Colour of India

Colour of India

Saturday, July 30, 2011



Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.  -Pablo Picasso

Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.  ~Leonardo da Vinci

Painting is silent poetry.  ~Plutarch, Moralia: How to Study Poetry

The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.  ~William Faulkner

Art is the stored honey of the human soul, gathered on wings of misery and travail.  ~Theodore Dreiser, Life, Art, and America, 1917

William Hodges (1744- 97)

Most of the English painters and artists who came to India in the second half of the 18th Century and the first half of the 19th Century were all amateurs. Quite unlike all of them, William Hodges (1744- 97) was a professional painter and a member of the Royal Academy.


He came to India in 1780 and stayed on for 3 years till 1783. Even though his stay in India was only for three years, he showed a great understanding of India and her people.


William Hodges, was born in London in 1744. He managed to gain some instruction in drawing whilst working as an errand boy in SHIPLEY'S DRAWING SCHOOL, and it was here that William Hodges first attracted the attention of the famous Welsh landscape painter Richard Wilson (1714-1782)

RICHARD WILSON (1714-1782)
First mentor of William  Hodges

Richard Wilson (1714 –1782) was a Welsh landscape painter, and one of the founder members of the Royal Academy in 1768. Wilson has been described as '...the most distinguished painter Wales has ever produced and the first to appreciate the aesthetic possibilities of his country. Wilson is considered to be the father of landscape painting in Britain. Wilson’s landscapes influenced the works of Constable and Turner. Wilson was himself influenced by the French classicists such as Claude Lorrain.

Richard Wilson took William Hodges to be his assistant and pupil, and during the three years that he studied under him (about 1763/1766) he made rapid progress. By 1772 his style was so close to his master's that it was very difficult to distinguish between the two and, in fact, Hodges probably became the most accomplished painter of fake Wilsons.

On leaving Wilson in 1766 he resided in London, and also for a time at Derby, where he painted some scenes for the theatre. Also this year he exhibited at the Society of Artists a view of London Bridge and another of Speldhurst, Kent, followed in 1768 with two views in Wales and other views in 1770 and 1771. In 1772 he submitted some views on the Rhine and Switzerland. However, not meeting with much success in London, when the opportunity arose that same year to join Captain Cook's second expedition to the South Seas, which was to dispel the existence of Dalrymple's Southern continent once and for all, he gladly accepted. Upon his return in 1775, he was employed by the Admiralty in finishing his drawings and superintending the engraving of them (by Woollett and others) for the published account of the voyage. Some of his paintings of the voyage are still exhibited at the National Maritime Museum for the enjoyment of the general public.

William Hodgese’s first exhibition at the Royal Academy was in 1776 when he submitted a view in Otaheite, followed over the next two years of some views of New Zealand and elsewhere.

I have already referred to the internship of William Hodges with the landscape Painter Richard Wilson from 1758 to 1763. Later he also attended the drawing and sculpture classes of G B Cipriani and Joseph Wilton at the Duke of Richmond's sculpture gallery. Duke of Richmond was a great art collector and he played a very important role as a patron of William Hodges and his paintings.

Duke of Richmond

In 1772, probably recommended by a member of the Admiralty Board, Hodges sailed to the Pacific and Antarctic on the Resolution as landscape artist on Captain Cook's second expedition to Australia and New Zealand. Hodges's taste for sublime light effects and the ethereal atmosphere of the unknown and untamed edges of civilization were put to particularly successful use in his 'View of the Cape of Good Hope', and the pair of 'Monuments on Easter Island' and 'View in the Province of Oparee, Tahiti'.


In 1779 he sailed for India, where he travelled and painted extensively. He returned to England in 1783 and began to exhibit Indian subjects, as well as publish 44 prints of 'Select Views in India' (1785- 88) and an interesting memoir of his travels there in 1793. His 'Travels in India, during the years 1780, 1781, 1782 and 1783', published in 1793, grew out of the trip he made to India as a professional artist under the patronage of Warren Hastings, who was then Governor General of India. Rather like a modern photographer, Hodges came to do a 'Series' on India and a number of his drawings were included in the book on his travels published in 1793. A French translation of the journal relating to his travels in India was published in Paris in 1805.


Happily for all of us in Chennai, William Hodges first encounter with India was the approach to Madras from the Bay of Bengal in 1780, and the pleasing impression was vividly brought out by Hodges in his memoirs. William Hodges recorded in his journal his impression of the approach from the sea to Fort St George in the following words:
'The clear, blue, cloudless sky, the polished white buildings, the bright sandy beach, and the dark green sea, present a combination totally new to the eye of an Englishman, just arrived from London, who, accustomed to the sight of rolling masses of clouds floating in a damp atmosphere, cannot but contemplate the difference with delight: and the eye being thus gratified, the mind soon assumes a gay and tranquil habit, analogous to the pleasing objects with which it is surrounded'.

The English Settlement rising from within Fort St George, presented 'a rich and beautiful appearance; the chunam-covered handsome houses shone like marble, and their flat roofs, open porticoes, and long colonnades made him think that perhaps this was what a Grecian City in the Age of Alexander looked like'. For Hodges, it was an exhilarating experience.

He described the people of Madras as he saw them soon after his landing in 1780 in highly original phrases. It was an encounter in which a European felt 'the great distinction between Asia and his own country'. There were 'long muslin dresses', 'black faces adorned with very large gold ear-rings and white turbans', the 'rustling of fine linen, and the general hum of usual conversation' momentarily suggesting 'an assembly of females', strange modes of salutation, 'delicately framed men with feminine hands and with manners mild, tranquil, and sedulously attentive'.

A painting by William Hodges depicting
the procession of a Hindu woman to
the funeral pyre of her husband
near Madras in 1780.

Let us hear again the words of William Hodges on the Madras of 1780: Some 'were wholly naked, others so swathed that only the face and the neck could be seen'. There were women carried in palanquins on men's shoulders and men riding on horse back, 'clothed in linen dresses like women: circumstances which, together with the novelty of the face of the country, excited the strongest emotions of surprise. Nature, architecture, the outward signs of a new life-style appropriate to the climate, all contributed to the enrichment of the newcomer's mind'.

Outside the fortified area of Madras, Hodges was greatly delighted by 'the spacious and magnificent country houses on Choultry plain as they appeared in the cool of the evening at the end of a very hot day'. He captured the radiant nocturnal beauty of the tropical environment:
'The moon shone in its fullest lustre, not a cloud overcast the sky, and every house on the plain was illuminated. Each family, with their friends, were in the open porticoes, enjoying the breeze. Such a scene appears more like a tale of enchantment than a reality, to the imagination of a stranger just arrived from London'.    

Hodges was a direct witness of political events of great importance in Madras in 1780. On 18th July 1780, he saw, with a great tinge of sorrow, 'refugees streaming from villages in Chengalpet district into Madras, fleeing the men and guns of Hyder Ali as they swooped on the plains of the Carnatic '. It was estimated by him that about 2,00,000 refugees sought shelter in the Madras Black town within 3 days. Hodges saw the multitude, bearing on their shoulders the small remains of their little property, mothers with infants at their breasts, fathers leading their horses burdened with their young families, others sitting on the miserable remains of their fortunes on a hackery, and dragged through the dust by weary bullocks.

Unfortunately, Hodges' plans to explore South India in a more intensive and extensive manner were wrecked by the Second Anglo-Mysore War. Hodges left Madras in a hurry and went to Calcutta. He later visited different parts of Bengal and Bihar. Just as he had given a graphic description of the common people in Madras, he also gave a fascinating description of the people in Calcutta City.

According to him, in the European part of Calcutta the streets were broad, the houses large and detached with flights of steps and great projecting porticoes which reminded him of 'Greek Temples'.

View of Calcutta from Garden House Reach, 1781-3
Manchester City Art Gallery


The street scenes of Calcutta, with the curious mixture of European and Asiatic manners, passing Hindu ceremonies and a variety of Fakirs, formed 'a sight perhaps more novel and extraordinary than any city in the world can present to a stranger'. As he travelled through rural Bengal and Bihar, he was fascinated by the roadside scenes. He went by boat on the Ganges river in the company of Warren Hastings from Calcutta to Rajmahal and he encountered 'a series of scenery perfectly new on the Ganga-Scape'.


He referred to the Ganges River as 'this immense current of water, more ocean than river, where the largest boats appeared in midstream as mere points. Ganges makes the rivers seen in Europe like Rhine, appear as rivulets in comparison'. It is not surprising that in tune with his surroundings in Bihar, he could not think of a more pleasant amusement than sailing down the Ganges in the warm season with the beautiful river breeze, so tempered as to feel delightfully refreshing, particularly after sunset. All nature appeared in utmost luxuriance to his sharp and imaginative eyes.

William Hodges, View of part of the City of Benares on the River Ganges, in the East Indies, ca. 1781

Hodges was deeply impressed by the decorous and civilized public behaviour of the Hindu masses and their courtesy to foreigners:
'The simplicity and the perfectly modest character of the Hindu women, cannot but arrest the attention of a stranger. With downcast eye, and equal step, they proceed along, and scarcely turn to the right or to the left to observe a foreigner as he passes, however new or singular his appearance. The men are no less remarkable for their hospitality, and are constantly attentive to accommodate the traveller in his wants. I never met with imposition or delay in any part of India I visited, but always experienced an uncommon readiness to oblige, and that accompanied with manners the most simple and accommodating'.

In perfect opposition to the manners of the Hindus was the Musalman character: ‘haughty, not to say insolent, irritable and ferocious'.

Fatehpur Sikri, October 1785

Hodges was deeply moved by the mutability of human fortunes and artifacts in India. He was a great admirer of the political achievements of the Mughals, especially of Akbar. Hodges was very proud that the British had inherited “an Empire which he felt to be the greatest and the richest empire, perhaps, of which human annals can produce an instance, and which was adorned by many really great characters in politics and in arms.”
Ayodhya, in 1783
Courtesy British Library :
This painting is from William Hodges' book 'Select Views of India'. Hodges visited the ancient city of Ayodhya, then known as Oudh, at the end of 1783. This view shows the Lakshmana Ghat on the banks of the Ghaghara ( Sarayu) river. The mosque at the top of the hill is the Babri Masjid, constructed by Babur, the first Mughal king of India, who ruled between 1526 and 1530.

William Hodges was in India from 1780 to 1783. Returning to England in 1784, he settled down in Queen Street, Mayfair, where he built himself a studio and exhibited his views in India.

In 1786 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and the following year became a full member, continuing to exhibit at the Royal Academy until 1794. He made a tour of the Continent in 1790, collected some sketches on the Rhine and also visited St. Petersburg. However, his best productions are the views he brought from India and a view of Windsor from the Great Park. In 1793 Hodges published an account of his "TRAVELS IN INDIA" with plates from his drawings, and this was later translated into French.

In the last few years of his life, a collection of 25 of his paintings were exhibited in Bond Street, which did not receive adequate public support and on its close he retired from his profession. Many of his works were then sold by auction but produced only an inconsiderable sum. The last few years of his life were plagued by financial worries, disappointments and sorrow. He died shortly afterwards at Brixham, Devon, on the 6th March, 1797.
This bridge was on the road from Madras to St Thomas Mount

Handmade oil painting reproduction of View of an Indian Village with a Man Seated in the Foreground,by William Hodges

Art is a creative effort of which the wellsprings lie in the spirit, and which brings us at once the most intimate self of the artist and the secret concurrences which he has perceived in things by means of a vision or intuition all his own, and not to be expressed in ideas and in words-expressible only in the works of art. Perhaps that is why John Ruskin (1819-1901) in his great work ‘Modern Painters’ (1843-1860) Volume III wrote as follows: “Great Art is precisely that which never was, nor will be taught, t is pre-eminently and finally the expression of the spirits of great men”. This is the kind of emotion that I get when I look at the immortal paintings of William Hodges. In his art, there are tears that do often lie too deep for thoughts.

Marcel Proust (1871-1922) in his immortal work Remembrance of Things Past: The Past Recaptured (1913-1927) paid this tribute to art: “Thanks to Art, instead of seeing one world, our own, we see it multiplied and as many original artists as there are, so many worlds are at our disposal.

The true artist recognizes, however dimly, the existence within us of a double world of thought, and his object is, by subtle forms, tones, colours, words, allusions, associations, to establish a connection with the unconscious sphere of the mind, and to make us feel a mysterious upsurge of energy there in the hidden soul.

Colour without light is no colour, and the colour is not the light. Experience without meaning is no exoerience, and the experience is not the meaning. When the experience comes into the meaning, you are no longer”the experiencer”, you are not the shifting subject of experience, you are at the starting point.

Simplicity is not the denial of the complex, but its meaning. Unity is not the denial of multiplicity but its meaning. It looks as though we shall have to discard the language of denial, in our attempt to articulate the starting point. For ‘not-this’ implies, by a necessity of language that this’ come first. Can we think of a denial that does not bear on anything but that bears all things, carries them in the womb of being? Perhaps we can’t, but that is where we start.

May I conclude by interpreting, in the sense of the forgoing, some lines of T.S.Elliot?

We had the experience, but missed the meaning
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness

When you are there, when experience has been transfigured with meaning, you who experienced are no more. THERE IS HAPPINESS WITHOUT ANYONE TO BE HAPPY. Yet to live there is to be happy beyond any conception of happiness. Such emotions rush to our minds, hearts and souls and take us to a state of inexplicable ecstasy when we see the paintings of WILLIAM HODGES. That is why Swami Vivekananda, addressing the ‘Parliament of Religions’ in 1893 said: True human feelings, passions and emotions are4 indeed the gastric juices of the soul”.

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