British Library Summer Seminar

British Library Summer Seminar

Asian and African Studies Print Room

Wednesday 23rd July

The ETIC summer reading group seminar was hosted by the British Library in the Asian and African Print Room. Dr Catherine Eagleton (Head of Asian and African Studies) and John Falconer (Lead Curator Visual Arts) introduced the group to a selection of materials from the India Office Collection. The British Library’s collection is a vast resource which can be accessed through the India Office online catalogue. The archive covers prints, drawings and photographs from the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections. Private papers are searchable through Archives and Manuscripts.

Falconer led the group through a number of items, providing a multifaceted view of colonial Calcutta. The range of material focused heavily on the British achievement in the South of the city, provided insight into a European envisioning of the city. Henry Salt’s ‘Calcutta: view taken from the house of Thomas Graham in Chowringhee with Fort William and the Hooghly in the background’, 1803, a pen and ink and wash on proof engraving, a preparatory piece for plate 3 in his ‘Twenty Four Views in St. Helena, the Cape, India, Ceylon, the Red Sea, Abyssinia and Egypt’, published by William Miller, 1809. Made during his employment as draughtsman for George Annesley, Viscount Valentina on a tour of the east, the view focuses on the ‘village of palaces…the finest view I ever beheld in any city’ as described by the Viscount.

A series of photographic prints made by Frederick Fiebig, an elusive German artist provided picturesque details of the city. Made in 1851, the selection of the collections’ 250 images relating to Calcutta were shown and commented on as valuable early photographic documents of the city. The hand-coloured, salted paper prints on display were sold by Fiebig to the East India Company on his return to England in 1856 along with images of Madras, Ceylon, Mauritius and Cape Town.

All of these photographs are digitalised and available to view through the British Library Online Gallery.

Frederick Fiebig Grain bazaar on the Chitpore Road, Calcutta, ca. 1850.

The prolific prints of Bourne and Shepherd, contained in various albums in the collection, presented a highly manipulated view, the images professed a certain silence afforded by the cleared landscapes. These staged images from The Elgin Collection, many featuring a woman deemed to be Bourne’s wife, were a vast commercial success. Bourne’s reputation had and retains its international scope. Along S.N Banerjee Road in the Esplanade area, Bourne and Shepherd, recognised by this name after 1866, remains a part of contemporary Calcutta continuing business as a photo studio.

Alongside these albumen prints, Falconer spoke about a more unusual bound album. Unable to ascertain its author, from the content of photographs; elevation shots of generic buildings in the city, it was a presumed commissioned for a local architectural firm. The album contained a rare European capturing of a building from the North district of Calcutta; Jorasanko Thakur Bari. The group discussed the representational anecdote this provided in respect of the Palladian villas and monumentalism captured by the Bourne and Shepherd.

Through visual representation the seminar emphasised the importance of Calcutta as a site for cross-cultural encounter. The items shown provided visualisation of the broad spectrum of engagement that the city has historically facilitated. The group discussed the representational trends which emerged from the collection and codified the city to imperial populations.

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