East India Company School Botanical Drawings

East India Company’s interest in plants

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the East India Company controlled much of the Indian subcontinent. It was keen to exploit and export India’s valuable natural commodities. India’s plant life was of particular interest. So it commissioned Indian artists to create detailed botanical illustrations to record India’s flora. This collection of 88 rare and scientifically valuable works show the Company’s contribution to the advancement of botanical science.

Used in Medicine

Ayurvedic medicine uses many of the illustrated plants. It is one of the world’s oldest medicinal systems and practiced in India for 3,000 years. It uses plants to treat conditions from skin complaints, wounds and stomach ache to internal bleeding, malaria and epilepsy. The East India Company employed India doctors to treat its staff during their trips to India. Only seven of the drawings depict people and animals rather than botanical specimens.

East India Company botanical drawing with blackened flowers before conservation (left) and after where the flowers are white (right)

East India Company botanical drawing before conservation (left) and after (right)

Recognising the significance

Firstly, in 2013 Martyn Rix (a leading specialist in botanical art) undertook a survey of RAMM’s collection of 400 botanical drawings. During this, he identified 88 watercolour drawings associated with the East India Company as the most important. They were donated in 1927 from the collection of the amateur botanist, Reverend Richard Cresswell (1815-1882).

These drawings are extremely rare, of high quality and historical-scientific significance. As far as we know, RAMM is the only non-national UK collection to hold original drawings from this group. The others are at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum.

The survey was part of a larger review of neglected collections resourced through RAMM’s Major Partner Museum funding.

Conservation

Over time the works became damaged. Many suffered surface soiling, creasing, and tears. A £22,000 grant from Arts Council England’s PRISM (Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material) Fund allowed RAMM to have all 88 works conserved.

Atmospheric pollution also caused discolouration and staining of the colours. Lead white paint was particularly affected and blackened over time. Recently, conservation work reversed these changes and returned the works to their original, stable colours. The image above shows the most severely affected work before (left) and after (right).