William Hodges (1744-1797) was one of the pioneers of European-style landscape painting in India. Having begun his artistic career under the tutelage of Richard Wilson, the predominant British landscape painter of the eighteenth century, he went on to accompany Captain James Cook on his celebrated expedition to the Pacific Islands (1772-1775), where he found ample opportunity to hone his skills by depicting the plethora of unfamiliar flora, fauna, and natural phenomena he encountered. His lush, evocative paintings of this ‘exotic’ landscape, often featuring also the indigenous inhabitants of the islands, anticipate his later artistic engagement with India, both thematically and stylistically.
It was after his return from the Pacific Islands that Hodges sought permission from the East India Company to visit its Indian territories. Evidently, his artistic proclivities involved the depiction of ‘exotic’, faraway locales, which most of his British audience had never set eyes upon. Accordingly, he landed in Calcutta in 1778, at a time when the East India Company was just beginning to explore and document the vast swathes of land which it had acquired control over. Warren Hastings, who was then the governor-general of British India, had recently embarked on a mission to amass as much information as possible about the religions, languages, cultural and architectural traditions, and natural features of India – a project which made him patronize a remarkable group of scholars, including the renowned Indologist Sir William Jones, who devoted themselves to excavating the ‘mysteries’ of this new country. The Asiatic Society, with its avowed aim of learning about “whatever is performed by man or produced by nature” within the geographical limits of Asia (but with particular emphasis on India), had also been established in 1784; and it provided British savants the opportunity to share their discoveries with each other. Hodges, thus, reached Calcutta at an opportune moment indeed. He joined this scholarly circle by dint of his ability to visually document everything which might be of political/ intellectual interest to Hastings’ administration, including the architecture and flora and fauna of India. Being one of the earliest professionally trained British artists to reach Bengal, Hodges had a virtually uncharted territory in front of him, and he immediately set himself the task of touring northern India (with ample assistance provided by Hastings) and sketching both its built and the natural heritage.
What made Hodges’ paintings so valuable was their apparently ‘objective’, accurate representation of a country which most Britons had only read about, but never seen. He repeatedly claimed to be providing his audience authentic images of India, images which faithfully depicted what India was really like. His paintings, thus, supposedly had not only aesthetic but also political value. Yet, just like all painters working within a well-defined artistic tradition, Hodges too relied on a range of conventions which he had mastered during his apprenticeship to Richard Wilson; and these conventions dictated how he framed and delineated the scenes he saw in front of him. Contrary to his oft-repeated claims, he was not simply painting scenes of Indian life as he saw them; he carefully selected his scenes, omitted elements which would have made his paintings aesthetically less pleasing, and often took artistic liberties while depicting buildings and scenery. Most importantly, he created, through the use of specific shades and the repeated depiction of empty, desolate spaces and dilapidated structures, an overall impression of India as a wilderness dotted with crumbling ruins. In doing this, he was actually following the tenets of ‘picturesque’ painting as developed, among others, by his erstwhile mentor.
The ‘picturesque’ might best be described as a fascination with wild, irregular, often gloomy landscapes which characterized the works of several European artists from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. Picturesque art essentially involved the depiction of landscapes which were not just hauntingly beautiful but also uninhabited and desolate, and which evoked feelings of melancholy. Rejecting the neat, orderly, and symmetrically arranged gardens and vistas which Neoclassical artists preferred, the painters of picturesque landscape aimed at incorporating into their paintings irregular and, in some cases, even awe-inducing elements (such as jagged crags, ruined cathedrals, or colossal mountains). To use two terms frequently employed by contemporary theorists of the aesthetic, such vistas were halfway between ‘the sublime’ (imposing, vast scenes which induced terror and awe) and ‘the beautiful’ (pretty, neatly organized scenes which induced delight); they made viewers feel spiritually uplifted. Hodges, having been trained in the picturesque tradition, made use of its visual idioms while capturing Indian scenes on his canvas, and the result of exporting this primarily European artistic mode to the colonies was that India, too, was represented as a vast, sparsely inhabited wilderness, with ancient ruins often being the only visible edifices in the landscape. This, arguably, did result in the creation of a distorted image of India – a country infinitely more populated and bustling than the quiet, melancholy haunts usually painted by European picturesque artists.
Hodges’ successors, Thomas and William Daniell, in fact, were quick to point out his inaccuracies. They arrived in India after Hodges’ phenomenal success with landscape art, at a time when British readers were craving more images of India’s ruined splendour and untamed wilderness. While following roughly the same route taken by Hodges (sailing upstream from Bengal, and travelling along the Ganges into northern India) and even using a recognizably picturesque idiom, they claimed to be rectifying many of the errors which were to be found in Hodges’ paintings and his accompanying travel account. The irony, however, is that they were addressing themselves to readers back home, who had simply no way of verifying whether Hodges was less accurate than the Daniells; it is even probable that those readers would not have cared, as long as the paintings evoked the sense of an ‘undiscovered’, ‘exotic’ land. All these painters, in fact, were trying to make the landscape look a certain way, employing techniques which we are only too familiar with, in this age of landscape photography – using tints (‘filters’ in our case) which created a specific mood, ‘cropping out’ local inhabitants so as to create a sense of vast emptiness, and so on. What strikes us is that such endeavours were taking place half a century before the camera was even invented; the canvas, evidently, was an equally capable instrument of visual manipulation.