Elaborate take on an imperial vision

Bombay Gothic

November 21, 2003

The Afghan Memorial Church at Colaba, Bombay, was commenced in 1847 and consecrated in 1858. Though not an outstanding piece of architecture, it is significant as the first church erected in India along the lines suggested by the Ecclesiological Society, embodying the new principles of Gothic architecture advanced by Pugin. It pointed the way forwards to those high Victorian Gothic buildings that were to become the hallmark of the late Victorian Raj.

In 1862 Sir Henry Bartle Frere became Bombay's new governor and announced: "I look forward with the utmost confidence to the time when we shall hear that Bombay has taken her position among cities, owing as much to art as she does to nature and position." The first stage of the Bombay-Baroda-Central Indian railway reached Bombay in 1864 and the latent forces of commercial and economic prosperity that had been accumulating in Bombay for more than four decades were unleashed in a frenzy of activity.

Frere set about a civic improvement programme, seizing the opportunity to give Bombay a series of buildings worthy of her wealth, pre-eminence and location. As a result, Britain's finest heritage of high Victorian Gothic architecture lies in Bombay: an imperial vision, resembling a panoramic line of massive sculpture, inspiring and monolithic.

In a long-overdue book on the subject, of interest to architects, art historians and anyone interested in British/Indian history, Christopher London tells the story of architectural practice in Bombay from the second half of the 19th century. He describes the great Gothic buildings of Bombay as "more elaborate and awkward than the high Gothic structures of Britain" and richer in detail than their British counterparts "because of Indian craftsmen's preference for elaboration". In the author's view, "perhaps 'Bombay Gothic' is more extraordinary (than its European equivalents) for its adaptation to site, climate and materials drawn from the design sources of Europe".

The book traces a variety of Gothic styles, such as Venetian Gothic with its arcaded facades, French Gothic, visible in the sculptural scheme for windows, early English Gothic and true to nature, Muscular Gothic. Each building borrowed from the available precedents and later buildings also incorporated Indo-Saracenic elements.

Bombay Gothic is an eminently readable book and is divided into three chapters. London brings to his readers many interesting facts and little-known architectural landmarks, and also subtly raises the alarm (subtly) about the present state of many of these significant buildings.

The first chapter, titled "A modern style for Bombay", gives the background to the initiation of the new architectural style in Bombay, in the context of Frere's plans and ambitions and the patronage of rich Indian philanthropists - mainly Parsis - who contributed huge sums of money to support the construction of buildings such as the School of Art. It culminates with the story of Watson's Hotel, which was designed and manufactured by Rowland Mason and shipped to Bombay for assembly. Though now recognised as an "internationally significant breakthrough in design for novelty in engineering and very early use of building technologies", Watson's Hotel is today "unsympathetically cluttered with offices... and every possible space has been filled and subdivided".

Though lacking in architectural drawings, the second chapter, "High Gothic dream", describes some of the key buildings such as the Secretariat designed by General Henry St Clair Wilkins; the ornamental university buildings built with the patronage of Sir C. J. Readymoney and Premchand Roychand on designs by Sir George Gilbert Scott; the bulky high court by General John Augustus Fuller; the polychromatic Venetian Gothic PWD office, also by Wilkins; and the General Post Office, whose "harmony of proportion" continues to win high praise. Descriptions of the design process and the sources of inspiration are aided by fine, well-printed pictures.

The final chapter emphasises the work of the architect Fredrick William Stevens, "Bombay's most spectacular neo-Gothic practitioner", who designed the famous Victoria Terminus railway station, now on the tentative World Heritage List. Detailing the materials used, the ornamentation, the relationship of the building to the city and changes undertaken over time, the author brings the building alive. The last section uses examples of Stevens' buildings to illustrate the debate on the "battle of styles" that ultimately led to Indo-Saracenic elements overshadowing the Gothic in Bombay.

The main text ends with the realisation that "solutions to architectural problems in Bombay were creative", and a meaningful appendix documents the central events and the architectural styles of the 19th century through archival records. Happily, the book concludes with a tribute, in the form of detailed biographies, to the architects and artists who made Bombay Gothic possible.

Ratish Nanda is a conservation architect and author of Delhi: The Built Heritage . He is working on a conservation project in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Bombay Gothic

Author - Christopher W. London
Publisher - India Book House
Pages - 155
Price - £8.95
ISBN - 81 7508 329 8 publishing@ibhworld.com

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