Landscapes to colonise

The Artificial Empire
November 23, 2001

The artist William Hodges, who travelled to Antarctica, New Zealand and the South Pacific with Captain Cook, was also the first British landscape artist to visit India. His aquatints helped create the British image of Indian architecture in the late 18th century, but he has remained a curiously neglected figure as a result of the huge popularity of the artists Thomas and William Daniell, who followed him to India.

Giles Tillotson seeks to set the record straight by presenting Hodges's impressive oeuvre as draughtsman, painter and print-maker. His engaging book traces in rich and fascinating detail the Indian journey and pictorial record of Indian scenes made by Hodges.

But Tillotson feels that he also has the pressing task of intervening in the post-colonial debate on the "complicity" of creative artists in fashioning the British Raj. In his view, we would do injustice to Hodges and other British painters of the Indian scene if we view their works entirely in terms of Orientalist "discursive practices and ideological stance".

The argument is fully spelled out in chapter four, where Tillotson raises issues pertinent to cultural theory. Post-colonial theorists contend that cultural products were not mere reflections of colonial hegemony but that their authors participated in its production.

Tillotson agrees with them that close links between colonial landscape art and military expansion do exist, and he praises their analysis for being a welcome corrective to an exclusively formal aesthetic analysis. He accepts that Hodges did often cast an "imperial and controlling gaze" at India and Indians. This, combined with the artist's close association with the expansionist governor-general Warren Hastings, should qualify Hodges as an Orientalist.

Yet, as Tillotson argues, there is a noticeable disjunction between text and image in Hodges. He may represent forts and other scenes that complement his textual descriptions of military expeditions, but his treatment of Indian civil architecture has little to do with British expansionism. The refusal of post-colonial art historians to consider anything beyond the nexus between art and imperial control leads to an impoverished view of art, Tillotson says. He pleads for a more nuanced interpretation of the relationship between colonialism and British artists in India by engaging with the specific art-historical contexts of these works.

To view a complex figure such as Hodges, who was also part of the Picturesque movement in Britain, entirely in terms of Orientalist discourse allows only a partial insight into his art and personality. Tillotson urges the post-colonial art historian not to neglect the formal aspects of a work of art, or to value art simply for its relevance to something else.

While "picturesque" images of India, which drain the architecture and landscape of any meaning or function, may well have appealed to the colonial psyche, the reasons for this appeal are unrelated to the colonial project. Hodges and the Daniells certainly helped to shape British perception of the landscape of India, but they operated within a wider European aesthetic movement.

In line with these art-historical objectives, Tillotson provides a close reading of Hodges's theoretical writings, which he compares with those of his contemporaries who painted European subjects. He also compares and contrasts Hodges with other contemporary Indian and British artists working in India, so as to situate him more firmly within the prevailing artistic and intellectual climate of the period.

Attractively produced and elegantly illustrated, with some images in colour, The Artificial Empire is an important addition to art history books about India.

Partha Mitter is professor of art history, University of Sussex.

The Artificial Empire: The Indian Landscapes of William Hodges

Author - Giles Tillotson
ISBN - 0 7007 1282 8
Publisher - Curzon
Price - £45.00
Pages - 162

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