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Tom Young on ‘British Artists in India 1760–1820’ (vol. 19)

We are very grateful to Dr Tom Young of the Courtauld Institute, London, for kindly contributing the following reflections on the groundbreaking biographical research 'British Artists in India, 1760-1820' that Sir William Foster (1863-1951) published in The Walpole Society, Volume 19 (1931-1).

Dr Young's own research on British art in India has explored the role that art played in shaping India's colonial government in the early 19th century. His book Unmaking the East India Company: British Art and Political Reform in Colonial India, c.1813–1858 was published in 2023 by Yale University Press.

In 1791, an artist called J. Dean advertised his services in the Calcutta Gazette. He had arrived in India from Pedir, Sumatra, and offered moderate rates. Yet, as William Foster explained in his groundbreaking essay on British artists working in India, published by The Walpole Society in 1930–31: ‘nothing has been traced concerning the antecedents of the artist, nor is it known what became of him’. Discussing an artist named Barron Graham, who landed in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) in 1817, Foster similarly lamented: ‘the rest of the story is a complete blank’.

Such statements are symptomatic of the immense difficulty of piecing together the fragmentary archival evidence relating to those artists working across Britain’s colonial territories. Early deaths, commercial failure, and sometimes deliberate ploys to avoid official detection resulted in artists leaving only the faintest of traces in the otherwise sprawling bureaucratic records of the imperial administration.

Despite these challenges, William Foster’s essay was, when published, arguably the most thorough and detailed survey of British artistic activity in India. It took the form of sixty-one biographical notes, presented alphabetically. Foster’s expertise was the result of a lifelong intimacy with the imperial archive: he entered the India Office in 1882; served as Registrar and Superintendent of Records from 1907 to 1923; then, between 1923 and his retirement in 1927, held the post of Historiographer – a position temporarily revived in his honour. Although deliberately empirical, the author’s accumulation of biographical narratives provides – in an almost Vasarian manner – a vivid sense of the period. Financial precarity, ill health, and untimely death are recurrent themes.

Foster prefaced the biographies with a short introduction, establishing a historical narrative that continues to influence current scholarship. According to him, commercial opportunity drew British artists to the subcontinent from 1760; when this proved elusive, the boom in artistic activity faltered, then petered over the first decades of the nineteenth century. Originally, the author intended to extend the survey to 1840, but explained that an earlier date was chosen for limitations of space. Despite Foster’s definition of ‘artists’ usefully encompassing engravers and miniaturists, amateurs were omitted for the same reason.

Inevitably, Foster’s account has been the subject of debate and revision. My own work has stressed the importance of amateurism as a social practice with political consequences, while also drawing attention to artists working in the decades after 1820.  A range of pioneering scholars have dispensed with a framework that exclusively privileges ‘British artists’, and have instead charted cultural exchanges between Indian and British makers – often unsettling these national designations in the process. Nevertheless, several aspects of the essay remain pioneering and invite future research. Although recent scholarship has extended our knowledge of major artists such as Tilly Kettle, Johan Zoffany, William Hodges, and George Chinnery, among others, Foster identified a number of elusive artists about whom we still know very little. Most notably, four of these were women, and while there is now excellent scholarship on female amateurism – particularly in the nineteenth century – a more detailed study of the life and work of these earlier women artists would be welcome indeed.

Re-reading Foster’s essay today, the most striking quality is the author’s proximity to the period under study. The piece was published before Indian independence, and was the product of an expertise developed during a career in Britain’s imperial bureaucracy. At one point, Foster describes Lord Curzon’s purchase of a painting by George Chinnery as occurring ‘a few years ago’. In consequence, Foster’s essay is not only of interest to art historians, but historians of twentieth-century imperial state institutions and their bureaucratic practices.

Equally, this proximity highlights one of the challenges of contemporary research in the field. While Foster had an intimate, often first-hand knowledge of the locations of works of art, British art produced in India has continued to pass between – and sometimes disappear into – various private collections. Some work has faced physical deterioration. Although the methods and aims of contemporary art historians have dramatically shifted since Foster was writing, his essay for the Walpole Society consequently remains an exemplar of the painstaking archival work necessary for reconstructing the lives of those artists who, like J. Dean or Barron Graham, have all but vanished from the historical record.


Image credit:

Richard Earlom after Johan Zoffany, Tiger Hunting in the East Indies, 1802

Stipple engraving, mezzotint and etching, hand coloured, 52.1 x 74 cm (sheet)


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