The varnish croton (Croton laccifer) is a small tree to growing to 10 metres, found wild in India and Sri Lanka. The softly-hairy leaves are around 10 cm long; the small flowers have conspicuous white stamens. When wounded the plant exudes a white irritant juice; indeed, the whole plant is poisonous, but the leaves and gum are used in Ayurvedic medicine for fever, dysentery and lung disease.
It is also a host plant for the lac insect (Laccifer lacca or Kerria lacca), which produces a red dye and the varnish shellac.
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. Many of the plants were known through their use in Ayurvedic medicine. One of the world’s oldest medicinal systems, it has been practised in India for 3,000 years.
Company School style paintings became popular with wealthy Europeans. It was not uncommon for East India Company officials (who were not employed as medics or botanists) to build their own personal collections of paintings depicting Indian flora and fauna. We cannot be sure how local amateur botanist Richard Cresswell came by this collection of 86 Company School works. It is possible Henry Creighton commissioned them during his time as a judge in Calcutta and that on his death the works came back to the UK with his daughter Frances who later married Richard Cresswell.