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Asia: History and scope of Prints, Drawings and Photographs

The Prints, Drawings and Photographs Section of the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections holds English paintings and sculptures and other works of art, drawings by Indian and British artists, and loose prints and photographs. 

The collection’s scope is limited geographically to the modern countries of South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal and Bhutan), and to neighbouring countries and areas in parts of Asia with which the East India Company and British Government of India had dealings, principally Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Central Asia, the different countries of Southeast Asia and China. 

A sale in progress at East India House

A sale in progress at East India House. Aquatint by J.C. Stadler after T. Rowlandson and C.A. Pugin, c. 1808-10. P1571. Copyright © The British Library Board


The collections broadly cover the period from the beginnings of English involvement in the east until Indian independence in 1947. In addition to their great aesthetic interest, they offer an unrivalled survey of the topographical and social history of South Asia from the late 18th to the middle of the 20th century.

The collections date back to 1801, when the British East India Company established a library in London; they were subsequently held in the collections of the India Office. Most items were added before 1947, although APAC Prints, Drawings and Photographs continues actively to acquire material.

The East India Company, unlike its Dutch counterpart, was not a prolific patron of art, although it did occasionally in the 18th century commission paintings, sculpture and furniture for its premises in Leadenhall Street in the City of London. The Company relied mostly on private gifts for the adornment over the years of its public rooms and offices. These works of art were later transferred to the new India Office building in Whitehall, and were subsequently added to, particularly through the agency of Lord Curzon. 

It was with the establishment of the East India Company's Library in 1801 that the collections of drawings began, one of the first such being the purchase in 1807 of Richard Johnson's collection of Indian miniatures and manuscripts. These were quickly supplemented by official or quasi-official collections of British drawings, such as the original sketches by William Alexander on his journey to China with Lord Macartney's embassy in 1792-94, and of natural history drawings, such as the Marquess Wellesley Collection purchased in 1866. Other sets of drawings were continually being presented. Natural history drawings and Company drawings (drawings by Indian artists for British patrons) form the bulk of the drawings by Indian artists. There is also an important collection of popular and folk paintings of the 19th and 20th centuries. A collection of loose prints, particularly of portraits and topographical views, supplements the Library's plate books.

The ending of the Company's rule and the transfer of the government of India to the India Office coincided with burgeoning official interest in photography. The most extensive part of the collections consists of photographs of Asia, Pacific and Africa, some of which (such as the Archaeological Survey of India Photographs) are official commissions from the India Office or the Government of India. The majority of the photographs, however, are private or semi-public collections of photographs taken during the owner's tour of duty, and subsequently presented to or purchased by the India Office Library. These can range from Viceroy's collections down to those of private soldiers.


Prints, Drawings and Photographs Section
Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7856/7327/7663
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7641