Grindlay’s Scenery

With 36 magnificent hand-coloured aquatint plates of views of India in the 1820s, this is one of the most attractive colour plate books on the country

Long before the first photographic cameras came to India in the middle of the 19th century, handcoloured aquatints were the most popular art form for depicting views of the country. William Hodges’ (1744-97) 48 aquatints, published in Select Views of India between 1784 and 1795 were the first work in this genre. After him came the uncle-nephew team of Thomas (174-1840) and William Daniell (1769-1837), whose Oriental Scenery, published in six parts between 1795 and 1808 and containing 144 views of Indian landscapes, monuments, temples and forts, was a stupendous work (See Terrascape, July 2011). A number of other artists like William Simpson (1823-99), author of India: Ancient and Modern (1867) and Charles D’Oyly (1781-1845), remembered for his Calcutta and its Environs (1848), followed their example but the one who attained the greatest popularity among them all is Robert Melville Grindlay (1786-1877). His Scenery, Costumes and Architecture Chiefly on the Western Side of India, published in six parts between 1826 and 1830 and in one combined edition in 1830, contains 36 hand-coloured aquatints and has been called 'next to Daniell, the most attractive colour plate book on India'.

Although 185 years have passed since the first part of Grindlay’s Scenery was published, the book is not all that rare to come by; rare in this context meaning a book of which a copy may come up for sale once in two or three years. This is because Scenery proved to be a very popular book when it first came out and remained in great demand for many years. Therefore, several editions of the book, occasionally misbound, kept appearing every few years during the next some decades. However, the pre-1830 six parts are difficult to obtain today in their original format. They are a real collectors’ gem. The single volume editions from different years differ, often considerably, in their colouring and thickness of the paper used for the engravings. Bindings differ too because those days such books were sold unbound so buyers could get them bound from binders of their choice in their favourite colours and leather with their own monograms. The quality, grace and provenance of the binding can make a huge difference in price. While a copy with an ordinary paper board binding may be acquired for Rs 4 to Rs 5 lakh, one with a classic decorative binding may fetch anywhere up to Rs 50 lakh as did a copy in a specially commissioned Cosway style binding at a recent sale in New York.

While the explanatory text of the book is entirely written by Grindlay, the aquatints are drawn by different people active in service in western India during those years. Grindlay’s own drawings number just 10 out of 36. Fifteen others are by ARAW Westall, who worked exhaustively on the cave temples of Elephanta and Karlee or Carlee, as spelt then, while two are taken from William Daniell. The engravings were mostly drawn by R G Reeve and T Fielding. Together with Lt. Col. James Tod’s (1782-1835) Annals and Travels in Western India and Alexander Kinloch Forbes’ (1821-1865) Ras Mala, Grindlay’s Scenery remains a standard collectable work on the western India of those days, though his work falls in a different category. The 36 hand-coloured aquatints are extremely evocative of the period when they were drawn. In well-maintained copies of the book, they look fresh, bright and enchanting even about 200 years since they were first drawn, engraved and coloured. The gaze is essentially of a westerner romanticising the exotic east. The hues are bright and the tinge very eastern but the overall effect most drawings leave in the mind is that of a scene involuntarily romanticised by an alien eye. Even the lissome figure of the shy, willowy and light limbed woman wrapped in a half sleeve green blouse and a pink sari, tied in the Marathi style, and standing in a tribhangi posture looks more of an English memsahib in an Indian dress than that of an Indian lass. Human figures apart, even the buildings, structures, hilltops and sea waves too, though deftly drawn and painstakingly coloured, can look rather alien to some Indian eyes. That apart, the landscapes are beautiful and very evocative. The hillscapes of the Western Ghats like the two Bore (bhore) Ghat ones seem to have been drawn in the early morning or late afternoon mist.

Grindlay, who came to Bombay in 1803 at the rather tender age of 17 to join the East Indian Company’s army, had the opportunity to travel fairly extensively, especially in and around Bombay. A year later, he was promoted to a lieutenant and some years later to captain a from which position he retired at half pay in 1820 when he was 34 years old. Few people who know Grindlay from his Scenery know that after his retirement he founded a company that eventually grew into the Grindlay’s Bank and in later years to ANZ Grindlays Bank, which then merged with the Standard and Chartered Bank. Grindlay lived for some years in London but later retired to Nice in France and died there at the age of 91.

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