Born in Cheshire in 1800, Bryan (or Brian) Houghton Hodgson studied at the East India Company’s Haileybury College from 1816 –17 before sailing to Calcutta to take up an administrative position with the Company. Unfortunately he suffered from ill-health and was transferred to Kumaon in the foothills of the western Himalayas to recover. In 1820, he was promoted to the position of Assistant Resident to the Court of Nepal but finding little to do in Kathmandu, he returned to the bustle of Calcutta. There he was again taken ill, and moved back to Kathmandu, becoming acting Resident and finally Resident of Nepal in 1829 and 1833 respectively. After 23 years of service in Nepal, Hodgson resigned in 1843. Following a short sojourn in England he returned to India in 1844 and lived in Darjeeling, a town close to the Nepalese border, until 1858 when he returned to England.
Hodgson’s role as Resident of Nepal was not a demanding one and so he had plenty of time and the financial resources to undertake a thorough study of the natural history of Nepal. He became fascinated with the culture of Nepal, Himalayan Buddhism, architecture, ethnography and linguistics. He is also considered responsible for the introduction of the Gurkhas into the British Indian Army.
Hodgson had a special interest in the birds and mammals of
Nepal and the surrounding Himalayan region. He discovered
many new species and wrote more than 140 scientific papers.
Hodgson’s zoological papers are particularly interesting
as he described the animals’ habits and habitat in great
detail. As he was unable to travel freely around Nepal he
relied heavily on the knowledge of local people to provide
him with these observations. He also kept a number of wild
animals in captivity. Hodgson made vast collections of specimens;
over 10,500 specimens were donated to the British Museum.
Hodgson commissioned thousands of drawings of birds and mammals from Nepalese artists. These artists were trained by Hodgson to paint in the style required for scientific illustration. The drawings accurately depict the natural colours and external anatomy required for scientific identification. Hodgson frequently dissected his specimens to show the skeletal and other anatomical features and encouraged artists to sketch these extra details on the drawings. He would also frequently add his own detailed comments on the side. Unusually, the names of some of Hodgson’s Nepalese artists are known. Rajman Singh was a Nepalese draughtsman who worked for Hodgson for many years. Some of his drawings were published in articles written by Hodgson in the Calcutta Journal of Natural History and Asiatic Researches . There is one signed bird painting by him in the collection. Another artist who worked for Hodgson was Tursmoney Chitterkar of Nepal, currently nothing is known about his life.
Hodgson intended to publish a lavish book on the mammals
and birds of Nepal illustrated with hand-coloured plates.
As part of this project he arranged for his collection of
drawings to be duplicated to produce a set suitable for reproduction.
Despite Hodgson’s strenuous efforts, the book was never
published. A deeply disappointed man, Hodgson disposed of
his drawings and specimens to several institutions in England
including the British Museum. In recognition of the size and
importance of Hodgson’s collections the Keeper of Zoology
at the British Museum, J. E. Gray published catalogues of
Hodgson’s collections in 1846 and 1863. The British
Museum was also the recipient of over 1,400 paintings of birds,
mammals, reptiles and fish. These were later transferred to
the Natural History Museum.
These drawings have not previously been displayed to the public.
Cocker, M. & Inskipp, C. (1988) A Himalayan ornithologist: The life and work of Brian Houghton Hodgson. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 89pp.
Hunter, W.W. (1896) Life of Brian Houghton Hodgson. John Murray: London. 390pp.
Gray, J.E. (1846) Catalogue of the specimens and drawings of Mammalia and birds of Nepal and Thibet presented by B.H. Hodgson Esq. To the British Museum. British Museum: London. 156pp.
Gray, J.E. (1863) Catalogue of the specimens and drawings of Mammalia and birds of Nepal and Tibet presented by B.H. Hodgson Esq. To the British Museum. 2nd ed. London. 90pp.
Waterhouse, D. (in press) The origins of Himalayan studies : Brian Houghton Hodgson in Nepal and Darjeeling. RoutledgeCurzon: London.