Thursday, April 6, 2017

Samuel Davis’s Parry’s Corner in Madras : A Terminus then, the End of the World!

I was surprised, very recently, to notice a listing of a watercolour by Samuel Davis (1760 – 1819) in a provincial auction in the UK.

Samuel Davis & Charles Greig

Samuel Davis was a man of extraordinary talents, who rose to become a Director of the East India Company. He served in India from 1780 to 1806, mostly in Bengal. There is an old post in this blog about Davis and the many facets of his life and personality :
http://gibberandsqueak.blogspot.in/2009/03/unreal-city-dhrupad-nights-in-benares.html

The listing was for a watercolour of barely midsize (6 x 11.5 Inches) and the description said that the painting – an inshore view of a town from the sea - was probably of Madras. The photograph provided was a hazy one in low resolution.  Not many details could be made out from it. Here : 

I referred the listing at once to Charles Greig whom I have been friends with for some years now. Charles – with a degree in art history, a stint in Christies & then in partnership with the late Giles Eyre – is the most astute judge of the Raj genre of paintings, given his lifelong interest in & study of a number of leading painters of that era. His descent from General William Palmer and resulting, strong India  connections have also served to  reinforce this interest. He has handled and studied thousands of such paintings and is an expert on Zoffany, Hickey, Renaldi and other great painters of that era. Now a respected art historian and consultant to some major collections, he is also my reality check – when I get quick on the draw with one of my attributions. So, Charles is my touchstone when it comes to my own – also intense but more than somewhat less acute – interest in the subject.

Well, we both agreed that the view possibly – but not certainly – could be of Madras. Bombay was also a possibility, with the steeple in the watercolour looking like the one of the St Thomas Cathedral in that city. However, this was all provisional and tentative. We felt that we also had to consider other ports in India and elsewhere too.

Samuel Davis was a painter of high ability and his works rarely, if ever, come on to the market. Charles had handled a few of his works and confirmed that Davis’s works are rare – but he had been studying closely the Davises in museums and art collections, especially those in the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta. Of course, neither of us was sure from the auctioneer’s JPEG if the Davis under auction was by THE Samuel Davis or some other man with the same name. Bidding for the item was to open at Pounds 30.

It turned out I was the only bidder and secured the item at Pounds 30. Mind you, I had not expected a big stampede – the watercolour had, after all, been put up by a provincial auctioneer – and was not more than mildly surprised at the outcome, though I had thought there might be one or two other bidders. If it was a genuine Samuel Davis, I had secured a bargain (although the general lack of awareness – resulting from the rarity of Davis’s works – does mean that the price could, at best, have been under a thousand Pounds).

The Deliberations & Ratiocinations

I had the painting delivered to Charles’s home in London – he is not only a safe repository for such items until I collect them in person but, in this way, I also get the full benefit of  his acute observations on the paintings and on questions of dating and attribution. My reality check, as I said.
Charles emailed me 8 days back : “Goodish news. It is definitely by Sam Davis - signature looks 100% to me but condition problems -tears and splits in paper and I am uncertain of the view - needs careful thought and research.” The signature, detail : 

Right, that research & careful thought consumed exactly  53 emails between us in the next 8 days! These in addition to some discussion – before the delivery of the watercolour - over a long dinner in London when I was there about 15 days back. I mention this only to show how involved people can get over a shared interest, especially over questions as interesting as the ones the Davis painting posed.

When holding a watercolour or any sort of painting in the hand, I begin by considering who could have drawn it - in this case though, an exercise in attribution was not necessary as Davis had signed it. But there are always other questions arising, even with a signed painting, such as its dating, the location and, finally, the circumstances or context in which it was drawn; the reasons why the painting might have been created, the story behind it, as it were.

 I have always found this line of inquiry an engrossing business …. It adds to the appeal of the painting and, moreover, takes one into the byways of local history, a sort of journey back into a moment in time. And, as Charles Greig is of a similar bent of mind, it should be no surprise that all those emails were flying back and forth!

We were considering a watercolour, very expertly painted, of great fluency of expression – it showed a coastal, dusk scene with a distant cluster of buildings in outline, exactly as they would look in the twilight.

The Setting of the Watercolour

The first question, obviously, was “where” …. It was now apparent from the watercolour in Charles’s hand that the location was not Bombay. Also, it seemed very possible – on the face of it – that the view could have been taken in Madras.

But, we first checked online views of almost all of the ports en route from the UK - especially those in Portuguese Africa as Davis had sailed on a Poruguese merchantman which had called at most of them – Lourenco Marques, Cape Verde, Funchal and all the way round to Mozambique, Angola then Madagascar, Zanzibar, Trincomalee & Goa. No, nothing similar to the scene in the painting. Surely, Madras then.

For one thing, there was the tower or steeple of the Armenian church – the arrangement of the apertures or windows in the tower is different from what we see today …. 


But …. the Daniells, in their 1791 view taken from the west, had also depicted a similar fenestration for this tower.Then there was the Fort St George cluster in distant outline, very skillfully done, as seen in the fading evening light in Madras.

And also, the Masoolah boats of Madras, with dark skinned fishermen, one of whom is wearing the typical peaked bandanna or head wrap. As an example of this, I publish below a watercolour of the Madras inshore by Augustus Earle, drawn in 1829, with one of the fishermen wearing identical, blue headgear.

Then, the sea-wall, to prevent erosion, visible in the foreground of the watercolour offered further confirmation of the Madras location.  This sea-wall  - to arrest erosion and littoral drift - had been built in front of the Black Town of Madras by Paul Benfield, an engineer turned contractor, in about 1780. It was later extended northwards -to protect the entire coastline of the Blacktown – and also southwards –t o connect with Fort St George – by Thomas Fiott de Havilland (1775- 1866) some time before 1822.


The de Havilland sea-wall was known as the Madras Bulwark and represented, in its time, an engineering accomplishment of no small degree. I post below two beautiful  lithographs, being sectional views of the Bulwark, drawn by de Havilland himself, an expert surveyor and draughtsman.
And JPEGs of a write-up about the Bulwark in the Asiatic Intelligence of December 1822 :







It was also apparent from the view of the Armenian church that the watercolour or its preliminary sketch had been taken somewhat in line with the present day Parry’s Corner and Dare House. But what was that curve or kink in the sea-wall as shown in the Davis painting? The watercolour shows a group of Firangis arranged on the lee side of that wall.

Sure enough, a look at the Google map of the coastline established that there is, indeed, a squiggle or splay of the otherwise straight coastline at the point of Parry’s Corner. The Google map screenshot is also published here. The breakwater and safe harbor constructed eastward of that kink , as seen In this contemporary satellite view, are latter-day reclamations.

Indubitably, Madras then.

Dating the Painting

The second question was the date of the painting.

There were two possible dates – the first, when Davis had arrived in 1780 in Calcutta with the ship calling at various ports en route, including Bombay and Madras. And Charles Greig told me that there is an album of these views drawn by Davis which he had dealt with many years ago. This view of Madras could possibly have been drawn then but perhaps got separated from the album. Davis had also been in the region of Madras in 1781 during the Hyder – Mysore war and could also have drawn this view then.

The second possibility was February 1806 on his final, return voyage to England. It was always possible that, as a senior civil servant, he could have been in the south any time from 1781 – 1806 but 1780 and 1806 were the likeliest dates for a sea view such as this.

This dating should normally have been easy, because in 1780 the Fort’s St Mary’s church did not have a spire on top of its steeple or tower nor was there a lighthouse atop the Fort Exchange (today’s Fort Museum). These came up in about 1796.

But, given that Davis has sketched the Fort only in a cluster of skylines – exactly as it would have looked from Parry’s Corner at sunset – it took some time to work out what was what in the cluster. A detail from the de Havilland litho shows the disposition of the buildings within the Fort in a direct, frontal view from the east.  In such a frontal view, the St Mary’s church is in its proper place at left and the Fort Exchange and Light House at right. 

However, the Davis view is taken from the north east, looking southwest, from a steep diagonal of about 2 o’clock. Such a view from Parry’s Corner is not to be had today because of intervening construction. But another watercolour – artist unknown – which is so obviously post 1796 and had also been drawn from about the same place came to our help. The detail in it showed how the dispositions in the Davis cluster could be interpreted, with the spatial dispositions from Davis’s angle of view turning on their axis, so to speak.

Now, all was clear and there is the lighthouse at left in the Davis painting with the steeple and spire of St Mary’s – its height somewhat exaggerated – at right. Therefore 1806, when the ship called at Madras on Davis’s return journey to England. Or possibly a few months earlier if Davis, as customary with senior officials in those days, had undertaken a farewell round of the major cities before leaving India for good.

The Overwhelming Question

Then came the third question, an overwhelming question : what was that building at right foreground of the Davis?

We have already seen that the location for the Davis view is somewhat in front of, or to one side of, the present day Parry’s Corner of Madras. And everyone knows that it is so named after Thomas Parry (1768 – 1824) who was a leading merchant of Madras and founder of Parry & Co.

I already knew that there had been a garden house on the site owned by Sir John Call, Chief Engineer but that he had, before leaving eventually in 1770, sold the property in 1766 to the Nawab of the Carnatic who had settled it on his daughter,  Begum Malikunisa. Later, in 1797, Omdatt-ul-Omrah, the Nawab's son, had sold the property to the Madras firm of Lautour Colon & Geslin. They, in turn, had, on the 1st of August 1803, conveyed it to Thomas Parry.  

My copy of Hilton Brown's Parry's of Madras (together with another book,  Hodgson’s Thomas Parry, Free Merchant) confirmed much of this background. It also provided additional, interesting detail :

"It would be interesting to know just when and in what order the primal office buildings, which were to serve the firm for nearly a century and a half, were put up, but the records are missing. The original Call structure, temporarily elevated into the "royal dwelling", probably served for a time, but there is good reason to believe that the fine old block with its vast old-style pillared verandahs was erected very soon after the acquisition of the site. It was then a two-storey edifice; of the third storey we shall hear later. Godowns were added in 1817".

The question was, how soon was “very soon”? In other words, were we looking at the new structure put up by Parry or did the Davis painting – of circa 1805 or 1806 – portray Sir John Call’s old garden house? Davis’s homeward bound ship should have called at Madras in late February or early March of 1806, only some two and a half years after purchase of the site by Parry. It seems unlikely he would have got around to erecting a brand new building in that time.  Hilton Brown is quite possibly wrong in asserting the new building with its “vast old-style pillared verandahs was erected very soon”  after Parry purchased the site – having stated, only in the previous sentence, that the records to establish this were missing. Nor is he able to assign a date for the new building.

And Hodgson writes : “The premises must originally have been two storeyed, the bottom storey being used as godowns and strong rooms, and possibly also offices for clerks, whilst the second storey was where partners of the firm worked and, probably, also at times lived. The third storey was built at the end of the American Civil War in 1866.”

The building in the Davis painting is almost certainly the one built by John Call. It has the looks of a dungeon or keep, the sort of structure a fortifications engineer – which Call was – would erect on a site so close to the sea. And, going by Hodgson, the high ceilinged ground floor was admirably suited for use a  godown.

I didn’t have to look far for corroboration because I have the William Daniell aquatint of the Madras Panorama – it is a longish (45 inches) aquatint of a 360 degree view of Madras, taken from Fort St George in 1829 by the aforesaid Augustus Earle, an Australian artist. William Daniell’s exhibition of his oil painting of this panorama in London for nearly 2 years from 1831 was much acclaimed but that is another story. 

The Madras panorama is fully annotated for all the prominent landmarks including the Parry’s building. The enlarged detail above shows that building - marked 'D' for Dare House, as it is known now - in its right location by the sea (with the Armenian church marked - 'A' - as well). We can see that – in 1829, the year Augustus Earle drew the panorama – all that Parry had done was to replace the roof on the Call structure. It is otherwise the same building with narrow windows and a high ceilinged ground floor as in the Davis view. Moreover, it has neither columns nor  verandah, as suggested by Hilton Brown.

The entire Madraas Panorama below :



The lean-tos on the terrace were presumably put up by Begum Malikunisa for the use of her servants and possibly were put to the same use by Parry.

It is a typical fortress like construction, built to withstand the incursions of the sea and also fire from a sea-borne attack. Seeing that Call sold it to the Nawab as early as 1766, the building must date from the 1750s when the 7 year war was being waged and French attacks on Madras by sea were commonplace As you can see, the house makes no concessions to Palladianism or any other architectural ism, the sole purpose of its design being protection from the sea and naval bombardments. 

Inference or Inductive Reasoning  : What Prompted the Taking of the View?

We had to figure why Davis would do a watercolour from this very spot, the Parry’s Corner of those days – still to be known by that name – being the most unlikely spot for a view of Madras. The favoured spots for a sea view were either from  the south east of Fort St George or further north or south along the beach. Could it be that Davis knew Parry? Did they meet when Davis’s homeward bound ship called at Madras in February 1806?

Charles Greig mailed me with an intriguing thought : In view of Parry's importance I am wondering if  Davis stayed with Parry when stopping at Madras on his return journey. This watercolour might even have belonged to Parry!

We will never know but it seems quite possible that they met in February 1806. I don’t know if Davis stayed with Parry as he would have had many friends in the Madras Civil Service, including perhaps the Governor. And it was customary – then as now – for civil servants to put up with those in the service. But Parry, by this time, had become a prominent merchant of Madras and had many friends in the civil service. It is quite likely that one of them made the necessary introductions and that Davis was entertained to lunch by Parry, a long and bibulous lunch as customary in those days. It would have been quite natural then for Davis to have drawn the twilight view and he may even have presented it t Parry as Charles suggests.

Digression : the Curious Circumstance relating to the Title of the Property

I think I might as well add an interesting tidbit about the issues surrounding the title to the property that Parry acquired. We know that the Nawab of the Carnatic bought it from Col John Call – as e then was – in 1766 and settled it on his daughter, Begum Malikunisa. But it was Omdatt-ul-Omrah, the Nawab’s son who conveyed the property to Mr Geslin of Lautour & Co in 1797.

Lautour sold it in August 1803 to Parry, reportedly at half the market value, Hilton Brown suggests that Lautour’s knew there was an issue with their less than valid conveyance and title – because, rightly speaking, it was the property of the Begum. It is only a short step from that to inferring that the shrewd Thomas Parry too knew about the doubtful title and was attracted by the low price.

Anyhow, when Parry died in 1824, his executors were confronted with a legal notice from the attorney to the Begum’s son, claiming title to the property. This legal notice stated that Parry knew all about the matter from a letter from Geslin and claimed that a copy of the same was with the Begum’s son. Moreover, the notice referred to a document in Persian, signed by a local magistrate or khazi attesting the settlement of the site on the Begum by her father, the Nawab.

Naturally alarmed, the Trustees to the estate took legal advice from Herbert Compton, later to become Advocate General of Madras. Acting, no doubt, on his advice, they took to the novel device of putting the property into public auction so as to bring to the public domain any  legal objections to  the title and to deal with them firstly; thereafter to buy the property in for the estate, so as to establish a title afresh. It is not known if this auction ever took place, as no action seems to have been brought. But Parry’s executors managed to get hold of the Persian document which is apparently still held by the firm!

I tried to buy this watercolour of the Chandeleer, Herbert  Compton’s house in Madras, drawn by John Gantz in about 1820. But the dealer in London told me the painting is not to be found in his warehouse, having presumably been “nicked” by one of his van drivers. But it is still hoisted on his website!

A Summing Up

So …. there we have it. A Madras painting, dating from about 1806 or slightly earlier, the view taken at Parry’s corner and …. featuring the John Call garden house- with the Armenian tower visible behind it - which Thomas Parry had bought in 1803.

One of Charles Greig’s mails on the subject of the painting reads : “I have now checked the early SD views of the south (c 1780) and they are much more amateurish than this really quite sophisticated watercolour - so the later date of 1806 is certain! quite a bargain for one of the best watercolourists to ever work in the Subcontinent!

Indeed.  By the time he left India in 1806 – and even before that – Davis seems to have become a highly accomplished artist who could hold his place with the very best. The early Davis watercolours Charles mentions are reproduced here ….

.... and the 1806 painting of Parry’s corner is markedly superior in every respect. And sophisticated

And this one,  below, of the Motee Jharna falls (Moti Ghirna or Pearldrop Falls in Bihar) – in the Victoria Memorial collection – is perhaps the halfway mark in Davis’s development as an artist. It is, I would guess, from the 1790s. 
British Army below the Rock of Sholingarh (near Madras). 27 September 1781

This one below is a watercolour of a tomb near Bhagalpur - where Davis was posted in the 1780s when the Daniells spent the best part of a year staying with him - and should date around 1786. It is owned by Charles Greig who writes : "I bought it at Christies on 28 September 2001 as 'English School' and as of 'a view in Mysore'!! I recognised it immediately as an early view of a tomb near Bhagalpore by SD and indeed I think the figure entering the tomb is SD himself from a label I found inside the old mount that Christies had ignored!"

It is remarkable that Charles could identify the painting as one by Davis when Christies had merely described it as English School! This is why he is undoubtedly a wizard at attributions of the Raj genre of paintings (and also surely why Christies have been using him as a consultant). I suppose it comes from both an innate eye for sizing up a painting and from having handled thousands of them over the years.



But let us see the Davis of Parry’s Corner afresh.

The view has evidently been taken in the late evening, shortly after sunset. The glow of the sunset to the west lights up the sides of the Call building and the tower of the Armenian church. The Fort St George cluster is in hazy outline, exactly as it should look in the gloaming. The sky is a lovely roseate crimson and the sea sparkling beautifully in the afterglow of the short lived  twilight of India and interspersed with touches of aquamarine. The scene is a tranquil one, the lonely eminence of the Call building vividly portrayed. In short, a lovely vignette of Madras – by then fast becoming an outpost of the empire – in 1806!



It is only an artist of the highest degree of accomplishment who could draw twilight and moonlit scenes so appealingly.

I apologise for the hazy pictures of the watercolour and will post a beter, higher resolution photo after I collect the painting.

Let me close with a description by Hilton Brown of Parry’s Corner in 1803, just a few years before Davis drew his view :

“.... Parry's first concern, on retiring from the Nawab's service in 1801 (when Omdatt-ul-Omrah died and the Carnatic was annexed) was to seek new office quarters. These were found at the nearest permissible spot, the locality known ever since as Parry's Corner.
The Corner in those distant days was more than a corner, it was a terminus, the end of the world. There was no such thing as First Line Beach or Second Line either; the ultimate north-and-south street of Blacktown was Moor St. To seaward of the Corner were the tidal sands; at high water the waves broke within a few yards of it, in a cyclone they burst over it. Here on a projection, in solitary state, there stood some sort of building belonging to the Nawab of the Carnatic. To the north, the unbroken beach ran away in the direction of the Sea Customs House and Royapuram; to the south, a bare and hummocky waste of sand diversified by a few unsightly tombs led the eye to the unimpeded glacis of the Fort. Behind was the close packed huddle of Blacktown. In front – infinity”.

But Samuel Davis has anticipated in his watercolour Hilton Brown’s 1952 description of the scene.