The Role of the East India Company 1785-1858

Although “renowned for their interest in profits and dividends,” the Directors of the East India Company encouraged their servants to explore the field of natural history; Mildred Archer describes how British naturalists, when recording their researches, often employed a staff of gifted Indian artists.

Many servants of the East India Company, who visited India during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, took a keen interest in natural history. At home, this period had already produced a series of distinguished naturalists, who methodically collected specimens and recorded them with the help of sensitive and delicate drawings.

When some of these enthusiasts reached the East, they were fascinated by its brilliant birds, exotic flowers and fantastic animals, and at once set to work along the same lines. Lady Impey, for example, the wife of Sir Elijah Impey, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Calcutta from 1774-1783, employed three Indian artists to paint specimens. A number of these large drawings are now in the Linnaean Society Library.

The Marquis Wellesley, while Governor-General at Fort William from 1798 to 1805, made another great collection of nearly three thousand drawings. In his fine leather-bound volumes, now in the India Office Library, are illustrated not only the flowers and creatures that he himself observed on his tours, but specimens that had been sent to him by naturalists from all over India, and even from neighbouring countries. Less important servants of the Company formed similar collections, and spent time and money lavishly on preserving specimens and supervising drawings.

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