James Forbes (1749-1819)
Thirteen volumes of illustrated manuscripts by James Forbes, rediscovered a few years, ago classify Forbes as one of the most significant early amateur artists in India. Already celebrated for his Oriental Memoirs, these manuscript volumes containing over five hundred watercolour drawings on diverse aspects of Western India greatly enhance his reputation.
Born in London on 8 May 1749, James Forbes was descended from an aristocratic Scottish family. After a private education he entered the Company’s civilian service as a Writer and, in March 1765, sailed from Gravesend in the Royal Charl otte. Eleven months later, having sailed via Brazil and the Cape, ‘we at last saw the long wished for island of Bombay.’ For the first few years in Bombay, while working in the Writers’ apartments within the Custom House overlooking the harbour, Forbes lived a collegiate life-style. His clerical duties included writing up the Company’s record books: ‘The morning was dedicated to business; every- body dined at one o’clock; on breaking up, the company went to their respective houses to enjoy a siesta, and return after a walk or ride in the country, to pass the remainder of the evening, and sup where they had dined.’ Instead of joining his colleagues for various revelries, Forbes disappeared to the rooftop of his lodgings to read poetry and literature by moonlight. His general knowledge and keen sense of observation were exceptional. He progressed rapidly through the Company’s ranks. In 1772, he was a Member of Council at Anjengo and became Secretary to Colonel Thomas Keating, whose army in Gujarat was assisting the former Peshwa, Raghunath Rao, in 1775. His last two postings were also in Gujarat as Custom master at Broach and then Collector at Dhuboy. Still only thirty-four years old, Forbes embarked in the General Elliot for England in January 1784. Having retired from the Company, he bought an estate at Stanmore near Harrow. In 1787, he married Rosee, daughter of Joseph Gayland, and their only daughter, Elizabeth Rosee, was born the following year.
|Fig. 1. JAMES FORBES
The Cock and Hen Taylor Birds at Bombay 1728
YCBA: James Forbes Collection vol. 2, f.229
Forbes was not an especially skilled artist although he excelled in painting
flowers, birds and animals (fig.1).
‘India formerly was not the resort of artists’,
he wrote, claiming to have had no instruction
in drawing other than encouragement from friends
and a few hints from Sir Archibald Campbell
(later Governor of Madras), whom he had met
in Bombay in 1768. Nevertheless, drawing and
writing became Forbes’ principal leisure occupation.
Another manuscript volume has been found more recently. Covering the period from 1765, when Forbes first arrived in Bombay, until February 1772, when he sailed down the Malabar Coast to Anjengo, it belonged to the Company’s Hydrographer, Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808). Forbes probably presented it to Dalrymple, who was working on various voyages for his Oriental Repertory, published 1791-94. Six letters that Forbes wrote to his favourite sister in England appear in the volume, accompanied by watercolours of the principal seaport towns of Gheria, Goa, Onore, Mangalore, Tellicherry, Calicut, Cochin and Anjengo along the coast, which Forbes had drawn during his outward voyage. Several views were engraved for Oriental Memoirs including ‘A Prospect of Goa River with part of the City of Goa’, drawn on 5 February 1772, and ‘A View of Tellicherry from the Roads’ drawn five days later.
George Chinnery (1774-1854) and his Circle of Amateurs in Bengal
On 24 July 1819, James Baillie Fraser wrote from Calcutta to his father in Scotland: ‘As my friend, and one of my masters, George Chinnery, says: the first steps up the hill of art are not so difficult, and the progress may be quick and often amazing; many attain a certain height, where they stick; to get beyond is the difficulty, and every quarter of a mile here is worth ten miles below; the last hundred yards are so difficult that hardly any conquer them: Turner perhaps alone, has done so in his time.’ As young artists, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and George Chinnery had met through the Royal Academy in London. Although contemporary arbiters of taste often criticized Turner’s revolutionary landscape paintings, the Academy supported his work and elected him a Royal Academician in 1802. Rising rapidly to fame among those who could appreciate his style, both Chinnery and Fraser were clearly among his ardent admirers.
The arrival of George Chinnery in Calcutta in July 1807 gave the local art scene an unprecedented stimulus. Apart from a spell in Dacca for about three years from July 1808, Chinnery remained in Calcutta until 1821 when he went to Serampore. In 1825 he left Bengal and India for good and went to China. Chinnery was much more than a professional portrait painter and brilliant draughtsman. He was also a fine teacher: ‘There is not so great an Art as teaching’, he wrote to one of his most receptive pupils, Maria Browne, in Calcutta. Able to observe minute nuances, for example, in the pose of a villager holding a child or smoking a hookah outside his hut, Chinnery had both the eye and technical skill to capture these subtle gestures in his sketchbooks. Above all he was able to analyse, formulate and explain his artistic theories to his pupils. At one time he intended to publish a manual, recording his ideas about landscape drawing and portraiture. This never materialised, but notes and letters expounding these theories survive.
In the process of attracting a host of amateurs who benefited tremendously from his teaching, he also influenced a generation of artists based in Bengal. Many adopted his distinctive style of landscape drawing. James Atkinson and his wife, Jane, besides James Baillie Fraser were among those who came under the spell of Chinnery’s magnetic personality and benefited from his artistic skills included. At least three of John Prinsep’s seven sons, notably William, James, and Thomas, were talented followers whose drawings and watercolours reflect the influence of the master.
Charles D’Oyly (1781-1845)
Sir Charles D’Oyly was Chinnery’s most fervent pupil and his closest friend. Son of Sir John Hadley D’Oyly, the Company’s Resident at Murshidabad, Charles was educated in England, returning to Bengal as a Company civilian in 1797. He was to dominate the amateur art scene in eastern India for many years. From 1808 until 1812 he was Collector of Dacca, the former Mughal capital of Bengal, which had become a leading centre for British trade in textiles. It was in Dacca that D’Oyly probably benefited most from Chinnery’s instruction. They were there at the same time and Chinnery actually shared the same house as D’Oyly and his first wife, Marian (who died in Calcutta in 1814).
Together D’Oyly and Chinnery explored the surroundings, drawing and painting the Muslim ‘ruins of the City of Dacca which … are exquisite for their magnificence & elegance - & are calculated to tempt the pencil of an artist as much I suppose if not more than most of the British Reliques …’. One significant outcome was the publication of Charles D’Oyly’s Antiquities of Dacca, London, 1814 -27. The volume contains fifteen etchings by John Landseer (1769-1852) after pictures by D’oyly with historical and descriptive texts. It is clear from related correspondence, especially between D’Oyly and Hastings that Chinnery and D’Oyly had worked on the same views, as many of their pictures confirm. It is also apparent that Chinnery had intended also to publish his views of Dacca. In 1815, Charles D’Oyly was an Honorary Exhibitor at the Royal Academy in London, displaying ‘Tungy bridge, Dacca, East Indies’. It was the only time he exhibited at this institution, probably at Chinnery’s instigation. In Calcutta from 1812, D’Oyly was initially Deputy Collector and then Collector of Customs and Town Duties, before being appointed Opium Agent in Patna in 1821. Here for ten years, D’Oyly and his second wife, Eliza, enjoyed a sociable artistic life.
Having settled in Patna, D’Oyly and his circle of amateurs including local Indian artists, met to establish an Art Society. The minutes were recorded by its secretary, John Villiers Forbes: ‘At a meeting of the sons of Art at Patna the 1st July 1824, it was proposed and after some little discussion, unanimously agreed that a Society be immediately formed to be entitled the United Patna & Gyah Society, or Behar School of Athens, for the promotion of the Arts & Sciences, and for the circulation of fun and merriment of all descriptions’. D’Oyly was elected President, and Chinnery (although he almost certainly never visited Patna) was regarded as the Society’s patron. Its speciality was to be the production of numerous lithographs drawn on stone by its members. Lithographs were being printed in Calcutta at the time, and D’Oyly had already ordered a lithographic press from Edinburgh in 1823. On 6 August 1824 with reference to this large and heavy piece of equipment, the Society’s Proceedings recorded that: ‘The President regrets that the Lithographic Press which he commissioned from England about a year ago has not arrived … but he trusts at no great distance to initiate all the members of the Society with the Lithographic mania [and] is convinced that he shall find that they have all minds like the stones used in this wonderful process ready to be impressed with the beauties of art’. Society members subsequently learnt that calamity had struck during the final stages of its journey up-river from Calcutta to Patna. The lithographic press, along with a concert harp, sank in the Ganges during a fierce squall some eighteen months after the original order. D’Oyly nevertheless viewed the episode humorously, writing a dialogue between the press and the harp that focussed on their watery grave, aptly illustrated with a caricature by D’Oyly and Christopher Webb Smith. By September the following year, another press had reached D’Oyly’s studio. By 1828, the Behar Amateur Lithographic Press in Patna was producing hundreds of small prints from drawings by its members.
In 1828, D’Oyly’s humorous poem, Tom Raw the Griffin, was published in London by Rudolph Ackermann (1764-1834). D’Oyly’s satire on Anglo-Indian behaviour was probably based on his observations in both Calcutta and Patna and his verses were illustrated with a series of small hand-coloured aquatints after his own drawings. While Chinnery, his friends and pupils took their artistic pursuits very seriously there was much light-hearted enjoyment among this circle of amateur artists.
Between 1832 and 1833, D’Oyly took leave at the Cape, returning to Calcutta
for his last posting as Senior Member of Customs,
among other duties, before retiring in 1838.
It must have been in Calcutta that D’Oyly met
George Francis White (1808-98), who served in
India from 1825 to 1846 with the British Army’s
31st Regiment of Foot. White certainly assisted
D’Oyly while he was preparing his Views of Calcutta
and its Environs, which was published posthumously
in London by Dickinson & Co. in 1848 (fig.10).
|Fig. 10. CHARLES D'OYLY
Town and Port of Calcutta from 'Views of Calcutta and its Environs' (London, 1848)
Charles, Lord Canning succeeded Lord Dalhousie as Governor-General of India in 1856. Over the next six years, his wife, Charlotte, devoted most of her leisure hours to painting, while travelling officially with her husband and during frequent solitary excursions. She was one of the most prolific women artists in India. Two albums in the V&A, containing about three hundred and fifty watercolour drawings, represent four major tours in India. The first tour, Charlotte’s only visit to the inte rior of southern India was from March until July 1858. The second from August 1858, when she sailed from Calcutta to Allahabad, lasted until January 1859 when the Cannings returned to Calcutta. The third and longest journey to the far north began in September or October 1859 and ended in July 1860. Their last tour together to Central India was from November 1860 till late March 1861. In the process, Charlotte’s highly adventurous travels took her to the Nilgiris in the south, to the Khyber Pass and towards the borders of Tibet in the north, and into the jungles of Central India, accompanied by her companions, officials and servants.
The Cannings arrived in Bombay on 29 January 1856, greeted by the Governor, Lord Elphinstone, and a salute of guns: ‘We steamed in rather slowly yesterday afternoon, with the bay unfolding before us like a panorama, a beautiful coast, with a great expanse of high odd-shaped hills, and a good deal of green at the foot: some islands and the town itself on one of them - the greenest. Here we are! Really in India! It feels like a dream’, Charlotte recorded enthusiastically in her journal.
The following year her dream turned into a nightmare for, in May 1857, India’s First War of Independence broke out. Deeply involved in the tragic events, Charlotte’s main solace during these troubled times was painting. Her pictures convey nothing of the mental distress that she suffered. Instead, her dazzling watercolours reflect the personal pleasure she derived from the Indian countryside, supported by eloquent descriptions in her journals. Even her account of the scenery observed while steaming into Bombay harbour conveys her acute powers of observation and delight in the environment. Charlotte also wrote regularly to her family and friends in England. Her most informative letters, however, were those to Queen Victoria whom she had served as Lady of the Bedchamber for many years.
In Bombay, the Cannings stayed at Government House in Parel, surrounded by groves of exotic trees that appealed to Charlotte’s interest in natural history. Enjoying the novelty of her new surroundings, she described their visit to the Kanheri Caves in Salsette: ‘If we had come to live a fortnight in these caves, there could not have been more elaborate preparations - carpets, furniture, crockery, looking-glasses, and an enormous bath!’ During their short stay in Bombay, such excursions were interspersed with formal engagements, including a durbar at the Town Hall and a prize-giving ceremony at a local girls’ school that she much enjoyed. While continuing the voyage to Calcutta, she wrote to the Queen from Madras on 24 February: ‘The [Indian] women are most graceful in their long draperies in bold like Greek statues & of brilliant heavy colours and narrow bright borders, green, red, orange, crimson being the usual colours ... I am so very sorry to be utterly unable to draw these picturesque figures. Photography is making good progress in India & I hope soon to send some specimens to your Majesty.’
Within a week, the Cannings disembarked at Chandpal Ghat, Calcutta, amid further fanfare, to take office from Lord Dalhousie. During his time as Governor General, several new developments had taken place in India including the introduction of railways and telegraph lines. The initial euphoria that Charlotte felt on arrival in the country had subsided. Calcutta Government House was ‘a hopelessly difficult house to manage.’ The kitchens were so far away from the dining room that there were ‘no means of keeping the soufflés from collapsing on the way.’ One of her first tasks on arrival was to improve some rooms in the palatial residence and she soon admitted that Government House up-river at Barrackpore, ‘where I can go & sit & breathe in the evening’, was more congenial. There she transformed the garden, creating a terrace and balustrade overlooking the Hooghly. The park contained an aviary and menagerie, and the state elephants were also housed here. One watercolour depicts her new sitting-room, ‘improved by 450 yards of rose-chintz, a great many arm-chairs, small round tables, framed drawings etc, & flowerpots in numbers. I really think I have now succeeded in equalling Parell [ Bombay Government House] and could invite Elphy [Lord Elphinstone] himself.’
During her evening rides, for which Lord Canning would only occasionally find time to join her, Charlotte began to discover Calcutta’s charm: ‘I was quite surprised at the wonderful beauty of detail in all the tangle and great unbroken leaves and evergreen stems, all lovely to draw but a Ruskin-like artist would be wanted to do them justice.’ John Ruskin later described Charlotte’s botanical paintings as the ‘grandest representations of flowers he had ever seen.’ On another occasion she described the dramatic effects after a severe monsoon storm: ‘All next day the lightning was more beautiful than anything I ever saw. First it was all white, as if strings of silver were thrown through the air quite horizontally; then in other places like lightning from the hand of Jupiter … . Looking out the river way, there was a lurid brown, red & olive sunset, & beautiful reflections, then ink-like clouds all round.’
Although the New Year of 1857 was celebrated in style at Government House, Calcutta, with a ball and durbar to which many Indian princes and chiefs were invited, discontent was already spreading through parts of northern India and Bengal. Opposition to the Company’s rule was mounting, especially among the Indian regiments and army cantonments. Even on the Barrackpore parade ground (as Charlotte informed the Queen), a Hindu regiment was disbanded because the men refused to handle new cartridges, which they believed to be polluted with cow’s grease. She also explained a strange event that was taking place: ‘There is an odd, mysterious thing going on, still unexplained. It is this. In one part of the country the native police have been making little cakes – ‘chupattis’ - and sending them on from place to place. Each man makes twelve, keeps two, and sends away ten to ten men, who make twelve more each, and they spread all over the country. No one can discover any meaning in it.’
Muslim troops likewise believed that their cartridges were greased with pig’s fat. But the truth lay in the deep-rooted and widespread fear of religious conversion to Christianity. Charlotte further informed the Queen that rumours were spreading including one to the effect ‘that Lord Canning signed a bond to Your Majesty that he would make them all Christian in 3 years.’ The cartridges were seen by the sepoys as part of a process to undermine their religion and defile them in the eyes of their religious leaders. And, as the young wife of a chaplain in Lucknow wrote to her family at home, ‘the tribulation we are now in is a just punishment to our nation for the grasping spirit in which we have governed India; the unjust approbation of Oude being a finishing stroke to a long course of selfish seeking our own benefit and aggrandisement. … God grant that this heavy chastisement may bring all to a better mind!’
The outbreak had begun in Meerut on 10 May 1857 and spread to Delhi, Cawnpore, Lucknow, Allahabad, Lahore, Peshawar and elsewhere. The fighting, slaughter, devastation and looting became uncontrollable. Telegraphic messages poured into Canning’s office at Government House. Attempts were made to ensure the safety of soldiers’ wives and children. Wounded troops arrived in Calcutta, many of whom were cared for and comforted by Charlotte herself. Throughout these months of mounting anxiety, the Queen’s personal letters to Charlotte offered sympathy and support. Although by the end of the year, the horrendous tragedies had subsided, the scars remained and peace was far from being restored. On 30 January 1858, Lord Canning and his staff, including the new Military Secretary, Colonel Charles Stuart (Charlotte’s cousin), transferred to Allahabad, where they spent almost a year.
Charlotte remained in Calcutta for five weeks, but on 8 March she sailed on board the Chesapeake with her cousin’s wife, Minny Stuart, to Madras. Their onward journey to the Nilgiris took them to Vellore by train, then in carriages to Bangalore, where Sir Mark Cubbon received them. ‘The most grand seigneur old man I almost ever saw’, as Charlotte described the Commissioner of Mysore, had also arranged for them to stay at his villa on the summit of Nandidrug. From the top, she painted ‘a panoramic view of enormous extent but the hill itself is full of beautiful subjects, rock & trees & tanks & buildings - wild & full of monkeys & leopards & other wild animals.’ April, May and part of June 1858 were spent in the Nilgiris, where they stayed in charming cottages at Coonoor. Though Charlotte had numerous opportunities to explore and paint Coonoor’s lush surroundings and nearby Ootacamund, including the Botanical Gardens. Nevertheless, she remained deeply concerned about her husband. Although communication from Allahabad was difficult, she nevertheless received the news that Canning was ill and decided to return to Calcutta as soon as possible, via Madras. By early July 1858, they were back in Madras, and quickly returned to Calcutta.
After a short stay in Calcutta, Charlotte sailed up the Hooghly on the spacious Sonamukhi to join Canning in Allahabad. This was her first up-country tour. The month-long journey provided ample time to paint riverbank scenes from the yacht at Murshidabad, Rajmahal, Monghyr, Patna, Benares, and Chunargarh before reaching Allahabad on 29 August 1858. It was from the Fort at Allahabad that Queen Victoria’s Proclamation, attended by Lord and Lady Canning was announced. During the ceremony on 1 November 1858, people assembled outside the Fort’s walls to hear the Queen’s message, read out in English and Urdu by Canning’s Foreign Secretary, George Edmonstone: ‘Her Majesty, the Queen, having declared that it is her gracious pleasure to take upon herself the government of the British territories in India, the Viceroy and Governor-General hereby notify that from this day all acts of the Government of India will be done in the name of the Queen alone.’ Similar ceremonies were performed simultaneously in the Presidency towns and elsewhere throughout the country. The Queen’s Proclamation signalled the end of the East India Company and Lord Canning, became the first Viceroy of India.
Within a few months, Canning visited places in Upper India specially affected by the events of 1857. The Cannings and their entourage probably left Calcutta in September 1859. So vast was their camp that it needed the precision of a military operation to travel across the country. The young Frederick Roberts, who later became Commander-in-Chief in India, masterminded its transportation. ‘There were elephants, camels, and bullock carts, with their attendants to move this large city of canvas’, noted the professional artist, William Simpson. Splendid durbars, in the style of the Mughal Emperors, were held for the local chiefs and princes at Cawnpore on 26 October, Lucknow on 2 November, and Fathegurh on 15 November; they then moved to Agra, Deeg, Muttra, Aligarh, and Meerut, where they spent Christmas. By the end of the year the party reached Delhi where it was joined by William Simpson, since he had reached Calcutta from London too late to travel with them. On 19 January 1860, Simpson witnessed his first durbar at Shaikabad near Ambala, noting in his journal: ‘Life in the Governor-General’s camp in India, with all its grandeur, was an experience worth recording … . In the morning after reaching camp, I generally took a walk to see if there was anything worth sketching, and reported it to Lady Canning, who went out every evening to sketch. She had a very large and docile elephant, and could sketch sitting in the howdah. In the evening after dinner I had to show any sketches I had made; Lady Canning produced hers; and any of the officers of the suite who had done anything also produced their work. On account of Lady Canning’s interest in art, all who could use the pencil tried their hand, and from this it appeared at times as if the camp was merely a gigantic sketching excursion.’
The entire camp then moved northwest to Amritsar, and on to Lahore where, on 5 February, ‘there was a very grand durbar. About three hundred Sikh sirdars, or headman, were received by the Governor-General …’. From there they moved northwards to Sialkot. Only a small group was permitted to join the party and visit Peshawur, but Simpson was fortunate in being included. Although it was a long journey and Lady Canning, who travelled in a carriage drawn by a relay of camels, found it very tiring, she was ‘glad to have seen this strange country and the actual boundary of India, and the very door of it, which is really the case at the entrance of the Khyber Pass’. Along the way, both she and Simpson made views of Attock Fort on the Indus.
|Fig. 51. CHARLOTTE CANNING
Hill Fort of Kot Kangra. About 25 March 1860
V&A: E 1266-1887
On 8 March, the small party rejoined the main camp at Sialkot for another ‘grand
Durbar’, before continuing to Simla via Kangra
(fig. 51). She also painted
a series of small watercolours in the same region.
Charlotte’s watercolours made during the journey to Simla convey her reactions to the grandeur of the mountain scenery and reflect a confidence not present in her earlier works. She was often painting three watercolours daily at that time. This could have been the influence of Simpson’s brilliant watercolour technique. Like Ootacamund, which had long been the summer headquarters of the Madras Governemnt, Simla had become the summer abode of the Governor General and his staff. The Cannings stayed at Barnes Court, residence of the Governor of the Punjab, expecting to relax after the arduous months under canvas. But suddenly news arrived from Calcutta that Lord Canning’s presence was urgently required and he left in early May, refusing to allow Charlotte to travel with him during the hot weather. Instead she undertook her most adventurous journey, into the hills from Simla, informing the Queen: ‘A very tempting and enterprising plan has been made for me of reaching ... by a long circuit round by ‘Chini’ on the borders of Thibet, over a pass, and in all ways tempting. C. [Canning] at once liked the notion of sending me on such a lark, and I have quite entered into it, and shall go, for I am not fond of this place [Simla], and should, of course, avoid all society. I shall have no riding, but be carried in sort of chairs all the journey, and shall have bungalows to sleep in for a week, and tents afterwards.’
By 21 May 1860, Charlotte and her small group of attendants, including Lord William Hay, Commissioner of the Hill States, had already set off along the new Tibet Road, heading for Matiana, then Narkanda and up the Sutlej valley to Chini: ‘There is a moderate slope for a few miles about this place & it is rich with cultivation & Apricot trees & lower down with vineyards overhanging the Sutledge. The absence of Lakes and Glaciers makes this scenery far less beautiful than Switzerland, but I think the precipices and enormous peaks are on a far grander scale. I am afraid that any sketches I can show will give no idea of these mountains & I so often was unable to attempt the finest scenes.’ From Chini they then turned due southwards: ‘Between the Sutledge & the Jumna the mountains are very high & there are many passes. I came over the Roopin Pass, which is considered the easiest. My camp was pitched at the edge of the snow in a dreary spot about 13000 feet high & next morning at peep of day we began to ascend. There were full 7 miles of snow to cross & we had dark glass ‘goggles’ & veils to protect the sight & gave all the scraps of muslins & veils that could be collected to the servants & coolies, but no one suffered’. Despite such extreme conditions, Charlotte managed to paint several dramatic watercolours.
By 16 June 1860 they had reached the Jumna, and Charlotte was able to paint a scene depicting Jumnotri, the source of the river Jumna, in the distance. She probably knew the aquatints by James Baillie Fraser (the first European to explore this area nearly fifty years before), who included a similar scene in his Views in the Himala Mountains. Anxious to avoid the rains that could start at any time, they quickly continued to Mussoorie, and then on to Landaur by the end of the month. In the same letter to the Queen, written from Landour on 28 June 1860, Charlotte also described the cheerful character of the Hill people, the generosity of the villagers, who ‘always brought milk & honey, or butter & walnuts’. Nevertheless despite Charlotte’s misgivings about her paintings, many of them capture the rugged features of the country with its steep hillsides, plunging cliffs, and narrow winding paths. After a few days’ rest, Charlotte returned to Allahabad, from where she continued down-river to Rajmahal, and there boarded the train for Calcutta.
Amateurs in Benares
In the preface to his Benares Illustrated, in a series of Drawings, James Prinsep explained: ‘The pencil though not entirely idle, has hitherto done little to bring the Holy City to the notice of Europe. … A fine drawing of Dusaswumedh Ghat is also to be met with in the magnificent Oriental Portfolio of Daniell; but these detached views convey to the European reader a very faint idea of the town and its population – certainly not enough to satisfy curiosity regarding a place which exhibits a larger remnant of the external characteristics of Hindoo taste and habits, than are to be met with in any other Eastern city within the pale of British dominion’.
For many landscape artists, the ancient and venerable city of Benares was a favourite subject. Some were captivated by its spiritual and mystical qualities. Others were charmed by the picturesque effects created by the reflections of the temples and ghats in the Ganges. The majority of artists drew the city from the river, focusing on the life of people along its banks. James Prinsep (1799-1840) painted some highly picturesque and evocative watercolours from which the lithographs of his Benares Illustrated were prepared. He was still Assay-master at the Benares Mint when Robert Smith reached the city in February 1829 on his way to Cawnpore but it is unlikely that they met. Smith spent most of the time sketching from the river: ‘In the evening I returned to my boat, and next morning moved up to the centre of the city, but, as I remarked before, the dandees would not be allowed to cook their khana at the sacred ghauts as they are called, we removed to the other side of the river, where a noble view of the city presented itself. Here I had leisure to sketch, and making it my head quarters, made daily excursions in a dingee up and down the viewing the splendid temples ghauts from the water where they are best seen …’. These sketches resulted in Smith’s eight-part panorama, drawn in pencil, pen and ink, in 1833. It was subsequently painted by Robert Burford and his assistants for display at the Panorama, Leicester Square, in 1840.
Although Charles D’Oyly probably would surely have visited Benares during one of his excursions from Patna, no original drawings of the city by him are known. Nevertheless an oil painting, depicting the Lalita Ghat, signed and dated 1839, is one of three surviving oil paintings of Benares by him. All were based on carefully prepared compositions drawn in pencil by Lieutenant George Francis White. He and D’Oyly clearly exchanged drawings, probably while in Calcutta, during the eighteen-thirties. Each composition displays a similar close-up view from a vantage point on the riverbank, and extends along the ghat with people on the steps and at the water’s edge. These were painted in Europe, for D’Oyly left Calcutta aboard the Thomas Grenville in May 1838. By November 1840, he had reached Italy, where he subsequently retired and lived in a fine villa, the Casino Pecori, overlooking the river Arno in Florence. A striking difference between these pictures and his views in oil painted in India is the colour range and quality of light. The subdued palette of the Benares views reflects a climate akin to northern Europe, as compared with the virtuosity and golden hues shown in his earlier paintings of India.
Lady Canning experienced Benares for the first time in August 1858 while on her way to join Lord Canning at Allahabad. She was to see the city again at least five times, taking every opportunity to capture yet more of its charms with her scintillating brushwork and brilliant palette. She also wrote to Queen Victoria: ‘But the greatest sight of all was Benares – one afternoon I spent in the civil station & outskirts & the next morning made an expedition thru’ the city. I now really feel I have seen India. Not a trace or touch of anything European exists there.’