The Lives in Paint blog series is an attempt to understand the paintings and prints in the South Asia Collection by understanding the artists behind them. Many of these images are of a type that we may feel we know at first glance. But it is often the case that the half-familiar obscures what are often fascinating stories and messages bound up in paint at the moment these works of art were created.
In this edition we follow Robert Taylor Pritchett to India to try and work out why he created the watercolour Ayahs with their Charges in the way that he did. How was he viewing the regions he travelled through and what background interests might appear in the painting?
It is often said that you can judge a man by the company he keeps. In this entry we will look at the social make up of the group travelling on the Sunbeam yacht as guests of Earl and Lady Brassey as it reached India in 1887. What sort of conversations might Robert have engaged in on those long journeys under-sail or over land in their travelling carriage as they worked their way north up to Lahore and back? Of particular importance are the views of the Earl, Thomas Brassey. Thomas and Robert, who we know shared a number of voyages, seem to have had a remarkable number of over-lapping interests and social concerns. There is a lot of documentary evidence (if one looks hard enough) for what and how the Brassey’s thought about India. Given that Robert was counted as a friend, it is useful to try and see how their viewpoints may have been similar – because this in part gives us a more accurate lens with which to view the decisions Robert made in composing the painting Ayahs with their Charges in the distinctive way he did.
Robert’s position as a travelling artist meant that he occupied a slightly odd position in the social make up of the group on the Sunbeam – at once both professional and personal, he was certainly a friend of the family, but he also had to distance himself from the warmth of human emotions and apply the artist’s calculating eye.
Robert was responsible for the illustrations in Lady Brassey’s final travelogue, The Last Voyage of the Sunbeam, which chronicled the Brassey family’s visit to India in 1887 (published 1889). It is to this text we can turn to discover the attitudes of the company Robert was keeping to the land they were travelling through. As mentioned in a previous entry, the Brassey’s visited a wide number of sites: they visited temples where they enquired about rites, they browsed bazaars, travelled by all modes of transport from trains to camels, through a huge range of landscapes, architectural styles and encountered people, objects, customs and manners unique to each – all of which were recorded in minute detail by Robert’s pen (draughtsmanship, as an apprentice in the gunsmith’s, had been central to his artistic education – we might say that for him, drawing was a way of knowing, an act of creating knowledge).
The interest in the places they visited certainly extended to politics. Lady Brassey’s husband, Thomas, is recorded discussing the political relationships between the government and the native states with the Maharaja of Patiala state, in the Punjab, ‘Sir Deva Sing, the president, is a man of distinguished presence and graceful manners. In the course of conversation we endeavoured to elicit his views on several points. Tom questioned him as to the relations between the Government of India and the native states, and told me that speaking for Patiala, and indeed for the native states generally, there were no grievances of which they could complain.’
The conversation moved on from the close political relationship between the Maharaja’s and the imperial government, to the Afghan wars. Tellingly, Sir Deva Sing, ‘…thought it desirable to improve the position of native officers in the British service… to put them on a level with British officers.’ This recorded conversation is then concluded with the observation that there was much lavishness and wastage of funds (on elephants, menageries, jewellery, palaces, and barbaric splendours of every kind). Later the men went out shooting together, and the group reconvened to play lawn tennis.
It is worth saying more about Thomas Brassey (1836-1918), and how the opinions of the man at the helm of the Sunbeam might shed light on how Robert was also responding to India. Thomas was a member of parliament who had retired from the Hastings constituency before embarking on the Sunbeam in November 1886 (Lady Brassey, the children and other friends were placed on a steamer bound for Bombay, their son was already in the subcontinent exploring South India). 1886 was the year that the Gladstone government fell out of power and into opposition. Thomas was granted the title of Earl, and stepped away from the daily grind of parliamentary life.
(One of Robert Taylor Pritchett’s illustrations for Spunyarn and Spindrift)
Thomas loved the adventure of being at sea; a lifetime’s passion for sailing had begun when just a boy. His father used to wade around pushing him in a small boat, then at school Thomas learnt the art of yacht sailing, and it was his father who had bought him his first yacht. He was the captain of the Sunbeam and in charge of a crew of 24.
As his family were chugging to Bombay, Thomas was embarked on a bolder venture – ferrying Lord Dalhousie to Gibraltar and the M.P. Arnold Morely to Algiers. These two men give some idea of the political relationships Thomas was actively entangled in. Lord Dalhousie was a retired Naval Commander, member of the House of Lords, previously Lord-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria, Gladstone’s Secretary of State for Scotland, a Knight, and a privy counsellor. He would appear to have been a staunch supporter of Gladstone’s political ideas because he gained his post as secretary of state after the previous incumbent resigned in opposition to the Irish Home Rule bill that Gladstone wanted to pass. Dalhousie, as we might suppose Thomas was, was a leading supporter of the Liberal party’s colonial stance (that those born in the colonies should be encouraged to occupy positions of office so that the relationship between Britain and colonised nations should be mutually desired) and their advocacy of Home Rule. M.P. Arnold Morely was the Liberal party whip. An man tasked with enforcing this ideology.
After dropping their political cargo, Thomas and the crew raced on to Bombay – and this is probably some measure of their seamanship as well as a degree of luck in the weather conditions – where on the prearranged date Sunbeam reached the spot for the rendezvous with the steamer ‘The Thames’ off the coast of Bombay harbour and Thomas signalled his cordial greetings to his wife.
Thomas would appear to have been an emotional man. The sunbeam yacht took its name from the nickname of his daughter who had died aged four from scarlet fever. And the opening of The Last Voyage is a memoir (an act of memorial) for his wife, ‘My dear children, – In sorrow and grief I have prepared a sketch of the life and character of your dearly loved mother, whom it has pleased God to call to Himself.’
These pages consist of a description of their mother’s life before the children knew her. The reason for doing so can be traduced from the quote from Dr Johnson used to start the chapter, giving tone to what Thomas himself writes, ‘…by which you may, in some degree, continue her presence…’ Johnson’s quote then notes that recording the minute details of a life not only soothes the reader, but also, in time, will allow for grief to be replaced by veneration.
There is a very touching passage where Thomas writes about meeting his wife-to-be for the first time, and then lists her early characteristics: ‘How sweet it is to remember her as she was in those young days.’ At the end of this heart-felt introduction he signs off, ‘My dear children, I might write more. I could never tell you what your mother meant to me. Your very affectionate father, Brassey.’
Thomas was clearly a man interested in people (Lady Brassey notes many of his opinions in the pages of her books), and not above empathy. He was described as ‘…hard working, well informed, and fair minded.’ He was a man with a reputation for ‘balance and objectivity’.
These opinions were important because they were voiced during the selection of Thomas as chairman of the Royal Opium Commission (1893) tasked with reviewing the trade between India and China. There was a growing support for the anti-opium cause, notably among Liberal ministers but also among the public. This clamour had become so loud that Prime Minister Gladstone (the Liberals were voted back into power in 1892) felt forced to call for the Commission as an act of appeasement. And while the anti-opium lobby were impressed by how impartial the Commission were, they were ultimately disappointed when the report was in favour of keeping the trade.
One of the interesting facet’s of Thomas’ work with the Commission was that there were two Indian members of the board (alongside a mixture of more radical Liberal politicians and the more conservative ex-Indian government men). One of whom, Lakshmeshwar Singh, the Maharaja of Darbhanga, was a major supporter of the Indian National Congress, a key body in the push for Indian independence. As in the example of Deva Sing, Thomas was mixing with people of diverse opinions when it came to colonial rule. This willingness to listen to voices outside of the British Conservative norm was perhaps typical for a man following Gladstone’s opinions about the desired role of the governed in governance.
India seems to appear again and again in Thomas’ later life. During the First World War, Thomas kitted out Sunbeam as a hospital ship and sailed it (at the sprightly age of 79) to the Dardenelles to support the Gallipoli campaign (where he found it was not as useful as he had supposed). He then gifted the yacht to the Government of India for the duration. Prior to that, in 1913, Thomas’ last major sailing voyage on the boat was to India. India, it would seem, was never far from his thoughts.
One has to wonder what impression the trip to the subcontinent in 1887 made on Thomas, and how these experiences played out in his later life and relationships. But there are further clues that suggest that Thomas’ relationship with India started long before he set sail in the Sunbeam. And that the subcontinent became an interest that spanned sailing to politics via the history and customs of the regions he encountered.
Next time we will explore how it might be possible to guess at some of Robert Taylor Pritchett’s ideas about India through the writings of Thomas Brassey, and what (and this cannot be coincidence given their friendship) is an extraordinary series of inter-crossing relationships, interests, childhood experiences, sailing enthusiasms, and political contacts (spanning the world) linking the two men. Of particular importance is Thomas Brassey’s ability to understand the task of governance (he would, after Lady Brassey’s death, go on to become the governor of Victoria, Australia) whilst being able to empathise with the governed. This has particular importance when it comes to understanding why Robert painted the watercolour Ayahs with their Charges in the manner he did. We need to peer into what Robert thought about particular objects and people, and then why he chose to include them, in a very specific arrangement, on the canvas. He was, after all, an artist who was used to making satirical images (he had worked for Punch). Satire by its nature is an art of commenting on and representing (exposing) topical issues.
Ben Cartwright, Collection Curator, SADACC Trust.