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Curator's introduction

The British Library’s collection of prints, drawings and photographs from the Indian subcontinent and its surrounding territories is one of the world’s greatest visual records of the cultural history of South Asia from the late-18th to the mid-20th century. Rich in artistic merit and unrivalled in its survey of topography and social customs, the collection reflects the way artists, Indian and European, rose to the challenge of documenting a land of endless variety and fascination.

Here are almost 15,000 of the collection’s finest images. We focus on the artists and photographers whose work provides a comprehensive account of the landscapes and architectural heritage of South Asia.

The Asia Pacific & Africa (formerly referred to as the Oriental & India Office) Collections of paintings, drawings, prints, illustrated plate books and photographs were originally brought together by the East India Company. The Company’s library was established in 1801. One of its first purchases was Richard Johnson’s collection of Indian miniatures and manuscripts. This was soon supplemented by official or quasi-official collections of British drawings, made by both professional and amateur artists.

Among the professional artists featured are Thomas and William Daniell, William Simpson and Edward Lear. The first Surveyor General of India, Colin Mackenzie, employed teams of draughtsmen to produce vast numbers of drawings that provide an important archaeological and topographical record from the early 19th century. However, the majority of drawings are by amateur artists who drew for pleasure. Many were highly skilled, trained by drawing masters in England or schooled by Indian-based artists such as George Chinnery. Sir Charles D’Oyly, Henry Salt and various members of the talented Prinsep family are included in this prestigious list of amateurs.

'Company’ drawings were made chiefly by Indian artists. Their style reflects British techniques and their subject matter, the British interest in Indian life and culture: castes, occupations, transport, religious festivals and gods. Artists from Delhi, Lucknow and Calcutta, in particular, produced topographical and architecture views. Many of these are outstanding works of art in their own right.

The prints in the collection are mainly British, dating from the mid 17th century onwards, although some were published in France, Germany and Holland. They’re a rich source of topographical and architectural documentation: one of the most comprehensive in existence. Professional artists, such as William Hodges, travelled to India to draw views for engraving and publishing back in England, where there was a keen demand for the exotic. The collection includes many rare sets of 19th-century lithographs and an almost complete series of prints of Calcutta.

The advent of photography introduced a new element to the documentation of India. It was slow to establish itself at first, but it would become the dominant visual medium by the end of the century. Among the earliest photographs in the collection is the series of hand-coloured photographs taken around the early 1850s by the German artist-turned-photographer, Frederick Fiebig. They include some 250 views of Calcutta - the first extensive photographic documentation of the city.

At the same time, the East India Company’s promotion of photography for recording archaeological sites encouraged a number of military and civil officers to take up the medium. This led to photography establishing itself as an integral tool of the Archaeological Survey of India. Though often working in difficult circumstances, photographers such as Linneaus Tripe and Edmund David Lyon produced photographs of a quality to match any in the world during the same period.

Amateur photography became increasingly popular. Photographic societies sprang up in the mid-1850s and spawned several talented amateurs who played a distinguished part in documenting India’s architectural heritage. John Murray’s large-format views of the Mughal architecture of Northern India, for example, are among the most beautiful images in nineteenth-century photography.

By the 1860s commercial photography had found a secure foothold. Topographical photographs made for sale to residents and visitors formed the beginnings of a valuable archive of Indian scenes. Pre-eminent among the early professionals was Samuel Bourne, who lived in India from 1863 until 1870. In the course of three expeditions, he produced a magnificent collection of landscapes and architectural views of Kashmir and the Himalayas.

Photography was by no means the sole province of Europeans: from the start, Indians were quick to adopt the new medium. As the work of Lala Deen Dayal shows, Indian photographers often rivalled their British counterparts in producing extensive portfolios of the highest technical and artistic quality.

While the material in these collections covers a wide range of subjects - social life, military campaigns, and public works - arguably its most valuable contribution is the breadth and excellence of its topographical and architectural subjects. The images selected here provide a unique historical tool, a vivid evocation of the common cultural heritage forged by two centuries of interaction between India and Great Britain.

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