East India Company School Drawings

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the East India Company controlled much of the Indian subcontinent. Keen to exploit and export valuable natural commodities, the Company set out to record the flora of India and commissioned Indian artists to create detailed botanical illustrations.

This collection of 88 rare and scientifically valuable works are a testament to the Company’s contribution to the advancement of botanical science.

Many of the plants were known through their use in Ayurvedic medicine. One of the world’s oldest medicinal systems, it has been practiced in India for 3,000 years with plants being used to treat ailments from skin complaints, wounds and stomach ache to internal bleeding, malaria and epilepsy. Seven of the drawings depict people and animals as opposed to botanical specimens.

Recognising the significance

In 2013 Martyn Rix, a leading specialist in botanical art, was engaged to undertake a survey of RAMM’s collection of some 400 botanical drawings. Until then, this material had been largely overlooked by in-house curators and external researchers. After an initial inspection, Martyn identified our most significant group, a set of 88 watercolour drawings donated in 1927 from the collection of the amateur botanist, Reverend Richard Cresswell (1815-1882). The survey was part of a much larger review of neglected collections, resourced through RAMM’s current ACE Major Partner Museum funding.

These drawings are extremely rare and are of both 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.

Some plants

Conservation

A £22,000 from Arts Council England’s PRISM (Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material) Fund allowed RAMM to have all 88 works conserved. Over time the works became damaged through surface soiling, creasing, tears, and atmospheric pollution resulted in discolouration and staining. Pollutants have caused lead-based colours to blacken, changing the appearance and colour balance of many of the drawings. Careful conservation reversed these changes and returnd the work to their original, stable colours.

The image above shows the most severely affected work before (left) and after (right) treatment.