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India and Southeast Asia: Natural history drawings

The British Library holds a large collection of natural history drawings, almost all by Indian or Chinese artists, in the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections. Most of these drawings were made in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the flora and fauna of India and other parts of Asia were being identified and classified.

Black-naped oriole on a branch of a Eugenia tree, by a Chinese artist in Malacca, c.1800

Black-naped oriole on a branch of a Eugenia tree, by a Chinese artist in Malacca, c.1800. British Library, NHD 29, f.43 (Wellesley Collection). Copyright © The British Library Board


Natural history drawings in the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections

The natural history drawings date from c.1780 onwards. Almost all are by Indian (or Chinese) artists working under British supervision or for British collectors, although a few are by British naturalists such as William Griffith.

Some are by Chinese artists in Canton, Sumatra or Malacca and relate to China or Southeast Asia. A number, such as the drawings made at the Barrackpore Institution for Promoting the Natural History of India or at the Saharanpore Botanical Garden, were officially sponsored, and collectors such as the Marquess Wellesley took advantage of this to have second or third versions prepared for their own collections.

The Wellesley Collection, the largest of these natural history drawings collections, thus consists for the most part of copies of the drawings being made at the Sibpur Botanical Gardens under Dr Roxburgh's direction (the East India Company's own versions were in the Company's Museum, and were transferred to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew) and of the drawings of fauna being made at the Barrackpore Institution, as well as containing other individual commissions or gifts.

Since the majority of the drawings were bound up into volumes during the late 19th century, different collections being at times bound into the same volume, each volume carries a single NHD number, with sub-numbers for each item within it. This sequence is now closed, and subsequent natural history acquisitions (such as from the Hastings Collection) have been given individual Add.Or. numbers.

NHD 1-44 have been described in a catalogue according to collector by Mildred Archer (1962). A handlist of the individual drawings is in course of preparation. About 5,700 drawings.

Online Catalogue

Related material

The British Library's Department of Manuscripts also holds large and important collections of Indian natural history drawings, particularly those from the collection of General Thomas Hardwicke (Add. 10974-11032). See the online Manuscripts catalogue.


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