Imagine a world without cameras. Not only have photographic images become ubiquitous through social media, even the most Facebook-phobic of us rely on photographs to act as our surrogate memory. Cameras may be omnipresent in today’s culture, but never are we more eager to capture those memories than when we are on holiday – the camera still serving the purpose of capturing the out-of-the-ordinary, the extraordinary, the other.
It is through this lens, therefore, that we can view the company paintings produced in India in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and attempt to understand their role and value.
“Company paintings” is a broad term to describe paintings that were produced by Indian artists for Europeans living and working in the Indian subcontinent. The name derives from the fact that many of the patrons worked for the various East India companies.
Such paintings were collected by European travellers as a record of local sights – the subjects of the paintings were usually documentary rather than imaginative – and as such they served a purpose similar to photography today.
The most famous Indian landmark of all, the Taj Mahal at Agra, was a favoured and distinguished subject. This pair of miniature watercolours exemplifies the fine work of the Indian artists; the front and rear elevations satisfy the tourist’s demand for remembering the building from all angles, in much the way today we use photography to systematise our impressions of a place.
This painting in the V&A collection depicts another elevation, and in this case has figures in the foreground, providing a sense of the mausoleum’s grand scale.
Elevation of the Taj Mahal - Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The picturesque watercolours of English artists in India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were particularly influential on the development of company paintings. Thomas and William Daniell (uncle (1749-1840) and nephew (1769-1837)) travelled through India from 1786 to 1794, a time which coincided with the rise of England as a trade power and the downfall of the Mogul Empire. As a result, western tastes were increasingly influential, whilst at the same time western artists were captivated by the perceived exoticism of the East. The aesthetic similarity between the Daniells’ depiction of the Taj Mahal in 1801 and our company painting can be seen in this example:
Thomas & William Daniell, View of Taj Mahal, 1801
Company paintings represent a hybrid of styles that developed as a result of European (especially British) influences on traditional Indian artistic styles. Indian artists adopted a more naturalistic approach, better suited to the topographical subjects desired by their patrons. The paintings were executed in watercolour rather than gouache, and typically employed western conventions of linear perspective and shading.
Company paintings were generally relatively small in scale, as they were often produced to be compiled in albums and easily transported. Their detail tended to be exceptionally fine, as can be seen in the Taj Mahal paintings. The tree lines depicted in the front elevation also is an exemplary exercise in the western vanishing point.
This interior painting is also outstandingly intricate, with the addition of gilt detailing. Again, ruled perspective lines at the bottom of the image show technical understanding of western perspective.
The attention to detail in this painting transports the viewer to this sacred interior, and it was surely a worthy reminder of actual place for its patron or collector. When pitted against the advancements of modern photography, these company paintings, however, also reveal a deeper value which extends beyond their documentary accuracy. The time, care, and skill embodied in these works elevate them above the holiday snapshot, and their painted marks connect us with the living hand of their 19th-century creators.