Thomas Daniell: The Painter of Landscapes

Thomas Daniell (1749-1840) began as a painter of coaches in a workshop. Yet, deep down inside, he dreamt of being a great landscape artist. After a couple of years of coach painting, he got a chance to study at the Royal Academy of Arts. After graduating, he produced a number of landscapes during 1772-84; but these brought him neither glory nor wealth. Ultimately, he decided to seek his fortune in India.

That was a smart life-changing decision, for, India was the “happening” place in those days. The British East India Company was no longer a mere trader; it actually ruled vast Indian territories, bringing humongous wealth to England. By now, interest around “exotic” India had peaked. This was the pre-photography era, hence British artists toured India and brought back images to satisfy this curiosity. They were usually portrait painters: they captured images, but not the public imagination. This was Thomas’ golden opportunity!

The East India Company controlled the sea-passage to India and would not allow “undesirables” on their ships. Thomas made himself more marketable by describing himself as an “Engraver”. That was stretching the truth — for he had not yet mastered engraving at that time — but a successful ploy. In 1785, he and his 15-year old-nephew William (designated as “Engraver’s Assistant”) sailed via China to Calcutta.

The uncle-nephew duo chose their subjects thoughtfully: places of natural beauty and important historic sites. In 7 years (1786-93), they travelled all over colonial India and the princely states with a retinue of palanquin-bearers and coolies: they sailed up the River Ganga, walked on the Himalayan foothills, and touched the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, before finally sailing back from Mumbai. They had travelled thousands of kilometres before the railways were even invented! Their journeys must have been even more arduous, because they travelled with heavy equipment and supplies. Here is a sample of their art

Dusasumade Gaut – The Dus-Aswamedha Ghat in Varanasi
Pappanassum – The Papanasam waterfalls in Tamilnadu
Taje Mahal – Taj Mahal of Agra

At every site, they would first decide on the best viewpoint using a camera obscura (an optical box to project the scene on a screen). Then, they would refine their perspective using a perambulator (a surveyor’s wheel for measuring distances). Finally, they would set up their drawing tables and make accurate pencil or pencil-and-wash drawings. William kept a detailed diary of all the subjects they ‘captured’. The Daniells returned to England with a large number of sketches and reproduced them as aquatints from their studio.

From Pencil Drawing to Aquatint: Pancha-Rathas of Mamallapuram
From Pencil Drawing to Aquatint: Rock Fort, Trichy

An aquatint is an etching similar to an engraving, but with colour. Aquatint gives a better depth and tonal quality than simple watercolour, when printing. This project took them several years (1795 -1808). They published a six-volume pictorial travelogue called “The Orient”, and the hungry public lapped it up!

In the following years, they published similar travelogues of China and Egypt. Thomas was now much in demand for landscaping gardens of aristocrats. He became a Royal Academician and Fellow of the Royal of Society of Arts in 1790. William became an accomplished aquatint artist himself, mostly covering the English outdoors; he too became a Royal Academician in 1822. Thomas died at the ripe old age of 91. He never married; William was his closest kin and Thomas outlived him.  Their creations are etched in history forever. And yes, Thomas was right: India earned them all the glory and wealth!

Join Storytrails on the  Once Upon a Madurai Trail, and witness the inspiration for a scene from Daniell’s beautiful paintings for yourself. You can also download the Stoytrails Audio Tours App and walk through some more beautiful sites that inspired Daniells including two of the Mamallapuram Audio Trails: The Shore Temple and Five Rathas Trail and The Monuments around Varaha Cave Trail. Here are some examples of what you may discover:

Madura Temple – Madurai Meenakshi Temple
Mavalipuram – the bas relief ‘Arjuna’s Penance’ in Mamallapuram
Pencil Drawing of Fort St. George, Madras (now Chennai)
The Great Bull, Tanjavur Temple
Kutull Minor — Qutb Minar
Acknowledgements: All pictures belong to the public domain. The author gratefully acknowledges that the portrait of Thomas Daniell was sourced from Wikipedia and all other paintings were sourced from the British Library.
Main Image Credit: Juma Masjid, Old Delhi

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