Sunday, September 5, 2021

Doddabettah Mukurthi & Sispara Forever : Some British Raj Topographic Paintings of the Nilgiris


Jakatallah (today's Wellington Cantonment) & Doddabettah - watercolour with me :  12 x 15 inches & signed 'WHS' & dated June 1854


Sispara & Mukurthi Peaks in the Nilgiris  

This is an account of an area with outstanding views & scenery in the Western Nilgiris & of the remarkable fact of how all the 3 or 4 well known 19th Century British artists of these hills were not only there in the same period but took with zest to portraying that arresting landscape.  

It is, furthermore, the story of how several of the Nilgiris paintings of these artists - whether by happy coincidence or assiduous seeking - ended up  with me - & also of how the views & the landscape in those parts of the hills remain virtually unchanged to this day, 140 to 190 years later.

We will look @ the paintings, consider the artists as well as the position or angle of view each of them adopted when painting some of the views - we will also view photos & maps of the topography & its singular features. As such, this may seem a longish, even discursive post but hopefully I have connected all the dots & tried to hold the interest of the reader.

Alexander Scott 

A pair of oil paintings by Alexander Scott 1854-1925 - a Briton who lived about 25 years in Darjeeling between c. 1898 - 1923 - came up @ an auction in the UK mid 2016. 

Scott was not only an expert on & scholar of Buddhist religion & art, friend of many Lamas, widely travelled within Tibet & India - he was also a 1st rate painter in oils, his specialty being landscapes painted en plein (meaning a painting executed on the spot or in plain air, i.e, in the open). 

There are very few painters who paint direct on canvas on the spot, in the open air - usually only a pencil or pen & ink sketch or a watercolour wash drawing is made on the spot. The oil or watercolour is then painted in the studio from the sketch. 

A distinct or special feature of En plein or Plein air paintings is that they capture faithfully the atmospherics - the light, the colours, the sky, the reflections & shadows - & therefore have an immediacy about them, i.e, that sense of being there on the spot @ that precise moment in time. Paintings done in the studio of the artist, even with the aid of field sketches & notes about light & colour,  do not convey the atmospherics to the same extent. And, with experience of viewing many paintings, it is usually possible to tell an en plein  painting from a studio job (although 1 could be wrong too @ times). 

Scott, although a top notch painter, was better known as a scholar of Tibet. And the University of Pennsylvania commissioned Scott in 1915 - 18 to collect Tibetan Buddhist artifacts for its Museum - those objects he collected are still the core of the Museum collection. 

The Auction 

The description for the paintings being auctioned read :  

Nielghery Hills from Ootacamund, India, - Scott (Alexander). 

Description : oil on canvas, signed lower left (18 x 24ins), period frame, with old hand-written label to verso, together with another similar oil on canvas by Alexander Scott of a mountain scene in India, signed lower left, (24.25 x 18.25ins), period frame, glazed. 

Artist or Maker : Scott (Alexander) 

Other than the reference to the Neilgherry hills, there was no information about the locations of the paintings nor any mention of the names of the peaks depicted. This pleased me no end - because, while I could ID the locations & peaks in the 2 paintings, I also knew that such sparse description of the items meant that virtually no other bidder could. 

It is mostly the case that, however good a painting, people like to know something about the location, the subject & so on - in the absence of such info, buyers see little point in acquiring a painting just because it is very appealing. 

And I was left wondering what the labels - mentioned in the description - said. This - was a notable omission on the part of the auction house which is a major auctioneer though not in the top tier. 

The Alexander Scott Paintings 

Given the lack of info in the description, I easily won the pair @ the auction - there were a couple of other bidders but they lost Dum, i.e, ran out of puff & steam after the 1st round of bidding. Not only did the pair of oils reach only half of their estimated auctioneer price range - which is just an indicative range with many items usually fetching several times the indicated top price - but I was able to get them for about a tenth of their true value in a good market!! Just goes to show how you can get real bargains - if you know what you are bidding on but the other bidders aren't sure.

The oils turned out to be even better in the hand than the auctioneer's photos showed. The colouring was exquisite, a light but sure & deft touch evident in the brush work & the atmospherics of the moment captured brilliantly, that is to say, the light, the colours & the clouds of that fleeting moment. 

My pair are those of the Sispara peak (the oblong or portrait shape painting) & of the Mukurthi peak (the horizontal or landscape orientated painting). Sispara is 24" x 18" and Mukurthi 18 x 24". I dated the pair of oils as c. 1875 - 1900. 

The Labels : A Clear Provenance & A Firm Dating : 

And the auction house asked if I wanted the pair of labels attached to the paintings - of course I did, yes! 

These labels turned out to be the real bonus, the perfect provenance - read together, they revealed that the oils had been painted for Francis Brandt ICS of Church Street, Kensington & were gifted by him to his grandson, Frank Brandt. 

Francis Brandt had been Collector Nilgiris district in 1884, before being appointed, towards the end of that year, as a Judge of the Madras High Court. This helps us date the paintings precisely to 1884; as the District Collector, Brandt must have helped Alexander Scott with guides & other support for the latter's field cum painting outings in these hills. And the paintings had been either gifted by Scott or commissioned by Brandt. Francis Brandt's only son - Capt Frank Brandt of the RN, a famous Naval officer - having died in the Battle of Coronel 1914, the senior Brandt must have presented the paintings to his grandson, Frank, sometime after 1914. 

The Nilgiri Peaks in the Scott Oils : 

Now, firstly, Jpegs of Sispara and then of Mukurthi - the 2 oils by Scott which are now mine. The labels after those.
Sispara - 24 x 18 inches. Oil : signed by Alexander Scott. 1884.


Mukurthi : 18 x 24 inches. Oil : signed by Alexander Scott. 1884.

The oils  are splendid to view - they may look like artistically embellished views but they are NOT. Scott's depictions are true to life & exactly as they look in that light & from that point of view - as I will show further below. Plein air painting @ its best. 

Mukurthi - Sispara & the Mukurthi/Silent Valley National Parks

Mukurthi & Sispara are very prominent peaks in the Nilgiris, Mukurthi about 8350 feet & Sispara nearly 7250 feet (both in the Silent Valley Reserve, only trekkable). Mukurthi is about 20 KMs SSW of Ooty & Sispara about 25 KMs along the steep descent due SW of Mukurthi - thus, the 2 peaks stand Sentinel @ either end to the Mukurthi National Park which is contiguous with the Silent Valley National Park just over the state border in Kerala. 

The JPEG of a map illustrating this lie of the land is reproduced next. The scenery affords some of the most stunning montane panoramas - grassy downs interspersed with ancient Shola woods & craggy peaks rising above them.
Google Satellite  View : Mukurthi-Sispara & the Devil's Gap in relation to Ootacamund.

It is no coincidence that all 4 of the highly accomplished 19th Century British artists who visited these hills painted several views of the Mukurthi-Sispara area. 

Since a picture is more eloquent than a thousand words, I post below some contemporary photos of the 2 peaks & the downs. As I do not have good photos of my own, I have freely borrowed these images from the Net (acknowledging & crediting the respective owners).


The Devil's Gap & Bhangitapal : 2 Notable Spots within Mukurthi - Sispara : 

These 2 unique features of the Mukurthi - Sispara belt also came to the notice of some of these artists. 

The Devil's Gap is a narrow defile or ravine between 2 parallel rock formations running roughly SW on the way down the rough track through the Mukurthi pass to the Kerala plains - the steep & zig zagging track is known as the Devil's Gap route & passes the Gap on its South Eastern side. It was the route taken by many Europeans in the 19th Century to enter the Nilgiris from Kerala - including 1 of our artists. 

The view through either end of the 2 parallel rock formations offers a line of sight to both Mukurthi peak - looking up from the SW end of the Devil's Gap - & to Sispara peak, looking down the NE end of the Gap. 

Our artist's made full use of these lines of sight as the vista produced is like looking through an aperture, a funnel or tunnel, albeit open to sky. An extract from the Madras Journal of Lierature & Science 1836 (pages 281-282) - which is, in fact, the period many of these landscape views were painted - makes this clear : 
For a true appreciation of the steep descent to the Kerala plains from the Devil's Gap area - please have a look @ the Google satellite map of the Devil's Gap Road or Route : https://www.google.com/maps/@11.3453872,76.5664699,731m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en-US

Below is an overview of the Devil's Gap & the Track. The ideal way to appreciate this breathtaking terrain & the steepness of the descent is to zoom the Google map. 




Bhangitapal, also spelt Bangitappal, is a staging post - just 4 KMs due south of The Devil's Gap - on another track which leads down to the Sispara peak & thence into the Nilambur Valley Kerala. The name of the place derives from Bhang (Cannabis) & Tapal or Post - the place once having been used as a halt by both Marijuana smugglers & later by Dak or mail runners to & fro the Kerala plains. 

The Bhangitapal Shack - now distinguished by the name of Rest House - still stands, having probably been built in the early 1800s, as its stone construction shows. The shack stands in the lee of some hills in the foreground with the serrated peak of Sispara looming behind them, a most appealing view. Some of our artists took note of this too!

The Bhangitapal Shack - betraying its 19th Century vintage. From Wikipedia.

Below are Google maps of The Devil's Gap & Bhangitapal. 

I also add some excellent photos which Ian Lockwood has very kindly permitted me to use. Ian spends his time between the Pulney Hills (Kodiakanal) in South India & Sri Lanka & is active in topographical & vegetational surveys in these hills. 

Ian Lockwood's blog : https://ianlockwood.blog/ is a wonderful source of information about the montane tracts & habitats of the Western Ghats & of Sri Lanka with an environmental focus & with many fine photographs of a high professional quality. Many LandSat & satellite images are discussed in Ian Lockwood's blog posts to highlight both the decimation of the biotope & in some cases its happy regeneration or reversion to type (in the case of abandoned plantations).
The Devil's Gap as seen from the South along its length - photo by Ian Lockwood
The Landscape Paintings of Mukurthi-Sispara-Devil's Gap & Bhangitapal 

Having set - in more than somewhat excruciating detail perhaps  -  the Mukurthi-Sispara scene & the context, as it were, let us see how our 19th Century artists handled these breathtaking views. 1st off, let us go back to the Alexander Scott pair. 

The Scott Oils 

Scott has painted his Mukurthi from the lower or bottom end of the Devil's Gap, looking up @ the peak. Just compare the oil & the photograph taken from the same position (& lifted by me from an online page) - the true to life quality of Scott's plein air painting is astonishing when compared with the fphoto. Just for effect - as well as for an appreciation of the way it is done, to capture that moment in time - I have also added a photo of Alexander Scott painting in plein air in the Himalayas (taken from the U Penn museum site).
Next, we have Scott's Sispara, compared with a watercolour (10 x 14 inches) with me by Maj (later Lt Col) Edward Archdall McCurdy 1797-1842, dated by me as c.1835-37 (when McCurdy was known to have visited the hills more than once).
Sispara - watercolour by E A McCurdy 14 x 10 inches. Circa 1837-38.

It is likely that this McCurdy was sketched on the spot & later worked up a watercolour using the sketch. Excellent as the McCurdy is, the plein air work of Scott has an immediacy & appeal that the former cannot match - @ least that is how it looks to me. But this is not the only instance of the fascination that artists had for the Devil's Gap & the sheer exuberance of the vegetation & topography to be found in the Nilgiris. There are several other examples below. 

The Early Watercolours with Me of Sispara-Mukurthi-Bhangitapal-Devil's Gap 

The Nilgiris were settled from about 1821 - 1st Ooty & a few years later, Coonoor & Kotagiri, say 1830. We know from period reports - such as Baikie's Observations on the Neilgherries 1834 - that Ooty had barely 150 European homes & Coonoor about 70 @ this time. So,essentially very small settlements; early days. It is, therefore, altogether a matter of surprise that 3 of the most well known artists of these hills were already present in the Nilgiris - @ the same time, in fact - by 1835, a mere 10-12 years after the founding of the hill stations & ranging far & wide in the mountain fastness to paint the landscape. 

Richard Barron 1798-1838 :The earliest among these artists to arrive in the Nilgiris, even if only by a whisker, seems to have been Richard Barron. Captain Barron, of His Majesty's 3rd Regiment, or the Buffs, & aide-de-camp to Lt. General Sir Frederick Adam, Governor of Madras 1832-7, stayed in the Nilgiri Hills in 1835 & quite possibly made annual repeat visits with the Governor. He returned to England 1837 & died of tuberculosis the next year @ the regimental depot in Chatham, Kent. 

When Barron's views of the Neilgherries were published in 1837, they were dedicated to Sir Frederick & accompanied by descriptive text. However, those published views relate to Ootacamund & Coonoor proper, there is nothing of the outlying areas. These Barron engravings are so well known, I am not posting photos of them here. 

But Barron was a proficient painter in oils & we know that he painted @ least 50 oils of the Nilgiris - albeit only 3 of them are known today. Two with the British Library & the 3rd with me (which seems to me by far the best of the 3, even if I say so myself). We know he did as many as 50 from the numbering on the backs of the canvas, mine being in the 40s. 

The purchase of my oil was made possible by my friend Charles Greig. An art critic & expert on the art of the British Raj, he had also earlier sourced the other 2 for the BL & confirms that the canvas numbers of those 2 were in also the high 20s or 30s. 

Let me present those Barron oils now, mine - of Doddabettah, the tallest peak in the Nilgiris - 1st, then the 2 with BL.
View of Mercara (Coorg NOT Nilgiris) - oil 12 x 18 inches. Circa 1835-37. British Library.

Take a close look @ the Doddabettah : the view is of the east face of the peak, looking westward from Coonoor. The morning sun rakes the peak tops to highlight the soft green tint of the grassy slopes, while shedding a golden glow on the semi circle below, which is today's Wellington Cantonment. As the Sun has yet to crest, fully, the hill behind to the east - i.e, behind the viewer & the artist - the pathway with the Todas in the foreground, bearing the carcass of a stag slung on poles, is only dimly lit up. This pathway is now the Coonoor-Kotagiri Road right below my home on that same hill in Coonoor, east of the Kotagiri Road & it looks like Barron stood on it whilst painting the scene. 

I next reproduce the zoomed in detail of a photo of Doddabettah @ right extreme of the frame - taken by me from the 1st floor of my home a 100 feet above the pathway; you can see the 2 hills, 1 behind the other, in the foreground @ right extreme which also appear in the Barron oil. The play of a range of light & shade in the oil suggests it was @ least partly painted in plein air (& perhaps worked up in the studio). 

But there was a puzzle to be resolved with reference to the Todas in the Barron painting - they are known to be staunch vegetarians. So, why were they taking the deer home? Had Barron erred in taking artistic licence? 

A quick reference to W H R Rivers on the Todas was fortuitous in settling the question - Rivers says that the Todas, whilst strict vegetarians generally, do very rarely consume venison (but never hunt it themselves). And a contemporary work by Dr Tarun Chhabra -THE expert on the Todas of today - confirms that the practice continues to this date!  

Barron seems to have been a fine watercolourist too, as this 1 of Kulhutty waterfalls, the only Barron watercolour that I have come across - once with Charles Greig & photo kindly supplied by him - shows. Since Kulhutty/Kalhatty is over 10 miles from Ooty, we can also appreciate that Barron took in everything worth seeing in the Nilgiri landscape. 


Waterfall @ Kulhutty Nilgiris - watercolour by Richard Barron c. 1835. Photo courtesy of Charles Greig.


And a contemporary photo of Kulhutty :



I have said above that only 3 oils by Barron are known to exist - out of 50 or more he painted in the Nilgiris.But we know what a 4th oil might have looked like because there is a very basic etching made of it - it also tells us that Barron did not merely confine himself to the environs of Ooty & Coonoor. He did paint the Devil's Gap, a very direct view looking down the gap @ the Kerala plains & foothills. 


The Devil's Gap - engraving after Richard Barron.

Surely, I was not the only 1 on whom these landscape paintings of the Nilgiris made such a profound impression : Kalyan Varma - a well known photographer in Bangalore -  was induced, on sighting my FaceBook post of this engraving of Barron's Devil's Gap, to undertake a trek in the Nilgiris. KV went to approximately the same spot as the one Barron took his view from (1830s) and the result is what you see : http://kalyanvarma.net/journal/2009/08/07/revisiting-nilgiris-peaks-and-passes/

Kalyan Varma's photo of the Devil's Gap compared with the Barron engraving. Photo from Kalyan Varma's blog.

Capt (later Lt Col) Edward Archdall McCurdy 1797-1842 : E A McCurdy, a Captain (later a Lt Colonel) in the 27th Native Infantry of the Madras Army, published 2 folio editions of lithographs of his Nilgiris works : 1. "Views of the Neilgherries, or Blue Mountains of Coimbetoor, Southern India & 2. "Three Panoramic Views of Ottacamund, the chief station on the Neilgherries  (in both cases no date but c.1840-42). These are rare sets, seldom seen @ auctions. 

McCurdy's original watercolours with me depict the Nilgiris & the Nilgiri Wynaud, the range of hills to the west of & adjoining the Nilgiris (the Nilgiri Wyenaud being mostly in today's Kerala state). The Nilgiri Wyenaud is but a day's march or 2 from Ootacamund and clearly McCurdy was there @ least in 1839, if not more than once. There is evidence in Kew that - from his Bangalore base in this period - he made frequent trips to these hills during 1835-39, often to collect botanical specimens for Robert Wight, the Botanist. McCurdy died - of Cholera, if I remember right - 28 December 1842 @ Russell Kondah Andhra. There is a memorial plaque for him put up by his fellow officers in St Mary's @ Fort St George Madras. 

The picture below is a watercolour which shows the view from the Officers' Mess in Manantoddy (Manantawadi today) in the Wyenaud. At the time this watercolour was drawn, January 1839, McCurdy's regiment was stationed in Bangalore. And, clearly, he took advantage of this posting to holiday & sketch in the Nilgiris and the Wyenaud, places only a few days' march from Bangalore. 


View from the Officer's Canteen Manantoddy (Nilgiris Wyenaud) - watercolour 9 x 12.5 inches by E A McCurdy - so inscribed & dated 12th Jan 1839.


The "cleaned up" or photo-shopped version of McCurdy's Manantoddy- photo courtesy Dr John Roberts (anthropologist & keen student of Raj history from the USA)


You can see that the McCurdy has been cut into 2 pieces (possibly with a view to have the reduced drawing lithographed - with some crude pillars & eaves probably added by the lithographer - but the idea was no doubt abandoned as I am not aware of any such published litho). So, I have also posted after it the Photoshopped version - after scrubbing the unwanted & clumsy additions in a different hand.

The inscription @ the back is the next, 2nd, picture & it matches with a known sample of McCurdy's handwriting in Kew (the 4th picture). But it is the style of the drawing which is conclusive for the attribution.  





I had posted this on FaceBook some years back & it inspired a blogger from Kerala to go to the spot to see what it looks like now : http://kallivalli.blogspot.com/2015/08/mananthavady-new-finding-of-old-drawing.html. His photo of the spot appears below, a drastically changed scene, expansive acres of grassy downs gobbled by concrete. 


View from the likely spot in Manantoddy whence McCurdy took his watercolour view above. Photo from Maddy's Ramblings blogspot.

There were still others on whom McCurdy's watercolours of the Nilgiris exercised a powerful hold, 1 of them being General James Maurice Primrose 1818-92 of the 43rd or Monmouthshire Light Infantry. The 43rd was based largely in India 1853-64, Primrose arriving as a Captain & rising to Lt Colonel. The 1st 5 years or so, the Regiment was based in Bangalore. Primrose seems to have had a real passion for the Western Ghats range of India, especially the Nilgiris & Mahabaleshwar. He repeatedly visited the Nilgiris & painted over 50 watercolours of these hills & @ least 20 of Mahabaleshwar. I do not own any of his paintings. 

But an online image of 1 Primrose watercolour is striking - it is of Sispara & astonishingly enough, seems to have been closely modelled on a similar view of the peak by McCurdy. Primrose has  found - no doubt after a good deal of trudging & shuffling around on the steep slopes - almost the very spot that McCurdy sketched from. And his view so closely resembles McCurdy's - the palette, the colouring, the outlines & the light - that it could almost be a McCurdy but for the difference in the brush strokes.  


Sispara - watercolour by E A McCurdy - 11 x 14.5 inches. C. 1837-38


Sispara - watercolour by Gen James Maurice Primrose 1854.

It is very certain that Primrose had the McCurdy watercolour with him & used it as a model - & quite possibly disposed of it after taking his own, similar view. That is quite some provenance for the McCurdy Sispara now owned by me! 

Yet another artist who modelled his own sketch of the Devil's Gap after the 1 by McCurdy (already posted above but repeated here below) was Philip Meadows Taylor 1808-76. Meadows Taylor had been a civil servant in the employ of the Nizam of Hyderabad for most of his career, finally being appointed by the East India Company as the Collector of the Ceded Districts in southern Andhra - thus becoming a servant of the EIC towards the very end of his service. A well known author & amateur artist, Meadows Taylor had holidayed in the Nilgiris & sketched the Devil's Gap, possibly in the 1850-60s. 

Meadows Taylor's sketch was worked up into a monochrome etching - with period hand colouring subsequently added - & published in the Gazetteer of the World 1886 & described as Kooner Pass in the letterpress. The Jpegs of my Mc Curdy of The Devil's Gap & of the engraving after Taylor are the next 2 images. 


The Devil's Gap & Sispara - E A McCurdy. Watercolour 10 x 15 inches c. 1835-38.


Kooner Pass (the Devil's Gap) - engraving of 1886 after Philip Meadows Taylor's sketch of c.1850-60. Size 4.5 x 6 inches.

Although Taylor's line of sight is slightly different to McCurdy's, both views have been taken standing @ the top of the Gap - with Sispara's profile visible in the background. 

And, if imitation is the best form of flattery, McCurdy employed that artifice too - by making an engraving of my Barron oil of Doddabettah. It was published as 1 of the plates in his Views of the Neilgherries, cited above. The engraving is titled "the Great Peak of Doddabetta '' & is a faithful copy of the Barron Oil.  McCurdy, of course, is not known to have painted in oils & so, this engraving is clear evidence that he knew Barron & Barron's works. 

For ease of reference that Barron oil of Doddabettah is again reproduced below & the McCurdy engraving after that : 


Doddabettah - oil 18 x 24 inches by Richard Barron 1835.


Ottacamund (sic) : View of the Great Dodabetta - engraving after Barron by E A McCurdy published c. 1842.

We are not forgetting Peacocke, our 3rd Nilgiris artist of the period, but will round off McCurdy with 1 more of my watercolours by him - this is a favourite, a vista of rolling downs with the 3-pointed Mukurthi looming behind.This view shows the NE or NNE face of Mukurthi & is taken looking SW from somewhere south of Naduvattom (some 10 miles ex Ooty). I found that General Primrose has also painted a very similar scene, allowing for change of orientation or line of sight. 1st the McCurdy - c.1835 - followed by the Primrose (which I found online). 


Mukurthi from the NE - Naduvattopm Side. Watercolour 10.5 x 15 inches by E A McCurdy c. 1835-38.

 
View from the Lawn of Our Cottage @ Neddiwuttom - showing the NNE face of Mukurthi. Watercolour by Gen James Maurice Primrose. 1864.

Then a contemporary photo taken from the Nilgiri Tourism pagen : again a slightly different orientation but the peak profiles can be seen to match.



It is also clear that McCurdy stood may be a couple of miles nearer to the spot as compared to Primrose. The latter's view was taken from the lawns of his cottage @ Naduvattom 1864. 

I much prefer the McCurdy which looks like it may have been painted partly in plein air - albeit very likely finished in the studio. Primrose too had an opportunity to paint in the open from his garden - but the "feel" of the painting is that he worked it up in the studio from a sketch. He might, however, have been able to look out of the window of his studio to get the colours right but it is mostly a studio job, it seems. 

Excellent as the Primrose work is, the play of light & shafts of sunlight in the McCurdy conveys an immediacy & the atmospherics too. Did Primrose gild the Lily ever so slightly? Perhaps but all the same it is a beautiful depiction of the scene from his lawns. 

Capt (later Lt Col) Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke 1813-72 : Although Peacocke was about 15 years younger than McCurdy & Barron, his time in the Nilgiris 1835 or 36 coincided with theirs.  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, returning to England January 1843. In 1853 he was promoted to Major but by 1854 -55 he appears on the retired list. 

In 1835-39 Peacocke was posted to Cannanore Kerala with a small detachment of the 25th Foot & it was during this period that he was given a furlough to visit the Nilgiris for convalescence. It is a march of 125 miles over the passes from Cannanore on the west coast to the Nilgiris & the journey was usually accomplished in 9 easy stages or 9 days. 

Some 16 views in the Nilgiris taken by Peacocke were published 1847 by Paul Gauci in London as tinted lithographs - a 2 tone process usually involving sepia & grey - under the title Views in the Neilgherry & Koondah Ranges.  

These grey & sepia lithos were issued with hand colouring for an extra charge. However, most of the lithos in my set of the Peacocke tinted lithos could have been coloured on the stones, i.e, printed in colours. This suggests they were late "pulls", say a couple of years after the 1847 release - by which time multiple plate coloured lithography had become commonplace in England (& it must have been an easy matter for the 2-tone lithos to be coloured a la poupee - with a "doll", i.e, rag - on the 2 individual litho stones/plates). 

Peacocke too ranged far & wide in the Nilgiris & produced some outstanding vistas of the landscape. A blog post of them was published by me 2009 - http://gibberandsqueak.blogspot.com/2008/12/ooty-preserved-sunlit-hillscapes-of.html - & attracted the attention of Kalyan Varma who trekked to the spot to take in & photograph the scene : : http://kalyanvarma.net/journal/2009/08/07/revisiting-nilgiris-peaks-and-passes/ . 

I publish those Peacocke lithos & Kalyan's photos next :  


The Koondahs - litho after Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke.


The Koondahs - the Peacocke litho & Kalyan Varma's photo (taken from his blog).

Some other Peacocke lithos are of interest too - 1 of them is the Bearer's Godown @ the Avalanche posted below. This litho affords an excellent view of the Avalanche area  - a small & lonely hcluster of Bearer's huts perched in the lee of the peaks looming eerily above it. 


Bearers' Godown @ the Avalanche - tinted litho after STephen Ponsonby Peacocke. Published 1847 in London.

The Avalanche, just a few miles east of & above Bhangitapal, was a resting place for travellers marching to the hills from Kerala - & Peacocke must have halted here on his own march from Kerala. 

In 2011, some 2 years after my 1st blog Post on Peacocke, I found that a dealer in London, slightly known to me, had some watercolours by the artist. These watercolours puzzled me for a long time - they very much revealed Peacocke's hand & looked like wash drawings @ 1st but - though nowhere near finished - they had some of the attributes of a finished watercolour. Was Peacocke a poor, mediocre watercolourist then & was the lithographer to be credited for all the embellishment & finish in the lithos?? 

The Penny finally dropped when I noticed that all the "watercolours" were in Sepia & Grey - the colour mediums for a tinted or 2-tone litho. 

Yes, these were not the original watercolours but ones specially painted again by Peacocke as a guide for the lithographer, Pual Gauci, to draw on stone - hence the tonal, 2-tone hues in the watercolours. It is, of course, possible for the lithographer to have traced the outlines of the original watercolour & add the right tone in each area of the image. But the depth & light in @ least 2 of these paintings, as well as the lissom human figures - View near Hullicul & the Road-cut - are diagnostic for Peacocke having done them. 

These 2 tone watercolour washes & the resulting lithos are reproduced below (& will serve as an illustration of 1 pf the key processes in lithography). 




Preparatory watercolour wash drawing/sketch by Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke for the litho : Roadcut between Conoor (sic) & Ooty. Size 11 x 14.5 inches, i.e, identical to that of the published litho.


Litho : Roadcut between Conoor (sic) & Ooty. Size 11 x 14.5 inches, i.e, identical to that of the above watercolour wash.




Preparatory watercolour wash by Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke for the litho : View Amongst the Hills Hullikul. Size 11 x 14.5 inches, i.e, identical to that of the published litho.



Litho : View Amongst the Hills Hullikul. Size 11 x 14.5 inches, i.e, identical to that of the watercolour wash.


Preparatory watercolour wash by Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke for the litho : View of Conoor (sic) from the Ootah Road. Size 11 x 14.5 inches, i.e, identical to that of the published litho.


Litho : View of Conoor (sic) from the Ootah Road. Size 11 x 14.5 inches, i.e, identical to that of the watercolour wash.

Have a look @ the 3rd watercolour above & its litho - View of Conoor from the Ootah Road. On zooming the Jpeg of the watercolour, you will see that the outlines of a tree have been sketched in - that is to say outlined in pen & ink, not painted in watercolour or wash (as the rest of the image has been).

And you will see that tree reproduced in exact shape, form & outlines - almost leaf for leaf, bough for Bough - in the finished litho above it. 

It is clear that the tree was sketched in by the lithographer, Paul Gauci in discussion with Peacocke - & added @ Gauci's suggestion to "prettify" the view! Thus we have conclusive proof that these watercolour washes were specially painted by Peacocke for the purpose of preparing the litho plates or stones.

Of course, the 3 Peacocke watercolour washes in 2-tone are the exact size of the published litho images - 11 x 14.5 inches. 

And then, April 2019, I found a watercolour of Coonoor being auctioned online - recognised it @ once as a Peacocke & was again able to buy it cheap. By way of Corroboration of my attribution to Peacocke, I was lucky to find an online image of a letter penned in his hand & could match the script with that on the bottom of the painting! That inscription on the watercolour reads : Bridge Coonoor & I was able to ID it as the Victoria Bridge - on the way from Sim's Park to Wellington Cantonment. Here are photos of the watercolour, the inscription, my recent photos of the Victoria Bridge & of the Peacocke letter :  


The Bridge Coonoor - watercolour by Stephen Ponsonby Peacocke c. 1836. Size 11 x 14.5 inches. The painting depicts the Victoria Bridge on the short road from Coonoor to its suburb, Wellington Cantonment. The bridge is still in use.



Above : the inscription on the Peacocke watercolour of the Bridge. In Peacock'es hand. Below : a letter by Peacocke in matching hand.


The Victoria Bridge - recent photo by the author.

You can see from my photograph - after allowing for the latter day levelling of the slope @ left - how accurate Peacocke's topography is. The camels in the painting are not really the surprise they seem @ 1st - in the 1830-50s the Nilgiris were primarily supplied by itinerant traders, many of whom were Pathans from the North West. Again, the size of the image is 11 x 14.5 inches - making it clear that all Peacocke sheets were identically sized but that this 1 was not chosen for lithographic reproduction. 

I know I have banged on enough & more about these artists & the Nilgiris landscape - yes but there is just 1 more thing to be added. 

Barron-McCurdy-Peacocke-Primrose : We have already noted that the record shows that Barron, McCurdy & Peacocke were in the Nilgiris during the same period - 1835-38. We can also infer - from the engraving by McCurdy of the Barron of Doddabettah - that the 1st 2 knew each other well. It is also very probable that Peacocke knew these 2 artists - not only because Oooty & Coonoor were very small settlements @ the time but since 2 of his compositions - a view of Ooty & a view from the Upper Bungalow Coonoor - are loosely modelled, respectively, on those of Barron & McCurdy. He certainly had seen their works. 

It is also notable that these 3 artists were serving infantry officers - having perhaps attended as Cadets either Marlow or Addiscombe; both these establishments as well as Woolwich trained their intake in field sketching, surveying & watercolour painting. And it is no surprise, therefore, that there is evidence of all these skills in the topographic fidelity of the works of all the 3 as well as in those of General Primrose. 

But how come the works of Scott & even of Meadows Taylor are equally accurate, topographically speaking & otherwise too? We must remember that all watercolourists & painters who had received proper training were well versed in field sketching. After all it was Paul Sandby, a great watercolourist, who was drawing master @ Woolwich. 

A View in the Nilgiris :  

I have a fine view from all the 1st floor windows of my Coonoor home which is located on the slopes of a hill & @ 6525 feet altitude. The view takes in several peaks & the valley - Wellington Cantonment with the Staff College, the Barracks & the Golf links is seen @ right & Lower Coonoor @ left.  Doddabettah - the tallest Nilgiris peak @ 8900 feet plus - is @ extreme right & the 3-pointed Mukurthi - about 7400 feet - @ extreme left. 

The view is framed by the spurs of 2 low hills - like the claws of a pincer - @ extreme left & right in the foreground - my own Devil's Gap as it were! 

There are grand sights to be seen with an expanse of blue skies & fluffy cumulus in the course of the day, the bluest of blue dawn breaks & some extraordinarily colourful sunsets too. Photos below : 



Panoramic view of the Valley & the Peaks from the upper floor windows of the author's home in Coonoor - Wellington Cantonment @ right & Lower Coonoor left. Doddabettah peak @ extreme right & the 3-pointed Mukurthi @ left. Morning.


The bluest of velvety blue skies @ the break of dawn - from outside the author's home in Coonoor. 5.45 AM.



Sunset over the Coonoor-Wellington Valley & the Peaks - from the upper floor windows of the author's home in Coonoor.

This is all by way of declaring 1 reason for my interest in Nilgiri landscape views. But there is a 2nd & equally persuasive reason. For long years I have been an admirer & collector of British Raj landscape art of the 18th & 19th Centuries - the "photography" of those times. The collection includes about 60 + watercolours, prints & oils of the Nilgiris. I am always on the lookout for more Nilgiris items of good quality. 

Because I think the Raj era topographic art of the Nilgiris belongs here - & I hope I can bring more paintings back to where they were sketched or painted on the spot, on location. 

That will be a fitting homecoming for the works as well as a tribute to those painters.