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The Hands that Painted Plants of the Coast of Coromandel.

THE SHEER SIZE AND WEIGHT OF THE LAVISH ELEPHANT-FOLIO FORMAT OF PLANTS of the Coast of Coromandel sets a task for its handler. Three hundred life-size hand-coloured copperplate engravings with detailed botanical descriptions, together, in three volumes. The massive volumes held in London's Wellcome Collection are bound in dyed green goatskin and buckram, with gilt lettering on the spine. Only 20 other libraries in Britain house copies of this work. It is no surprise that Plants of the Coast of Coromandel (henceforth referred to as Plants) is among the Wellcome Library's rare books collection.

Henry Wellcome (1853-1937), pharmacist, entrepreneur and collector--fascinated by the "art and science of healing throughout the ages"1--acquired artworks, artefacts, manuscripts and books tracing social and cultural histories and practices of medicine. (2) Accounts describing indigenous knowledge for medicinal plant use, and specimens, were collected for research at the Wellcome Chemical Research Laboratories. (3) Wellcome's Plants was purchased through auction in two parts between 1931 and 1932.

The author of Plants was William Roxburgh (1751-1815), a Scottish surgeon in the East India Company, known as the "Father of Indian Botany". (4) Published for the King's bookseller between 1795 and 1819 by Joseph Banks, then Director of Kew Gardens, print copies were distributed in London and India. The volumes were expensive and found a limited readership among "wealthy gentlemen of science"; while the first two were well received in terms of sales and reviews, the third was not a commercial success. (5)

In 1798 the pro-abolition periodical Analytic Review appraised Roxburgh as ingenious and an excellent observer for Plants. The reviewer stated that "they [the illustrations] were drawn in India, probably by a Hindoo artist whose name we hope Dr. R [Roxburgh] will not omit in his future communications." (6) Identities of these artists remain, for the most part, unknown.

In documenting Indian flora for the first time Roxburgh understood the importance of drawings as "icontypes" which act as specimens when herbaria are not available. Prior to his appointment as Superintendent at the Calcutta botanic gardens, Roxburgh employed Indian artists to study local Coromandel flora: as he described it, "drawings and descriptions [...] were taken from living plants, repeatedly examined and corrected during a period of twenty years' constant application to the study of Indian Botany." (7)

The initial drawings Roxburgh sent to Kew failed to impress Banks. Subsequent revised works, less rigid in style, displaying precise depictions of plant structures were finally commended. The "improved" skills (8) and artistic style fused together delicate and ornamental patterning and composition characteristic of miniature painting traditions, with a naturalism more typical of European plant illustration deemed more accurate for scientific representation. (9) By 1793 Roxburgh had sent up to 500 drawings produced by two Indian artists. (10)

Very fine brushes--sometimes single squirrel hairs (11)--were used to sharply portray the miniature surface detail and texture of a plant specimen. Burnishing paintings on the back side of the specially produced Whatman's wove paper was a colouristic technique commonly deployed. (12) As illustrated in the Palmyra Palm (Borassus flabelliformis, figure 2) the method allows the artist to paint successive layers of brilliant opaque colour, juxtaposing meticulous detail with thick coats of pigment. (13)

An illustration from Volume 1, Caesalpinia sappan (figure 1), depicts a source of valuable red dye. The yellow flowers blend into more decorative green leaves. Paintings in this style, typical of the earlier works sent to Banks, are lightly painted with little variation in shading giving a flatness and uniformity, as if intended for print on fabric. Two engravings from later volumes, Amomum roseum (figure 3) and Euryale ferox (figure 4), demonstrate different uses of shading, with a brilliantly stylized sense of pattern and perspective.

Tensions can be read into these visual representations. The East India Company was acutely aware of the economic value of botanical research in India and Plants was very much part of this commercial enterprise. The illustrations, part of a monumental unpublished collection--the Roxburgh Icones--indicate the sheer scale and influence14 of the colonial project.

Scientific ideals and humanitarian concerns may have been central to the Enlightenment, of which Roxburgh was a part. Yet the link between imperialism, science and commerce leaves lingering dis-ease. Colonial records valorize "gendemen of science" while faint archival traces conceal the identities of the artists who created the works. The names of the Indian illustrators of Plants may never be known, but their monumental legacy is a feast for the eye to behold. (15)


All images are photographed by Steven Pocock. Courtesy Wellcome Collection, London.


(1) (accessed on July 25, 2018).

(2) Wellcome Library Archives, correspondence between Wellcome Historical Medical Museum curator C.J.S. Thompson and Wellcome's India-based collecting agent Dr Paira Mall. WA/HMM/ CO/EAR/564.

(3) Frederick Power, Wellcome Chemical Research Laboratories, London: Royal College of Surgeons of England Anglo-American Exposition, 1914, p. 7: https:// c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=76&z=-0.3352%2Co. 2738%02C1.8487%2C1.012.

(4) Tim Robinson, William Roxburgh: The Founding Father of Indian Botany, Chichester, West Sussex: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 2008.

(5) Khyati Nagar, "Between Calcutta and Kew: The Divergent Circulation and Production of Hortus Bengalensis and Flora Indica", in B. Lightman, G. McOuat and L. Stewart (eds.), The Circulation of Knowledge Between Britain, India and China: The Early-Modern World to the Twentieth Century, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013, p. 163.

(6) Analytical Review 27, 1798, p. 508.

(7) Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, London: HMSO, 1962, p. 21.

(8) Ray Desmond, The European Discovery of the Indian Flora, Oxford: Clarendon Press and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 1992, p. 48.

(9) Richard Mabey, The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the Imagination, London: Profile Books Ltd., 2005, p. 235.

(10) Theresa Kelley, Clandestine Marriage; Botany & Romantic Culture, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012, p. 192.

(11) Ibid.

(12) The wove paper used in Plants was produced by English paper-maker James Whatman who was the key supplier of the East India Company and had developed a moisture-resistant drawing paper specifically for artists and to meet the demands of engravers. Laurence Chatel de Brandon, Carmontelle's Landscape Transparencies: Cinema of the Enlightenment, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008, p. 24.

(13) The official state tree of Tamil Nadu and valuable as a food source, with many other uses.

(14) For example, Charles Darwin held Roxburgh's work in high esteem, as illustrated in a 1839 letter Darwin wrote to his mentor and teacher J.S. Henslow (Charles Darwin's Letters: A Selection, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 73)

(15) Link to digitally accessible copy of Roxburgh's Plants: https://www. biodiversitylibrary.0rg/item/9711#page/1/ mode/1up.

Caption: 1. Caesalpinia sappan, from Plants of the Coast of Coromandel, artist unknown, 1795. Hand-coloured copperplate engraving; 47 x 33 cm.

Caption: 2. Borassus flabelliformis, from Plants of the Coast of Coromandel, artist unknown, 1795. Hand-coloured copperplate engraving; 47 x 33 cm.

Caption: 3. Amomum roseum, from Plants of the Coast of Coromandel, artist unknown, 1795. Hand-coloured copperplate engraving; 47 x 33 cm.

Caption: 4 Euryale ferox, from Plants of the Coast of Coromandel, artist unknown, 1795. Hand-coloured copperplate engraving; 47 x 33 cm.

Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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Author:Lambert, Meghan
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2018
Previous Article:The Buchanan-Hamilton Collection of Botanical Drawings at the Linnean Society of London.
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