Art of India: Empire and the natural world  

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The success of the British East India Company played a central role in enabling Britain’s colonial rule of India, which began in 1858.

Discover why understanding India’s rich natural history was so important to the company, and how the Natural History Museum’s India collection reflects this.

Garden or field well, watercolour from 1825-1830 in the William Sykes collection

Field well used for irrigation, watercolour, 1825-1830. East India Company officer William Sykes documented agricultural practices he encountered during a 7-year survey of the Deccan region of southern India and compared their effectiveness with European methods.

Managing nature for profit

A key aim of the East India Company was to work out how best to exploit India’s natural products. Finding new plants for trading was crucial.

The company also had to feed and support an enormous army and civil service as it expanded its commercial operations and administrative power across India throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

To do this, and to manage and profit from India’s vast territory, the corporation needed to learn about the local plants, animals, agricultural practices and forestry.

Illustrating India's wildlife

Nightshade, Solanum virginianum, watercolour, 1848

Nightshade, Solanum virginianum, watercolour, 1848. Most parts of this plant have medicinal uses.

Documenting India's wildlife was an essential part of learning about its natural world.

East India Company employees, such as Brian Houghton Hodgson and William Roxburgh, commissioned artists to record India’s wildlife in paintings and drawings, both as part of their work and to pursue their own natural history interests.

The artists were instructed to follow the conventions of scientific illustration, capturing features important for identification as realistically as possible. Many were Indian artists who had to adapt to using a very different style than the traditional Mughal miniaturist style they had been trained in.

Since an accurate depiction of a species could be the key to identifying and classifying it, talented artists were invaluable. 

Botanical bounty

Orchid, Dendrobium species, watercolour, 1848

Orchid, Dendrobium species, watercolour, 1848. Saharunpor gardens sent seeds and plants to Europe. Orchids were highly sought after.

With the support of British politicians and influential scientists such as Joseph Banks, the East India Company set up botanical gardens. Here, it conducted scientific experiments that helped assess the economic potential of various plants.

The first garden opened in 1787 in Calcutta. In 1817 the company took over Saharunpor gardens (now written Saharanpur), one of the oldest gardens in India.

Plants used for medicinal purposes, food crops, plants for dyes and other commercial species were identified and grown, and then transported and sold around the world. The gardens were also used to acclimatise plants newly introduced to India.

Experiments in cultivation at Saharunpor and Calcutta botanical gardens turned plants such as tea and cotton into global resources that helped make the company rich.

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