India’s Past on Canvas

William Hodges was the first artist whose works introduced the Indian landscape,
architecture and life to the West. Pran Nevile writes about this pioneer who
was smitten with the beauty of our country

William HodgesFROM time immemorial India has attracted adventurers, traders, travellers, missionaries and scholars, many of whom have left highly informative and fascinating accounts of the country and its people. They have described the religious beliefs and rituals as well as social customs and manners of the diverse communities in different parts of India.

There is, however, no visual record of the Indian scene until the end of the 18th century. We come across graphic descriptions of the magnificent Hindu temples, forts and palaces and also later Mughal monuments but nobody who had not visited these knew what they looked like. From these travel accounts one could have only vague impressions about the great Indian architectural heritage. Even Indian artists, with their rich heritage, have left masterpieces of miniature paintings of emperors and kings and also court scenes as well as paintings on religious themes etc. The genre of landscape painting was virtually unknown.

A view of the Armenian Bridge (1780). Yale Center of British Art, USA. This bridge was on the road from Madras to St Thomas Mount
A view of the Armenian Bridge (1780). Yale Center of British Art, USA. This bridge was on the road from Madras to St Thomas Mount

Fatehpur Sikri, October 1785
Fatehpur Sikri, October 1785

The fort at Agra, August 1786
The fort at Agra, August 1786

William Hodges was the first professional artist to introduce a new style and make on-the-spot sketches of the picturesque Indian landscape and its magnificent monuments. It was only in the late 18th century when the British emerged as the dominant power in India that we find British professional artists coming to India in search of fame and fortune.

Portrait painters were the first to arrive lured by the prospects of patronage from British ruling elite and Indian nobility. The earliest to do so were Tilly Kettle, John Zoffany and Ozias Humphrey. Then followed other artists interested in recording the Indian panorama with its bewildering diversity of people and its varied landscape with mighty mountains, majestic rivers and magnificent architecture.

Of all these British artists, William Hodges was undoubtedly the pioneer in the field of landscape painting and also one of the most sensitive and poetic whose writings are as unique as his paintings. Born in London in 1744, Hodges came from a humble background. While serving as an errand boy, he came to be noticed by well-known British artist Richard Wilson, who was so impressed with the young boy’s artistic talent that he decided to take him on as his pupil.

In 1772, Hodges was appointed as official artist to Captain Cook’s second expedition to the South Seas. This experience heightened his powers of observation and his drawings established his reputation as an artist of great merit. Hodges came to India in 1780 and received generous patronage from the then Governor General Warren Hastings, who not only gave him a large number of private commissions but also got him a subsidy from the East India Company.

Hastings was deeply impressed by his work and he acquired as many as 36 oil paintings of Indian views by Hodges. Hastings also had a good collection of his pencil or ink drawings of Indian scenes, which now form part of the collection at the Yale Center for British art in the USA.

Hodges travelled extensively in India by road and also by boat up and down the Ganges. He was thus able to see the country’s imposing and colourful landscape and novel architecture that impressed him immensely.

He visited and recorded some of the great Mughal monuments at Delhi and Agra. He was struck by the extraordinary beauty of the Taj Mahal; he wrote, “the effect is such as, I confess I have never experienced from any work of art. The fine materials, the beautiful forms and the symmetry of the whole with the judicious choice of situation, far surpasses anything I ever beheld”.

Hodges was equally impressed by the great temples of Western India and was more philosophical in his description — “their external forms and appearance is in the spiry rock, the towering cliff, and the mountain in its immense extent..: How varied! How grand!`85in grottos and caverns gloom and darkness are common and desirable to both, for Fancy works best when involved in the veil of obscurity”.

Hodges was particularly fascinated by the light and atmosphere around the country. He wrote, “The clear blue cloudless sky, the polished white buildings, the bright sandy beach, the dark green sea, present a combination totally new to the eye of the Englishman”.

He added “the more brilliant the sunshine the more I love to see the image — I have frequently stood transported at the wonderful brilliance of the image portrayed on the screen, at the beautiful touches of sunlight amongst the trees and the fine masses of broad light and shadow everywhere pervading the picture”. Hodges experimented with placing local figures, primarily village women, in the foreground of his landscape paintings.

He returned to England at the end of 1783 and his famous series of aquatints titled Select Views of India was published in 12 parts between 1785 and 1788 with a description of each scene in English and French. The plates based on his drawings made between 1781-83 were engraved in aquatint and etching by Hodges himself. The aquatint technique was still in its infancy but Hodges used it with exceptional skill and succeeded in preserving the atmospheric qualities of his original sketches made on the spot. The series was dedicated to the East India Company, which bought a sizeable number of sets of the 48 plates bound in 2 volumes. It was an unprecedented work, for people in the West had never before seen such a vivid array of Indian monuments and scenery from sketches made on the spot.

Hodges was particularly charmed by the winsome manners and polished behaviour of Indians, which he considered as the hallmark of the most highly civilised state of society. Unassuming and endowed with great personal charm, he made himself at home even in remote villages, never visited by any European before him.

Hodges’ journal of his travels in India (1780-83) published in 1793 is a remarkable document with some of his observations almost poetic and others highly illuminating as well as amusing and romantic. Struck by the awe-inspiring grandeur of the mighty Ganges he was equally captivated by the “simplicity and primitive appearance of the people”. Admiring the river, he wrote, “The rivers I have seen in Europe, even the Rhine, appear as rivulets in comparison with this enormous mass of water.

The meandering of the river Ganges through the flat country, and glittering through the immense plain, highly cultivated, as far as the extent of the horizon where the eye is almost at a loss to discriminate the termination of the sky and land”. Watching a group of Muslim women visiting tombs at night, he wrote “it is both affecting and curious to see them proceeding in groups, carrying lamps in their hands which they place at the head of the tomb: the effect considered in a picturesque light, is highly beautiful; with that of sentiment, it is delightful”.

Just as the British concept of the picturesque influenced their landscape painting, the western concept of beauty had its impact on their portrayal of the native people. Hodges openly admitted that his portraits of Indians, particularly of women, were based on the ideas of classical beauty.

He watched the women at Benaras ghats and wrote: “To a painter’s mind, the fine antique figures never fail to present themselves, when he observed a beautiful female form ascending these steps from the river with a wet drapery, which perfectly displays the whole person, and with vases on their heads, carrying water to the temples.”

He gives a vivid description of the facilities for travellers including wells and shady banyan trees, and makes a special mention of Sher Shah Suri for his “most humane attention to the comforts and accommodations of his people”.

He was delighted to meet a variety of travellers on the road and under the shade of banyan trees by the side of wells or tanks. As he saw men, women and native soldiers there, he drew their sketches on the spot. He witnessed and recorded a sati scene where a Hindu woman was being led to the funeral pyre of her dead husband.

Hodges exhibited his Indian views to an appreciative audience in London and was elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1789 and was hailed as a very intelligent and ingenious artist. He retired in 1795 and opened a bank at Dartmouth, which failed and brought his financial ruin. Faced with failing health and harassed by financial troubles, he committed suicide in 1797.

A reappraisal of his work and his light-filled paintings by some art historians reveals him as an artist who was ahead of his time. For Indians, of course, William Hodges was the first artist to portray a true to life picture of the Indian scene.

In fact, Hodges was the founding father of the great illustrated and coloured albums of India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and inspired so many other British artists who came later and produced many great works on India.