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Image for the news item 'Rare book of the week: Captain Robert Grindlay in India' on 15 Oct 2020
Captain Robert Melville Grindlay, Scenery, Costumes and Architecture Chiefly on the Western Side of India (1826-30). Top Row, left to right; Plate 1: ‘The Mountains of Aboo’; Plate 2: ‘Hermitage in Kurrungalle’; Plate 3: ‘Aurungabad’; Plate 4: ‘View of Sassour’; Middle Row, left to right; Plate 5: ‘Tomb of the Vizir’; Plate 6: ‘Bridge near Baroda’; Plate 7: ‘Excavated Temple at Ellora’; Bottom row, left to right; Plate 8: ‘Cave Temple of Elephanta’; Plate 9: ‘Temple of Indra Subba‘; Plate 10: ‘Immolation of a Hindoo Widow’.

Among a number of lavish hand-coloured books about India in Emmanuel’s Graham Watson Collection, one of the most striking is Scenery, Costumes and Architecture Chiefly on the Western Side of India (1826-30), with 36 coloured aquatints on thick paper, largely based on sketches by Captain Robert Melville Grindlay (1786-1877).

Grindlay, a self-taught amateur artist, went to India aged 17 in 1803, as a cadet in the army of the East India Company, in which he served until retirement on half-pay in 1820. During his time in the army he travelled widely in India, making many sketches of architecture, antiquities, scenery and customs. Back home in Britain, these sketches were the basis for a series of engravings by some significant contemporary engravers.

Indeed, Graham Watson believed they were among the very finest examples of the art of aquatint in his collection. The plates employ elaborate colouring and use especially deep contrasts; they are full of atmospheric effects, with soft mists and golden sunlight. As images of India they inevitably show Indian scenes and subjects with the Western aesthetic expectations that Grindlay’s audience had about picturesque representation of landscape and architectural space. As images of India they are now inevitably contested – along with most nineteenth-century British images of India – because of their colonialist bias. With the assumptions of his time, Grindlay is not self-conscious about expressing his disapprobation and superiority, though he undoubtedly considered himself an Indophile.

Grindlay’s picturesque approach to depicting Indian scenery is illustrated in various plates, as in ‘The Mountains of Aboo, in Guzerat’ [Plate 1]. This expansive view might have been composed for Western connoisseurs both of beautiful mountain scenery (‘This plate represents a Mountain-Torrent … dashing with impetuosity into a small lake’) and of picturesquely mouldering decay: ‘Most of these mountain shrines have escaped the desolating hand of bigotry and display only the slow influence of time under a benign climate, which has rather increased than impaired their beauty’.

The same eye for picturesque compositions of rocks and trees is at work in depicting the ‘Hermitage at Kurrungalle, in Ceylon’ [i.e. Sri Lanka; Plate 2], and, as the reader is informed: ‘The interior of Ceylon [is] in the highest degree picturesque and sublime’. Grindlay’s report on the effect of hearing the Buddhist ceremonies in these cave temples recalls those agreeable shudders enjoyed by picturesque travellers: ‘The united voices of at least one hundred men … made the cavern resound and had a fine awful effect, producing a thrill through the system, and a feeling and sentiment not to be described’.

The wonderfully picturesque composition in the plate ‘Aurungabad: From the Ruins of Aurungzebe’s Palace … From a drawing made on the spot by Captain Grindlay in 1813’ [Plate 3] looks out through an arch into a receding landscape bathed in golden light, where the cupola and minarets of the tomb of the Emperor Aurungzebe’s daughter provide an eye-catcher, centre right in the middle distance: ‘Most of the remains of former splendour have now fallen into decay,’ as Grindlay comments, and a lengthy accompanying text narrates the history of successive rulers and their rise and fall.

Grindlay’s depictions of major pieces of Indian architecture – temples, tombs and bridges – convey their magnificent scale, as in his ‘View of Sassour in the Deccan … From a sketch taken on the spot by Captain Grindlay’ [Plate 4].  From the temple, he notes, ‘flights of steps lead down from all directions to the water, the true characteristic of Hindoo scenery, for the purpose of the frequent ablutions prescribed by the ritual of that religion, and so grateful and beneficial in their climate’. Such waterside steps figure often in Grindlay’s pictures, augmenting a sense of scale, perspective and distance. Foregrounds and backgrounds are adroitly contrasted, as here with the intriguing crimson feature at bottom right, duly annotated by Grindlay: ‘The covered carriage in the foreground is … used by females of rank; it is drawn by two milk-white bullocks, which will trot from five to eight miles an hour’.

The depiction of the luminous domes of the ‘Tomb of the Vizir of Sultan Mahmood … Drawn on the spot by Captain Grindlay’ [Plate 5] prompts him to reflections on different attitudes between East and West: ‘From being places of public resort … the tombs of the illustrious dead in India … lose much of that gloomy and awful grandeur which attaches itself to buildings of the same description in our more northern regions’. Instead, ‘we find them frequently occupied by the gay and busy throng from the adjacent towns and villages’.

The ‘View of the Bridge near Baroda … from a drawing by Captain Grindlay in 1806’ [Plate 6] is accompanied by text admiring ‘this useful and handsome edifice’, the huge scale of which had been designed by its original engineers to cope with a river that flooded quickly and to very dramatic levels.

A number of plates based on his sketches register the impression made on Grindlay by the extraordinary cave temples at Ellora and at Elephanta. In the ‘Great excavated temple at Ellora … Drawn on the spot by Captain Grindlay 1813’ [Plate 7], the plate is ‘offered as a faithful portrait of a portion of the most splendid of the cave-temples … undoubtedly amongst the most wonderful monuments of human industry and art’. At the time there was much bemusement over the identity of the builders and many comparisons with Egyptian monuments. When Grindlay writes that ‘Some of the sculptural decorations, and the taste in the ornaments, would do credit to the best period of the Grecian school,’ he makes a comparison that, in his culture, was the highest compliment. But his praise is soon spoiled by another cultural comparison:  ‘The design and magnitude of the work indicate a fertility of invention, and ability, energy, and perseverance in the erection, incompatible with the apathy and indolence of the present Hindoos’.

In his ‘Interior of the Cave Temple of Indra Subba at Ellora … From a drawing made on the spot’ [Plate 8], Grindlay also enthuses that ‘Of all the wonderful excavations at Ellora, this is perhaps the most remarkable for its elaborate sculpture and profusion of ornament … There is a redundance of figures in this fine cave …and leaves one at a loss whether most to admire the minuteness of parts or the beauty of the whole’. In ‘The Great Triad in the Cave Temple of Elephanta near Bombay … Drawn on the spot in 1803 by W. Westall’ [Plate 9], there is a powerful depiction of the gigantic sculpture of some three-headed being – nearly eighteen feet high – in the cave temple at Elephanta,  which was an object of fascination to visitors and was taken to represent the Hindu Trinity or ‘Trimurti’ of gods whom Grindlay calls ‘Bramha, Vishnu, and Shiva’.

Some plates also record customs, and ‘Immolation of a Hindoo Widow at Baroda, in Guzerat’ [Plate 10] represents the Hindu practice of a widow’s committing suicide in the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre, an object of fascinated horror to nineteenth-century British observers of India, as Grindlay’s comment suggests: ‘Of all the rites prescribed by the Hindoo religion, or encouraged by the corruption of its principles and institutions, that of the voluntary immolation of the widow upon the funeral pile [sic] of her husband is the most revolting to the feelings of human nature’. After a lengthy anecdotal history of the custom, Grindlay concludes with hopes for ‘the gradual abolition of the practice in the districts immediately under the jurisdiction of the East India Company’.  It is striking that the plate is – in keeping with Grindlay’s whole oeuvre – a very elegant, orderly and tidy architectural composition, within which even crowds and horrific incidents are subordinated.

Back in London after his Indian adventure, Grindlay set up an agency, located near the East India Company’s headquarters, which helped secure travel arrangements to India and back, taking care of booking voyages and shipping luggage. The business grew to include banking operations, insurance and encashment of cheques. By Grindlay’s retirement in 1852 the firm was well on the way to being bankers to the business community and the army in India. Grindlay’s Bank eventually grew to have branches and business across the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. In 2000, after many mergers and changes of name, ANZ Grindlays was acquired for $1.3 billion by Standard Chartered and, after well over one hundred and fifty years, Robert Grindlay’s name finally disappeared.

Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)

Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)

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