During my trip to New Haven last week, I was fortunate enough to spend a morning at “Adapting The Eye: An Archive of the British In India, 1770-1830,” a terrific exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art, curated by Holly Shafer, a PhD candidate in the University’s Art History Department, who someone should definitely hire on the basis of this show. It’s a fascinating look at the relationship between art and politics. And “Adapting The Eye” isn’t just about the way the British saw India — it’s about the way they saw themselves in India and what that meant for their colonial project.
In the absence of photography, painting played a critical role in documenting everything from gift-giving rituals to assessing military positioning. Surveyor Robert Mabon made jewel-like portraits of the presents that were part of diplomatic exchanges like the one to the right here and of techniques for saddling horses complete with painstakingly detailed notes. Warren Hastings, the British governor of Bengal, commissioned William Hodges to paint the fortresses controlled by Raja Chait Singh so he could assess the strength of the forces behind a rebellion — the results included both military useful information and an impressionistic sense of Indian landscapes. And art even became part of British and Indian diplomatic traditions. To both meet the requirements of their budgeteers and to avoid the perception that they were being corrupted by establishing the lavish, jeweled gifts that were traditionally exchanged in the Mughal court, British diplomats created a new tradition of exchanging portraits, creating a new Indian market for British painters.
And even when they weren’t creating art for the purpose of cultural exchange in Indian, British artists constantly wrote themselves into the images of India — and some of those portraits may have been more revealing than they were intended to be. In Thomas Danielle’s painting of Sir Charles Ware signing a treaty in 1770 with the Maratha Empire, British officers are seated on the floor of a palace in the style of their hosts, displaying attitudes that range from ease, to extreme dignity, to wondrous excitement at the circumstances. Painter James Wales wrote that Charles Warre Malet told him of his 40-day journey to see the Taj Mahal that “at first sight how well his journey was justified.” It makes sense that the British would want to see their efforts, even a more than a month-long site-seeing schlep, as worth the work, no matter how strenuous. Bathazar Solvyns, a Belgian who wrote a dubious anthropological survey of India, revealed as much about himself and his gaze as he did about his subjects when he wrote of dancing girls he observed that “their movements are confined, being either extremely rapid or solemnly slow, and their attitudes or gestures, which are sometimes graceful, are almost always indecent, there therefore disgusting; their general object is to excite desire, and where they succeed, there are not to be found much to envy.” In Arthur William Devis’ “Portrait of a Gentleman,” lawyer William Hickey both smokes a hookah and handles a letter of business — has he corrupted himself by going native? Or are the temptations of India no match for England’s energy in commerce?
And in Samuel Howitt’s 1807 “The Tiger at Bay,” British men load, aim, and fire at a tiger, while Indian men control the elephants that let the British get close to their quarry, an interesting if unintentional foreshadowing of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, made possible in part by tensions in the military forces made up of Indian soldiers and commanded by British officers. There was only so much that British self-portraits in India, especially those sponsored by British government and commercial organizations, could capture — and only so much that they could see into the future.