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The Exotic Tropic of William and Thomas Daniell

By Himanshi Sharma

This paper attempts to explore the earliest impressions of the ‘oriental scenery’ as produced by engravers-painters Thomas and William Daniell, who travelled to British India between 1786 and 1796.

Thomas Daniell, a former coach painter-turned-aspiring artist and uncle to William Daniell looked towards India in the hope of rescuing his dwindling career as a landscape painter in London. In the late eighteenth century, the empire had begun to tighten its grasp on the ‘East’ and the notion of the ‘exotic’ was slowly gaining currency as an artistic subject. The anxiety of diminishing prospects of being successful in Britain of the time put an impetus upon the Daniells to apply to the East India Company for permission to travel as engravers to India in 1784. The application was soon accepted and the uncle-nephew duo left the shores of Britannia in 1785 and reached those of Calcutta in 1786. William Daniell worked as an apprentice to his uncle for the initial part of the trip. The logistics and the intention of the travel were thus largely decided by Thomas Daniell.

Daniells’ first assignment in the colony was twelve commissioned views of Calcutta and its busy streets, which included public and private buildings built by the British officers settled in the area, the Civil Service quarters and private villas. This assignment gave the two funds to plan an extensive travel, which was marked by specific kinds of places that would ensure the availability of a certain kind of subject – the ‘view’ – which included land, water, historical monuments, and sites of religious significance. In A Picturesque Voyage to India by the Way of China (1810), Daniells wrote, “… The shores of Asia have been invaded by a race of students with no rapacity but for lettered relics … It remains for the artist to claim his part in these guiltless spoliations, and to transport to Europe the picturesque beauties of these favoured regions.” (emphasis mine) The ‘subject’ as it emerges in Daniells’ aquatints is not thus the colonized person but the landscape itself.

The importance of travel within colonial discourse has been primarily understood in terms of the kind of knowledge/power it rendered accessible to the traveller, generally a British administrator acting as a stand-in for the Empire. However, there was another kind of travel that marked the colonial period – the one that occurred in search of the ‘exotic’ as a subject of art. While the first kind of travel turned the land into a ‘colony’, the second kind turned it into a commodity – almost a brand, the Exotic Tropic. Daniells’ travels exemplify the second kind of travel, where the larger pursuit is that of ‘creating’. The demand for exotic flora, fauna, architecture, and most importantly, ‘distant’ landscapes and views by the armchair imperialists of Britain encouraged the Daniells to seek out new subjects. They borrowed from the cues offered by William Hodges, who travelled across India between 1780 and 1783 and produced the first ‘views’ of British India under the patronage of Warren Hasting and rendered the tropics as sublime and exotic. He was the first professional landscape painter to provide topographical views of the land. His oil paintings and prints were appreciated and bought by British officers in India as well as audiences at home for the unusual treatment of light, shade, and atmosphere through the application of the stylistic elements of the picturesque to a landscape that did not easily lend itself to harmony.

Hodges’ travels in India and the treatment of landscape in a fashion that was a significant departure from how British landscape artists of the time were handling the subject determined the intentions as well as the modalities of Daniells’ travel. The Daniells were thus not attempting anything new but improving upon what already existed, i.e. Hodges’s works. The similarity of the views in Hodges and Daniells testifies to this. The newness, however, entered Daniells’ frames and views through the technology of aquatint and camera obscura, which brought the neoclassical idea of the picturesque to be in direct negotiation with the Romantic idea of ‘improvement’ and the slowly emerging currency of the tropics as exotic.

In order to pursue this argument, this essay looks at the pencil drawing and aquatint image of Govindram Mitter’s Temple on the Chitpore Road, Calcutta by Daniells. When made to sit in conversation with each other, the two images illustrate the curious nexus of picturesque, improvisation, and exotic tropic in which the Daniells anchor themselves.

Himanshi 1

Fig. 1 Thomas Daniell, Govindram Mitter’s Temple, Chitpore Road, Calcutta Jan-Feb 1792, Pencil and Grey Wash, 28X41 cm Indian Life and Landscape by Western Artists, P. 156 Photograph: Lalit Kala Akademi Library

The pencil sketch was completed in 1792 and was a part of Views in Calcutta, their first commissioned project in India. This temple was the only ‘Indian’ building to be included in the twelve set of images, which formed the Views of Calcutta. The rest of the drawings were of newly built British buildings, which had recently come up in the city. In the pencil sketch, the colour palette is primarily a subdued gray and slight tones of blue, indicating that perhaps this was a draft. However, this pencil sketch helps us in understanding their notion of scale. Scale plays an important role in Daniells’ works as a visual device apart from also being a method of exaggeration – whether of the beauty or the horror of the Indian landscape. Despite being a pencil sketch, the image relies on the extensive use of the subtle palette instead of the line to indicate the shapes around the temple. The emphasis on colour, as seen in Daniells’, could thus be the departure from the picturesque, which relied on the harmony between colour and line, as they use colour to emote the warm atmosphere of the tropics, which would have been new to the British eye/I.

Himanshi 2

Fig. 2. Thomas Daniell, Govindram Mitter’s Temple, Chitpore Road, Calcutta, 1798 Coloured Aquatint, 45X61 cm Indian Life and Landscape by Western Artists, P. 156 Photograph: Lalit Kala Akademi

This pencil sketch was eventually turned into this aquatint in 1798. The transformation of the image – so to say – is striking because it gains character and it acquires a lifelike resemblance to the monument and atmosphere. The stream, the people, the huts, the trees are all tiny yet distinct and lend a sense of idyllic calm to the overall picture. The aquatint allows the print to have the impression similar to that of watercolours with sharper details and darker, clearer lines. As an intaglio printmaking technique, aquatint is used to “create tonal effects rather lines” by treating the copper or zinc printing plate with acid. The gradations of these tones are achieved by varying the time for which the plate is exposed to the acid. The Daniells utilize the variations to emphasise the dramatic nature of the skies and the warm and pale tone of the overall landscape even as they highlight the details of the temple’s architecture. The fluidity of the line and its harmony with the colour exemplifies the principles of picturesque. It is important to note here that the temple was in a state of decadence when the Daniells visited Calcutta, but none of the ‘ugliness’ of a ruin is conveyed in the image. The Daniells borrow the principles of the picturesque to introduce a harmony into the image by sanitizing the view. The modulation of the tone of the image, on the other hand, exemplifies the kind of control that the Daniells exercise over the atmosphere that is conveyed to the viewer – that of a peaceful calm with the pale skies and the peaceful co-existence of land, earth, water, and skies with the inhabitants of the land.

Thomas Daniell’s training as a landscape painter in Britain ensured that he was aware of the picturesque style of painting. Therefore, his acquaintance with landscapes as subject was not new. The trained, perceptive Eye/I of Thomas Daniell was not so much a result of his fascination with the colonized land but that of his training as landscape artist. Neither was there any anthropological quest that inspired Thomas Daniell’s interest in India as it did in Hodges’ case due to his close association with Warren Hastings. The instinct was to survive. Thus, while the Daniells borrow from Hodges’ picturesque perspective, they combine it with the Romantic idea of improvement, which arose from a “visceral discontent with what actually existed” to produce a new kind of picturesque.

The picturesque emphasises on producing a sense of peace, harmony, and idyllic calm, which is attained through an emphasis on balance, light, and shade in the composition. The Romantic Movement, of which we know only in terms of English Literature thanks to the ideas of ‘canon’, created the ruins, landscape, or the countryside as the location of such sentiments instead of the city, which was slowly becoming the location of unrest, thanks to industrialization. These ideas inspired British artists in various colonies across the Empire to look for such locations in order to appeal to a slowly emerging market in Britian. The image, then, that the Daniells come to pursue, is not exactly ‘real’ but improved. In their case, they improve upon Hodges’ images in terms of subject as well as technique.

The Daniells were proficient in all media of visual illustration, especially watercolours. However, Hodges’ watercolours would have informed the two that watercolours fall short of capturing the atmosphere of the land, specifically the light, shade, and the peculiarity of the architecture. The use of aquatints and later, camera obscura allowed them to achieve precision in capturing the details of the scenes – be it landscape or ruins – and most importantly, the light and the tone, which would have been ‘distant’ for the armchair colonizer of temperate Britain. This is reflected in a review of Daniells’ aquatints by Samuel Prout, a contemporary picturesque painter, who had never been to India himself but was delighted at the thought of ‘traversing extensive regions’ and contemplate – all while being comfortable in his armchair (quoted. in Rohatgi and Parlett, Indian Life and Landscape by Western Artists, P. 131)

The ‘travel’ then here is not only of the perspective – the viewer being transported to the ‘distant’ lands – but also vice-versa, that is, of the forms travelling to render the view accessible and enjoyable. As mentioned earlier, this essay does not suggest the travel for ‘creating’ as undertaken by Daniells as divorced from the travel undertaken as a part of the colonial project by British artists and officers to bolster the Empire. It acknowledges that though the Daniells’ participation in the Empire was perhaps not as clearly etched out as was those of artists like Hodges or officers like Warren Hastings but it definitely informed their narrative. For instance, their reliance on the cartographic surveys of the British officers of the Empire to determine the routes of their journey is a case in point. However, it must be kept in mind that their travels were also motivated towards creating a new materiality of India as the exotic tropic – as an aesthetic subject, which was ‘sublime’ and not ‘beautiful’. This materiality manifested itself in architecture, landscape design, and something as ornamental as furniture design in Britain.

The travel of the Daniells from one exotic location to another to produce exquisite prints as a purely artistic project causes us to break away from the available template of looking at travel in India during British colonial rule as simply an activity of knowledge creation. By emphasising their use of aquatints, the Daniells did not only transport the Indian monuments but also the climate, light, and environment to their English audiences, who all had an uncle in the Orient but not always the ticket to visit them.

Himanshi Sharma is an independent scholar. She finished her MPhil in 2017 from Department of English, University of Delhi. Her research interests include Partition Literature, Visual Studies, and Indian Writing in English.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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