially after 1857, fewer professional artists traveled to India, and if they did it was for specific commissions.

Untitled, Charles Gold. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35286

Untitled, Charles Gold. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.
aspx?iid=35286

When the first group of British artists arrived in the last quarter of the 18th century, India was already a myth and in different ways remained so until the British left in 1947, maintaining that “exotic” aura around it which fascinated and still fascinates many people.

In addition to professional artists, a conspicuous number of amateur artists, draftsmen, and service-persons produced a good array of works which depicted 19th century India, perhaps not as skillfully as the professionals, but with their same passion and curiosity. Amateur artists were fearless in their search for the unknown and exotic, and overcame misadventures and troubled journeys for their passion.

Hindoo Temple at Muddunpore, Bahar, William Daniell. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35285

Hindoo Temple at Muddunpore, Bahar, William Daniell. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35285

While professional painters were mainly commissioned to paint portraits of nabobs and sahibs or historical representations, amateur painters chose to follow their interests and their focus was not restricted. Their field of research was wide and they were extremely prolific in India. In fact, less than one tenth of the material preserved by the India Office Library is by professional artists.

Amateur artists left a very detailed description of the life of the British there, often in a humourous key, and produced romantic and picturesque representations of Indian people, culture, flora and fauna. They are thought to have represented the real India, but although the illustrations are very realistic, they did not represent every aspect of the country. In fact, they often had to satisfy the taste of their audiences in England and thus had to emphasise British beliefs and values.

Hunting a Hog-Deer, Williamson Thomas & Samuel Howitt. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35292

Hunting a Hog-Deer, Williamson Thomas & Samuel Howitt. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35292

The large amount of Anglo-Indian literature which includes memoirs, travelogues, poetry and fiction is an incredible source of information about the British perception of India during the 19th century. Some artists also wrote comments and notes to accompany their prints, which are highly informative. We are informed of the architecture of the time and of the ancient temples, of favourite British pastimes such as hunting, of all the different plants and animals that thrived in India. It is evident that certain sights and monuments particularly fascinated the artists and these almost became stereotypes of British orientalist art. The Ganges, Benares, temples’ ruins and women by the river were some of the most represented and beloved themes.

Visions of India is a rare chance to acquire invaluable romantic representations of 19th century India. This is a unique occasion to hold something which will make you remember and learn about bygone times and places which made history.

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