The first great flowering of Indian botanical painting took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when Indian artists worked for surgeons employed by the East India Companies and produced accurate drawings for both reference and scientific study.
But the first Western-inspired paintings of medicinal plants were printed in Holland in 1678 CE, in Hortus Indicus Malabaricus by van Rheede tot Drakenstein, an administrator with the Dutch East India Company. He was interested in the commercial aspects of the plants on the Kerala coast, particularly in the spices and plants with potential medicinal properties. Among those who contributed to his work were practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine.
But it was only with the advent of the British East India Company that artists began to systematically document the flora and fauna of the subcontinent.
– Indian artists already highly skilled in the Mughal, Rajasthani, Lucknow and other Indian miniature traditions were commissioned to make scientifically accurate paintings of plants, flowers and animals.
Towards the end of the 18 century, Company surgeons and doctors became interested in local medicines, seeking out medicinal plants and commissioning illustrations of them, for identification. Amateur enthusiasts of natural history, usually soldiers or civil servants, also made collections of plant and animal paintings, commissioning the same artists who worked for Company surgeons.
One such army officer was Claude Martin, a fascinating man who was also a philanthropist, a builder, a businessman and even fancied himself as a ‘nawab’.
Claude Martin, whose collection of almost 600 plant drawings are at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, had a remarkable career. Martin, the son of a vinegar maker in Lyon in France, went to India in 1751, and joined the French army fighting the Company for control of southern India. When, in 1763, he saw that the British were in the ascendant, he joined the Company’s Bengal army, rising to the rank of major general.
In 1776 he retired, on half pay, and became superintendent of the arsenal for the Nawab of Awadh at Lucknow, but continued to join troops when he fancied some action. In 1792, he took part in the Third Mysore War against Tipu Sultan at Srirangapatna and later died in Lucknow in September 1800, aged 65.
During his military duties Martin collected plants and seeds, and appears to have had his own garden in Lucknow, from which he sent both living plants and specimens to the Calcutta Botanic Garden, some of which were described in Roxburgh’s Flora Indica. These include the fragrant grass named for Martin by Roxburgh, now known as Cymbopogon martini.
Among his drawings at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a letter from Dr Robert Bruce, a surgeon in Lucknow referring to one of Martin’s own botanical sketches: ‘My dear Martin – the flower is very well-done. It is called in botany by a pompous name, the Gloriosa superba, and is, I fancy, the most beautiful of all the lily tribe’.
William Dalrymple has suggested that Martin was the first to commission the Lucknow artists, trained in the Mughal tradition, to paint birds, mammals and flowers in a more Western style, possibly as early as the 1770s, when he imported thousands of sheets of drawing paper from Europe. The Martin plant paintings at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew are, however, later, dating from the 1790s, by which time he was acquainted with the Impeys and the intellectual elite of Calcutta. Apart from collecting plants and animals, Martin was a lavish patron of arts and crafts of all kinds. There are several paintings of him by Zoffany, dating from around 1786, including one of his favourite mistresses, Boulone, clad in trousers and boots and wielding a long fishing rod, with Martin’s adopted son James looking on.
Martin’s collection of plant and animal drawings was given to, or purchased by, Sir Gore Ouseley, who also served the Nawab of Awadh in Lucknow during the time Martin was living there. Ouseley left the drawings to his son, a professor of music at Oxford, and they were eventually purchased for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, along with a number of paintings of Caucasian plants made for Ouseley when he was in Tabriz negotiating peace treaties between Persia, England and Russia, in around 1812.
Martin’s chief distinction is the huge fortune he made for himself, and the philanthropic way he arranged for it to be spent after his death. He instructed that the bulk of his fortune be used to set up schools in India and in France. There are now two La Martinière colleges in Kolkata and two in Lucknow, as well as three in Lyon; the Lucknow boys’ college is housed in the particularly magnificent building named Constantia, designed by Martin as his grand residence and described by Dalrymple as ‘part Enlightenment mansion, part Nawabi fantasy, and part Gothic colonial barracks.’
Martin’s plant drawings, by artists whose names are sadly unrecorded, are in diverse styles, some simple, without perspective, others in a more western European style. The subjects are from the plains and gardens of northern India, with a large proportion of herbal and cultivated plants.
Excerpted with permission from Indian Botanical Art: An Illustrated History by Martyn Rix.