Emily Eden

"A Student from Hindu College"

“A Student from Hindu College”, watercolour, Emily Eden.

"Portrait of Raja Heera Singh"

Portrait of Raja Heera Singh, an influential member of Ranjit Singh’s court, watercolour, Emily Eden. Three faint, partially sketched and uncoloured figures are visible in the background, but they only serve to further direct our attention to the brightly painted and imperious raja at the centre.

"Baboon for Sale"

“A Native of Madras Bringing a Baboon for Sale, Barrackpore”, watercolour, Emily Eden

"William Osborne on Board"

“William Osborne on Board”, watercolour, Emily Eden. While portraits of British dignitaries attended by a host of native servants were fairly common from the late eighteenth century onwards, Eden here chooses to prepare what would today be called a ‘candid’ picture. As the sahib smokes away at his hookah nonchalantly, the Indian servants fan him with a punkha and attend to the coals.

"Travelling Musicians or Experienced Thieves"

“Travelling Musicians, Supposed to be Experienced Thieves”, watercolour, Emily Eden.


“Akalees”, watercolour, Emily Eden. The Akalees, Eden goes on to explain, are “Sikh religious devotees, whose chief weapons are sharp” and who are “very wild in appearance, and turbulent characters.” Eden would have encountered them during her travels through the Punjab countryside.

Emily Eden (1797–1869) was one of the most garrulous and keenly observant memsahibs to have written about India in the first half of the nineteenth century. Born in 1797 in Westminster to an affluent and politically well-connected family, Eden spent her youth among the literary circles of London, interacting with and reading the works of several contemporary writers. It was only in 1835 that she embarked on a voyage for India, after her brother, George Eden, the 1st Earl of Auckland, was appointed the Governor-General of the British territories. She reached Calcutta, along with her brother and her sister, Fanny; and right from the beginning of her stay, she wrote detailed and charmingly witty letters to her acquaintances back home, usually complaining of such great inconveniences as the oppressive heat of Bengal and the drudgery of having to spend days together in the company of the ‘dull’ British residents there.

Some of her most informative and, indeed, innovative works, however, are from a slightly later period, when she finally escaped the monotony of Calcutta life and embarked on a two-and-a-half-year long journey through the plains of northern India. This immensely ambitious tour was not undertaken merely for pleasure. Her brother had resolved that travelling through the territories of the native rulers with an awe-inspiring, impossibly extravagant entourage would be the best means of convincing them of the might and grandeur of the British empire. Accordingly, the Edens set off with a vast cavalcade, comprising more than ten thousand people and stretching ten miles, which included not just retainers, officers, and servants, but also camels, horses, and sundry other animals – the retinue, decorated as extravagantly as possible, would have been a spectacle indeed. During this journey, Eden maintained a regular journal and prepared innumerable sketches of the various interesting ‘kinds’ of Indians she encountered, and her subjects ranged from such ‘exotic’ natives as the man who made monkeys dance to the mighty ruler of Punjab, Ranjit Singh himself. The overall impression one gets from her vibrantly coloured, painstakingly detailed sketches is that of a colourful, indeed unabashedly exotic, country, full of people practicing quaint professions and maharajahs leading opulent lives.

The kind of gaze Emily directs at her subjects, however, is patently imperialistic – hardly surprising considering the political position she occupied and the standpoint from which she sketched and wrote. Her subjects would have appeared her to her predominantly metropolitan audience as quaint relics of a world altogether unfamiliar, where nothing ever seemed to change, and medieval customs, rituals, and professions survived well into the age of steamships and the telegraph. Significantly, most of her sketches focus almost exclusively on the ‘exotic’ native figure in the foreground, with the background either very perfunctorily sketched or completely blank. The colourful costumes worn by the natives, the various equipment carried by them, the unusual vocations they are engaged in, and the animals often accompanying them – these are the things which occupied her entire attention while she prepared her sketches. The figures, thus, stare out at us from an almost blank background, since no attempt it made to situate them in a particular locale or to highlight anything beyond their seemingly captivating exterior.

The Edens, however, did not stay in India for long. They left in 1842, in the aftermath of the disastrous rout faced by the British army during their invasion of Afghanistan, in which George Eden had played a significant role. George’s reputation was badly tarnished by the Afghan disaster, and Emily’s writings often provide valuable insight into the political climate of this period. Yet, in a way, Emily was probably glad to finally be able to escape from India, since, despite her vibrant, snapshot-like images of the varied inhabitants of the country, she never particularly liked staying here, and found the inconveniences of staying away from Britain too severe to be overcome. Besides, she regarded Indians in general with something akin to disdain, since they seemed to her irredeemably primitive. It is actually her frankness that makes her acknowledge to an acquaintance back in England that “I cannot abide India, and that is the truth.” Her sketches, however, remain vital artistic and historical documents for us, not least because they provide a glimpse into the kind of things a Victorian memsahib would have found worth sketching while journeying along the hinterlands of the empire.

"The Jewels of Ranjit Singh"

“The Jewels of Ranjit Singh”, watercolour, Emily Eden. Some of the jewels, like the ruby, bear Persian inscriptions, signifying that they had been acquired from earlier rulers. Eden had the opportunity to closely observe the raja’s fabled jewels during her stay in his palace, and was evidently fascinated. Ranjit Singh’s most famous gem was, of course, the Koh-i-noor, which remained with the Punjab royal family only for a few more years; once the British subjugated them in the 1840s, the gem was officially gifted to Queen Victoria, and became part of her crown jewels.

"Elephant of the Raja of Patiala"

“Elephant of the Raja of Patiala”, watercolour, Emily Eden.

"Boys Dressed as Nautch Girls"

“Boys Dressed as Nautch Girls”, watercolour, Emily Eden. The focus of this sketch is evidently the seemingly ‘deviant’ gender performance of the dancing boys, whose attires, ‘feminine’ gestures, and long hair are all deliberately highlighted. While India abounded in artistic traditions where young boys dressed up as or played the part of women, the prim and decorous Eden would surely have found it a novelty, and a far cry from the rigidly codified gender roles prevalent in Victorian Britain.

"Dancing Bears at Roptach, 1839"

“Dancing Bears at Roptach, 1839”, watercolour, Emily Eden.

"Lepchas from Darjeeling"

“Lepchas from Darjeeling”, watercolour. Eden prepared several sketches of Lepchas, Tibetans, and other ‘unfamiliar’ ethnic groups she encountered during her travels. The visual grammar of such sketches – involving a bleak and empty background, and a sharp focus on the subjects and their attires and professional accoutrements – would become incredibly popular with the advent of the camera. Some of the earliest colonial photographs clicked in India feature such ‘exotic’ subjects, like courtesans and dancers.