Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ooty Preserved : The Sunlit Hillscapes of Capt Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke

This is looking to be a somewhat convoluted post, so I had better begin at the beginning. In 1999 a Bombay antiques and prints dealer and a good friend of many years, offered me nine lithographs of Views in the Neilgherry Hills by Captain Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke - nine out of a set of sixteen. The Neilgherrys are today's Nilgiris or the Ooty (Ootacamund) Hills in the western ghats of South India.

I had long wanted to get hold of these Peacocke views because they rarely come on the market and counted myself lucky to get as many as nine at the same time. A few months later the same dealer offered me the remaining seven as well (they came from a full set of sixteen owned by a keen collector known to me who was disposing of the entire set for whatever reason). I, most reluctantly, passed on that very thoughtful offer having in mind resultant, possible wifely criticism (I had splurged recently on a few other things , so discretion was the better part of valour). But accountability for one's actions is an occupational hazard, it is a recurrent but manageable situation in almost everyone's life, so it was a big mistake to have passed up the seven Peacockes.

View Near Hullikkul, Koondahs

Tinted Lithos : Some Tedious Background

My nine prints are tinted lithographs with added hand colouring. What is a tinted lithograph or, for that matter, what is a lithograph? Most of us know that a lithographed image is drawn on stone, in reverse so that, when printed, the picture will have the intended orientation. Drawing on stone or preparing a stone plate is based on the principle that grease and water are mutually repellant. So the stone is wetted, the image is drawn in greasy ink and, after further preparation for highlights, shade and so on, made ready for printing. Sounds simple but it is a complex chemical process and also requires great skill on the part of the lithographer to work up the stone, after the outline is drawn, to produce the right effect in the printed image (as I hope to show below). But many artists appreciated the freedom that the litho stone gave them to draw freehand (whereas a copper or steel plate would need engraving skills which most artists did not possess).And the lithographer would then take over the job of working up the stone to produce the depth and highlights required in the picture. Some highly skilled lithographers also themselves drew or rendered the artist's picture on stone, under the supervision of the artist.

And a tinted litho? Well, it was realised quite soon after the advent of lithography that the use of two or more stones could help achieve a basic tint or colour wash to the image as opposed to a black or sepia image printed with only one stone. So, a master stone or key stone was prepared in the way described above and one or two additional stones of the image prepared by a process of litho transfer which is a way of tracing direct from the master stone and transferring the trace to another stone. Now, the master stone is used to print the outline and other details of the total image in black and the second and / or third stones used to apply the tint or wash, usually grey and fawn, in those portions of the image where the respective colour wash is required. And the effect in the printed picture is of a basic watercolour wash.

My nine Peacocke lithos are tinted ones but with minimal hand colouring added after printing. It is easy to make out that they are tinted because the grey and fawn washes are apparent. And, if you look closely at the bottom left and right corners of the pics, you can see minute pinholes at each end. This was done to achieve register when printing from multiple stones, that is to ensure that the colour washes did not spill over into unwanted areas of the image. The pins held each stone in correctly aligned position in relation to the master stone from which the outline was first printed. So much for tinted lithos from someone who has never pulled a print in his life let alone drawn on stone.

Travellers' Bungalow, Sispara

The Peacocke Lithos

There are two stand-out features in all the Peacocke drawings. Firstly the play of sunlight in the background whence comes the Sunlit Hillscapes of the title to this post. The soft but brilliant glow of the light in our South Indian hills is beautifully captured by the artist in each of the drawings, see for yourself. The lithographer, Paul Gauci, also had a lot to do with this but we will deal with that later.

View from the Upper Bungalow, Coonoor

And, secondly, the topographic representation is very lifelike. The elevations, the distant houses are all in proportion and scale. Enlarge any pic here by clicking on it and this will be apparent - the distant houses, the scale and the depth, there is drama in Peacocke's topography. I think he was trained in surveying in the army and used this training to telling effect in his Neilgherry views.

Now, have a look at this one below. It is of the Bearers' Godown at the Avalanche, Koondah. An avalanche fell at this place in about 1830 and hence the name :

Bearers' Godown at the Avalanche, Koondahs

Note the distant saddle of the hill to the right and the figures going up a track, with a palanquin in the procession. Also the play of sunlight and shadow on the hill to the right. The following description of this particular view is from the book "India Observed" by Mildred Archer and Ronald Lightbown (London 1982) :

"Peacocke, Major Stephen Ponsonby (fl. 1835 - 55)

Peacocke joined the 25th Foot (King's Own Borderers) as an Ensign on 25 October 1833. He was promoted to Lieutenant on 15 September 1837 and Captain 23 August 1839. In 1853 he was promoted to Major but by 1854 -55 he appears on the retired list.

.... from Views in the Neilgherry and Koondah Ranges, Western Ghats, Madras, and about the stations of Ootacamund and Coonoor and the Segoor, Koondah snd Coonoor Passes published by Paul Gauci, 9, North Crescent, Bedford Square, May 1847.

Coloured lithography.

Peacocke's lithographs reflect the .... romantic escape from the plains. The .... print shows a halting place on the journey up to Ootacamund .... A party can be seen continuimg the journey by palanquin".

A brief interlude into jargon : Coloured lithography refers to a hand coloured litho, be it an ordinary litho or a tinted one. And a colour lithograph, by contrast, is one printed in colours whether with subsequent hand colouring or no.

The Avalanche

Mary Winter (a Peacocke descendant)

What I knew of the artist is that he was in India in the 1830's with his regiment the King's Own Borderers and that he was in Ooty at some time during this period convalescing from an illness. That is when he drew these stunning hillscapes which were published as lithographs in London in 1847. I knew that much, nothing more.

A View of the Low Country & Coonoor Pass

But since establishing contact with Mary Winter (nee Peacocke), of Napier, New Zealand, some six months back I have gathered a lot more - the year of his birth, his family background, what he did in later life and even what he looked like. For all of which my sincere thanks to Mary, 3 x great granddaughter of our Stephen and the one to keep the Peacocke flag flying high.

There were only two or three ways to find out more about Stephen Peacocke and I tried some of them. One way is to infest the British Library (Oriental & India Office Collections) when I visit the UK but there is scarcely time for that during those visits, especially considering the bureaucracy involved at the BL, reading tickets, prior requests and appointments and so on. So that was out, though, as there probably is so much to find out at the BL, I think I will ask Nick Balmer who does manage to visit the BL often to do a service for me. I considered writing to the regiment, now known as the King's Own Scottish Borderers, but never got around to it. I did find out from the East India Army list that Peacocke had already retired by 1854 - 55. So that left the internet option of Boolean and algorithmic Googling.

I left a note on a genealogy website which had posted some desultory exchanges, none of them from a Peacocke, on Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke's descendants. Almost a year later there was a breathless message from Mary Winter saying she was born a Peacocke and could she have scans of the lithos please. Then followed a lively and brisk exchange, I sent the scans, Mary sent me a pic of Col Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke, taken in later life (about 1857 says Mary), which you can see alongside. So, that is our man though I was a little disappointed that the picture was not of the young subaltern in the Neilgherrys but a later pic. That is no fault of Mary's and in any case there was no photography in the 1830's.

This was Mary's response on seeing the scans : "I got them all - WOW!!! they are beautiful, I can't believe Stephen drew those!!!
The colours are exquisite too, I feel like I am looking at picture of someone's thought, they are so delicate yet very detailed. My favourite is, Bearers' Godown at the Avalanche, Koondah.
I am blown away, I cannot thank you enough. .... .... I really am speechless!!!!!!".

Blood may be thicker than water but, since we know that water and grease do not mix in lithography, Mary is right of course. These are outstanding pictures no doubt. Next, it was my turn to be surprised. Because Mary sent me a book, all the way from Napier, which was "the Peacocke Family in New Zealand" published in about 1980. The book is replete with old family photographs including those of Stephen Peacocke and of the family house "Hawthornden". It is a detailed account of Stepehen Peacocke's life after his emigration to New Zealand in 1858 and of his descendants.

Capt (later, Col) Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke

From the book Mary gave me, I gleaned that Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke had been born in 1813, the first child of Stephen Peacocke, an officer in the Scots Fusilier Guards, and his wife Louisa. The family was of the officer class with close connections to the landed gentry. In 1833, the 19 year old Stephen joined the 25th Foot as an Ensign. This was not a posh regiment like Peacocke Senior's Scots Guards but he got the chance to serve with a detachment of the 25th Foot (later King's Own Scottish Borderers) in India. It is not clear when and for how long Stephen Peacocke was in India but I think it was in the 1830's, possibly the mid to late 30's (I am hoping that Nick Balmer may, one day, be able to ferret out the details for me from the British Library). He was married in England in 1837 to Isabella Brydges, the daughter of a Baronet, this must have been during a furlough back to England.

View of Coonoor from the Ootah Road

The views must have been done between 1835 - 40 though published much later, in 1847. And we already know that he made Major in 1853 but quit the army a year or two later. After a spell in Madeira, Stephen Peacocke emigrated to New Zealand in 1858 and founded the lineage that is still going strong in both New Zealand and Australia. Stepehen Peacocke did attain to the rank of Lt Colonel in the Auckland Militia and died in 1872.

Peacocke's Neilgherrys

The Nilgiris or Blue Mountains of the Western Ghats remained largely unknown and unexplored until about 1812, when two Englishmen form the Civil Service in nearby Coimbatore went up the hills and returned with accounts of rolling downs and a bracing climate. The Collector of the district, Sullivan, then took matters into hand and the settlement of the hills began in earnest in no time. By 1835 or 40, Ootacamund or Ooty, the principal station at 8000 feet, was well established, with a Governor's Lodge, the Commander in Chief's House and so on including a church, St Stephen's. Another artist was there in Ooty, may be a few years before Peacocke for his views were published as aquatints in 1837.This was Richard Barron, also an army officer, but not an artist in the class of our Stephen. Nevertheless, here are three of his naive but brightly coloured views - the second is from the BL archives, the other two are with me, of which the third is Barron's famous study of the Todas, a tribe of pastoralists and the original inhabitants of the Neilgherrys for a millennium or longer. (Just so that the difference in class between Barron and Peacocke is clear, I have put below the three Peacocke's own study of the Todas):

A General View of Ootacamund : Richard Barron

View from the Lake : Richard Barron

Taken at Kandelmund : Richard Barron

Todas Munds (Huts) & Todas : Peacocke

Other settlements and stations soon followed, all within 10 or 12 miles from Ooty, firstly Coonoor, then the barracks at Wellington and then Kotagiri. But the landscape of today's Nilgiris is much changed from the Neilgherrys of Barron's and Peacocke's times. The hills still look green and refreshingly cool but about half of the landscape is the emerald green of tea or the dark green of coffee. And then the urbanisation and the tourist litter. But, if you can get out of Ooty and Coonoor, there are still the rolling downs, pockets of rain forest, waterfalls and a big game reserve.

There are a number of period books on the Nilgiris in the Internet Archives but the best is one that is not in that collection. It is "Ooty Preserved" by Molly Panter-Downes, whence comes the first part of the title to this post. It is a short little book written in 1967 and leads you forward in time from 1800 to 1965. The Brits staying on in Ooty post independence, the changes post 1947, the early history, the church, the club, the hunt, the local gentry are all described engrossingly. The book is hard to find but I hope the visuals of Peacocke and Barron in this post will compensate for that.

Mary Winter's K / O Punch

Mary wrote again : "I tracked down the drawings I remember seeing as a child, my Aunty gave my sister, brother and I some each - but my brother took them all when he went to America in the late 70's. I asked him to email them to me and lo and behold some are of the lithos you sent me. Unfortunately they are not the originals!!!! Thought you may like to see them".

And later : "these are the same as yours except they either arn't coloured or they have faded badly - I will try and track down some more of his drawings, he can't have just stopped drawing when he left India".

Ho ! That is interesting. And gratifying. As I wrote to her : "Mary : Well done, very well done, brilliant, in fact superlatives aren't sufficient to describe your pursuit of your ancestor's drawings. You seem to have in your family, if I am counting right, 14 of the 16 Ooty views of Peacocke. And between what I sent you and the ones you dug out, we have all the 16. Also,I can take some of the credit for I helped jog your memory about the pics your Aunt gave you and your siblings a long time back, else you wouldn't have remembered them any time soon, right?!Actually I am delighted, for your sake, that many of the lithos are heirlooms in your own family and, for my sake, that I can claim a small share (of the credit, not of the lithos) in reminding you of something that must be priceless for you .... I hope you hijack as many pics as possible from your brother for you, after all, are the one who keeps the Peacocke flag flying!"

General View of Ootacamund (per kind favour of Mary Winter)

Mary thought these are not originals and, though not examined in the hand by me, I am perfectly sure they are and have assured her so. Mary's lithos are in their original, tinted state before hand colouring, exactly as they came off the press. You can see the dark grey, almost greenish, and fawn washes from the tinted stones. I was quite surprised by this as I had thought until then that all the Peacocke tinted lithos were issued hand coloured. That could still be the case and, if so, what Mary Winter has could be the first state i.e tinted but uncoloured, a sort of artist's proof before hand colouring. In that case, they are more valuable than the other versions but there is no indication, by way of notes or signature, that they are proofs. The most likely explanation could be that the publisher let Peacocke have a few copies before addition of hand colouring, a sort of artist's perk. And hand colouring of course added to the cost of the lithos, so Peacocke may have just kept one or more tinted sets.

Here are three or four more dramatic views, better than those with me, from Mary Winter's collection :

Mr Grove's House, Waterfall, Kaitie

View Over the Native Village, Coonoor, Looking Towards Ootacamund (from Mary Winter's Set)

Waterfall from Bungalow at Colhutty (from Mary Winter's Set)

Roadcut Between Coonoor & Ootacamund (from Mary Winter's Set)

View at Ootacamund, Neilgherries (Mary Winter's set)

Paul Gauci, the Lithographer

If you go back to the Barrons and the hand coloured Peacocke's above, you will see that there is a veritable splash of colour in all the Barron drawings. I think hand coluring was used liberally to make up for the obvious shortcomings in Barron's views : the lack of perspective and depth, the amateurish sketching of the hills and the treetops which look like broccoli heaped together. And the engraver has succeeded to a large extent in his purpose.

The Peacocke lithos, on the other hand, are in subdued colours, mostly fawn and dark green, or various shades of the two. In fact the hand colouring in these lithos is minimal and confined to the objects in the foreground - a little colour added to the clothing or some green to the grass in the foreground. So, the pictures convey accurately the impression of how our South Indian hills look. That is, a sort of overall dark green, relieved by some light green and, above all else, the soft but dazzling light that reflects from the distant hills (I should know, having managed a coffee estate in the hills for the last 8 years and lived there onsite from 2000 to 2005).

The skills of Peacocke, the artist, are evident but less so are the skills Paul Gauci brought to preparing the stones. He had to get the depth and dimension true to the original Peacocke drawing and ensure that the highlights, specially the sunlit hills in the background, are captured in the stone and the litho. This must have involved scraping and smoothing of those parts of the stone and the extent of smothing had to be judged to a nicety. Paul Gauci was a Maltese, running a litho press in London with his father, Maxime, and brother, William. The firm was among the leading lithographers of the day, ranking with Hullmandel and Day & Son. Moreover Pual Gauci was a trained artist and surveyor and all his training and experience seem to have gone into the preparation of the stone plate.

View in the Koondahs, near Sispara (Mary Winter's set)

The Peacocke Reunion 2009

The last Peacocke reunion in the antipodes was nearly thirty years back, Mary tells me. But there is one slated for this year and this post is written as much for Mary Winter and for the forthcoming Peacocke reunion as for this blog.

View in the Hills, Hullikkul

Mary has invited me to the reunion, promising that I will be made an honorary Peacocke if I do go. Napier, NZ is the Art Deco capital of the world but it is a long way from Madras . But, who knows, if I show up in Napier the collective might of the Peacockes might wangle for me the key to the city! I think I will "volunteer".


why save nilgiris said...

great collection you have sir

SBL image colouring said...

Great stuff!

Swapna said...

Lovely to read your post on the Peacocke prints.

The entire set of 16 are part of the Raj Bhavan art collection in Ooty, which I had the privilege to view two months ago. But the prints there are black and white - no tints added!

Sudarshan said...

Swapna : Thanks for the very observant comment. In fact, I decided that your comment warrants a further, brief post by way of response. That further post was published last night, within a couple of hours after you made your comment. Hope you will take time out to go and see it. Best.

Larry Slack (Canada) said...

You have gone to a lot of work with this and I thank you for sharing it. I found your page from following a link posted by a fellow Hebron school alumni (Hebron school is in Ooty). Beautiful paintings!

Sudarshan said...

Thanks, Larry, I see that a number of Hebron alumni have been seeing this post. Every one of you must be having pleasant memories of your time there and I hope that you will all, one day soon, hold a reunion in Ooty. Best Regards.

Ken W Anderson said...

What a pleasure to see these beautiful paintings of the Nilgiris as there were 150 years ago! Ooty is the place of my birth and schooling prior to college in the U.S. (Breeks, Hebron, Lushington Boys's School - now Hebron). Thank you for going to the trouble of posting these.

Indian said...

Thank you for posting these lithographs. I have bookmarked this page and will go through it at leisure in a few days as it is of great interest to me.

mohansingh said...

Being a Ootywalah myself, greatly fascinated by the pictures and the history behind them.

Wonder if the chanting of the thothuvar songs have been captured on tape.

Prem Sagar said...

Thank you for the paintings.

I am a friend of Kalyan Varma who I think communicated with you some time back reg the location of the paintings.

I tried to figure out the locations.. realized it was not easy. However, I have an opinion on one of the paintings locations..present day.

Please have a look here and let me know your comments.

Also, I think the picture is in public domain. If it is copyrighted, I am sorry to have used it in my picture. Please let me know and I will remove the picture immediately.


Ren said...

first timer at your blog - you offer great stuff, KUDOS!

Roey said...

I am a great-great-granddaughter of Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke (descended from his son, Reginald, who settled in Australia).

I was fascinated to read your account of the Peacocke/Gauci lithographs. I have an incomplete set (14, including title page), which came to me from my grandmother, Isobel Burrow, nee Peacocke. My prints are not hand-coloured, but are in quite good condition, considering their age. I have never seen any of SPP's original drawings, apart from the sketch of 'Wootton Court' which is reproduced in the Peacocke Family History.

With many thanks,
Rosemary Fitzpatrick

Sudarshan said...

Hallo! Roey : Yet another Peacocke, I see .... and the more the merrier! Glad you liked the post. Have, about a year back, acquired three original watercolours of Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke which I intned to post here one day soon. Watch out for the post but if, meanwhile, you'd like scans of the three send me an e-mail and I will be glad to send you the scans.

Peter said...

Great website!
My interest is in "Mr Groves' House, Waterfall, Kaitie" as the John Groves concerned is a relative of mine. It became important for me to date the time span over which Stephen Peacocke produced these wonderful paintings. Most references suggest he was in India in the late 1830's, but I believe this is incorrect. Searching The London Gazette, The Asiatic Journal & Allen's Indian Mail confirms SPP was in the 25th Regiment of Foot (Ensign 25 Oct 1833, Lieut 15 Sep 1837, Capt 23 Aug 1839). However, the 25th Foot was in the West Indies & South Africa from 1837 to 1839 & South Africa from 1840 to 1842. It was only from 1842 to 1855 that they were in India. SPP had married Isabella Louisa Brydges in the quarter ending Dec 1837 registered at Dover in Kent. Captain & Mrs Peacock(e) & child left the UK on 23 Apr 1842 on the troop ship 'Francis Smith' for Madras. In Oct 1842 SPP was furloughed for 3 months to Bombay and then he was sent to England for 6 months from 26 Apr 1844 for the purpose of retiring on half pay. On 30 July 1844 he was replaced as Capt in the 25th Foot. In 1853 he was reinstated as Capt and then made Major, both in the 59th Foot. I think it is much more likely that he did the 17 paintings in the Nilgiris in 1843 and early 1844. What do you think?

Sudarshan said...

Hi! Peter : Thanks, it is always a great feeling to know that a blog post, such as the Peacocke one, has helped someone, in this case you, to connect with an ancestor. Thanks for letting me know.

Now, as to the dates of Peacocke's residence in India, the dates I have used are pretty certain and also, as I found out subsequent to the original post, affirmed in a privately published biograph of the artist which Mary Winter, his descendant (see her own guest post), sent me.

Also refer to the Wikipedia entry on Peacocke which is put together by Marcus Sherman who consulted me on the write-up and was good enough to send me the draft fro review.

I feel that whilst one detachment of Peacocke's regiment was in India, another could have been elsewhere. If so, and it was often the case with British regiments, that would explain the apparent disconnect. That said, I have an open mind on the subject and will be interested to know if you find out any more details in this regard.

I am even more interested in your Grove connection and will be delighted if you would share what you know with us. Why not do a guest post on thsi blog?!