Flower Power: botanical illustrations from India

This collections story draws on an exhibition held at RAMM in 2016, ‘Flower Power: botanical illustrations from India’ and subsequent research by academics and curators at RAMM. It features watercolour drawings of Indian medicinal plants by Indian artists as well as other prints and drawings in the collection at RAMM.

Expand the sections below to read more or view all the individual object records online.


We have relied on plants to treat diseases and aliments for many thousands of years. Plants still play an important role in medicine today. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries English doctors working for the East India Company studied India’s native flora. They hoped to find profitable commodities to export and exploit. Many were used in the Ayurvedic medicinal system which originated over 3,000 years ago. The East India Company set up a number of botanical gardens. They commissioned Indian artists to paint the most important plants they grew.

England controlled a tiny proportion of world trade when the East India Company received its Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1600. The Charter spurred the Company, a small group of Englishmen, to set sail for the East Indies in 1601 to compete with the very active Portuguese and Dutch traders. This was not a success as the price of pepper was very high and there was little demand in the East Indies for the heavy woollen cloth they brought with them.

The voyages were long and a round trip from England to the East Indies and Spice Islands, stopping off at India in both directions, could take up to three years. Death from disease was high and scurvy (a deficiency in vitamin C) was common.

In 1612, the Company founded its first trading post or ‘factory’ on the Indian subcontinent at Surat, where it traded cloth from places such as Exeter for indigo and pepper. Over the next hundred years the Company consolidated its power and expanded its trade throughout India, seeking new commodities that could be sold profitably in Europe. The company became a very powerful commercial and political organisation

Doctors, surgeons and botanists

The East India Company employed doctors and surgeons, all trained in botany, to treat its employees. Even so, only around one-in-ten survived to make the voyage home.

The Company set up botanic gardens to study and grow commercially valuable and medicinal plants. They were run by the Company’s doctors. Scotsman William Roxburgh joined the Company as an Assistant Surgeon onboard ship and his expert knowledge of botany led to his appointment as superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden in 1793. He became known as the Founding Father of Indian Botany.

Image: William Roxburgh (1751–1815), botanist, engraved by Charles Turner Warren. Wikimedia Commons.

William Roxburgh (1751–1815), botanist, engraved by Charles Turner Warren.

The doctors supervised Indian artists who produced and copied illustrations of plants to use for reference. These botanical paintings, as well as paintings of animals and scenes of Indian life, became known as ‘Company School’ paintings.

Plants of the coast of Coromandel

Roxburgh published a number of beautifully illustrated books for the Company. His ‘Plants of the coast of Coromandel: selected from drawings and descriptions presented to the hon. court of directors of the East India Company’ included hand-coloured engravings, copied from illustrations painted by Indian artists. It was published in London in three parts between 1795 and 1818. The names of the Indian artists remain unknown. RAMM has eight plates from these volumes, three are coloured.

Indian artists employed by the East India Company drew the plants from life. The artists often trained in miniature painting, developed a new style , mixing Indian and European traditions. They worked at botanic gardens under the supervision of European botanists who directed them as to exactly how they wanted the plants to be depicted. The plants are usually life size with magnified images of flowers and seeds to the side. Such drawings became fashionable and Company employees commissioned sets of drawings of Indian flora and fauna for themselves.

While this collaboration was creative and produced beautiful artworks, it was unequal. These paintings are highly sought after and found in museums and private collections around the world. The names of the artists are rarely recorded by their British patrons. Yet on the back of 17 of the works at RAMM are attributions in Bengali with an English transliteration. However, the English did not immediately lead us to the artists behind the works.

By tracing the names through various cultural frontiers Professor Nandini Chatterjee, University of Exeter, revealed the works were by a trio of celebrated artists from Patna: Sheikh Zain al-Din, Ram Das and Bhawani Das. Therefore they date to around 1790.

Sheikh Zain al-din সেখ জইনিদ্দী
Ram Das রাম দাস
Bhawani Das ভবানি দাস

Lady Mary Impey’s artists

These three artists worked for Lady Mary Impey, wife of Sir Elijah Impey the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Calcutta. There is also evidence that they worked for Anna Maria Jones, the wife Sir William Jones, after the Impeys returned to Britain.

Painting by Johann Zoffany of the family of Chief Justice Elijah Impey and Mary Impey in Calcutta, India in 1783. Marian Impey (b. 1778) is shown dancing to Indian music.

Mary Impey, pictured here, employed the artists to paint the animals in her private menagerie. Often reffered to as the ‘Impey Album’ the works include attributions to the aritists in Persian.

Image: Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Original painting in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Spain.

Richard Cresswell

We cannot be sure how Richard Cresswell came by this collection. He might have bought them as a lot at an auction or been given to him by one of his botanical friends. Yet it is also plausible they came to him via his wife’s family.

Gateway to the tomb of Husain Shah at Gaur, West Bengal. Etching by James Moffat after Henry Creighton, ca. 1808, Wellcome Collection. CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Frances Creighton was born in Bengal where her father, Robert, was a judge. Research suggests that his father was Henry Creighton (1764-1807).  Charles Grant, a senior Company official, appointed Henry manager of an indigo. He is best known for his research and paintings on the ruins at Gaur. It is possible Henry commissioned the botanical drawings and passed them down through the family. However, research has not yet uncovered any evidence for this connection.

Image: Gateway to the tomb of Husain Shah at Gaur, West Bengal. Etching by James Moffat after Henry Creighton, ca. 1808, Wellcome Collection. CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The East India Company employed British and Indian doctors to care for its employees. English treatments were often ineffective against Indian diseases so the Company turned to Indian medicines.

Ayurvedic medicine (also called Ayurveda meaning science of life) is one of the world’s oldest whole-body medicinal systems. It originated in India more than 3,000 years ago and remains one of the country’s traditional health care systems. In good health the three humours (air, fire and water) are in equilibrium.

Disease results from their imbalance. This is similar to the biologic humours of the ancient Greek system which the Company’s surgeons would have been familiar with. Ayurveda promotes good health through the use of herbal compounds, diet, exercise, and lifestyle recommendations. When disease occurs specific treatments can be recommended to return the balance.

Native plants are an important part of the recommended diet and are used in many traditional treatments. Classical Indian texts give list up to 500 medicinal herbs and other substances. Many plants can be toxic. If used incorrectly they cause serious illness.

Diet is an important element of Ayurvedic medicine. Certain fruits, vegetables and herbs promote general health and wellness in addition to treating specific complaints.

Tea was well known for its restorative properties and was used all over India to cleanse the stomach and balance the body’s humours. Pepper was valued for its cooling properties and tamarind was regarded as an excellent ingredient in curries.

Fruit and vegetables were easily available and medically recommended. Melon and mangoes were thought particularly beneficial but if eaten in excess could cause illness. The Company’s English employees would have been wise to avoid eating too many dates as it was believed that, if unaccustomed to them, they could cause ulcers and weaken eyesight.

Many plants used in Ayurveda are toxic and if used incorrectly or eaten in too great a quantity can cause serious illness.

The East India Company exported commodities that could be sold profitably in Europe. One of the most important was natural indigo – a deep blue dye made from plants (Indigofera tinctoria). Until a synthetic dye was developed in the late 1800s natural indigo was so profitable it was called ‘blue gold’.

Natural dyes, printed cotton (chintz), sugar cane, tea and spices were all important articles of trade for the East India Company. Plant fibres to make ropes for the navy and timber were exported from Bengal and Madras.

Some of the plants used in Ayurvedic medicine are still used to treat the same illnesses today. The way the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is grown and harvested to make pain relieving drugs such as morphine has changed very little over time.

Modern medicine is increasingly looking to plants and animals to provide new cures for the world’s most important diseases including cancer, HIV and diabetes. Many of the plants depicted in the Company School drawings show antibacterial activity and could help tackle antibiotic resistance.

Modern medicine often uses highly-refined extracts to make pharmaceutical drugs instead of whole parts of the plants. Sometimes the active compounds can be made synthetically.

The majority of the Company School drawings in RAMM’s collection depict medicinal or commercially valuable plants. Others show elements of Indian life including people, animals and objects.

The plants are drawn life-size in watercolour and sometimes heightened with gum Arabic or embellished with gold leaf. White and yellow pigments often contain lead. They can absorb sulphur from the atmosphere over time to form black lead sulphide. This was particularly noticeable where lead white gouache has been used for flowers and highlights. In some cases the flowers had become entirely black. Over time, many suffered surface soiling, creasing, and tears.

A grant from Arts Council England’s Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material (PRISM) Fund allowed all of Cresswell’s Company School drawings to be conserved. The work restored these pigments to their original colours by converting the black lead sulphide to converted to white lead sulphate which is stable and close to the original colour.

The physical exhibition was made possible with support from The Finnis Scott Foundation and Arts Council England’s PRISM fund.

Content for this collections story was created with assistance from Dr Martyn Rix, Professor Nandini Chatterjee, Dr Henry Noltie, and Dr Andrew Rudd.

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