In the following passage from the author’s The Durbar, his record in 100 paintings of the 1902 ceremony in Delhi that announced the accession of Edward VII, he tells of his discovery of the beauties of Indian art and its current perilous condition. — George P. Landow
One day, when we arrived at the Camp, the Major had around him two or three old native pictures, with a view to planning a portion of the Retainers' Procession on the same lines. He showed great appreciation, and when I examined these pictures I began to realise how excellent they were. I was in raptures. The technique was simply marvellous; the pigment pure and clear and crisp. These ancient Indian painters had very different pigment from that which we use. It was curiously like the best of the old Chinese work; they must have used a very crisp white.
While I was explaining the beauties of one of these pictures to the Major, He suddenly talked of an artist, a native in whom he was very much interested, a man whom he would like me to meet. He sent for the artist. This was an opportunity I had longed for to be able to talk technically to a native artist. In a way he expressed the feeling of Indian artists generally; and our conversation left me saddened rather and disappointed. I began by asking what white the old painters used. He said, "Oh, that white no good only common white you buy in bazaars. Much better Chinese white the white of Robertson you get in England that very fine." I was disgusted. It was a knock-down blow to me; yet I battled with him. . I got on to another track. I talked about the little clean-cut lines in some of the old work, lines no thicker than a hair, evidently put on with a brush so fine that one marvels how they could ever have been made. Here the artist was much more encouraging. He told me that for executing this fine work the brushes must be made specially by the artist. I was glad to hear him say this. He told me that all artists in India made their own brushes, especially those for doing the fine work, the small work.
A description of the native method of painting a picture, as nearly as possible as it was told to me by the artist, may be interesting. First of all you buy your black, in a sort of crystal; then you boil it and add a little gum. This is your black, the pigment used for outlining. Then you prepare your other colours in much the same way, by adding gum to the powders, and sometimes honey. In hot weather honey is always used, because it flows more freely. To test the proper consistency of the pigment, you put a little touch on your nail: if it should brush off it is evident that there is not enough honey. The natives do not use a muller, as we do, to grind colours: they use their thumb, and work the pigment round on a slab until it becomes an impalpable paste. When they have prepared their colours, they begin with a very fine brush to outline the subject in the finest possible lines with minute elaboration and completeness. Then they begin to mass in their broad tones, using body colour throughout. After these broad tones have been washed in, the picture is by no means finished. It takes days to complete. They do not, as we do, load the colour and put it on thickly. They make infinite changes of colour in the washes, until they eventually get a solid patch of colour quite opaque. When the drawing is thus mapped out with these patches of opaque colour, they begin with very fine brushes to draw their detail. This they do in a series of hatching flat strokes from right to left, gradually using finer brushes as the space is filled up, and finish by little touches until the solid, compact, opaque tone has been procured. Then they begin to put in the finest detail of all, and by hatchings the shading becomes ever finer and finer until it looks as though it had been done in one wash. An artist will often finish up with a burnisher to get little microscopic touches, and, for very fine detail, so as to get a highly-finished surface. If in some of the pictures the artists have a good deal of gold, they use a chemical to change the colour of the gold to green-gold and red-gold, so as to make that particular portion harmonise with the rest of the picture.
Such, roughly, is the native method of painting a picture. "Of course you have learnt this method in the native schools? " I said. "Oh no," he answered. " You can never learn these things in a native school: the artists will never tell one another anything: everything is a secret." I told him that, in my opinion, there should be no secrets in art. "Ah," he said, "in Europe it is different; but here everything is secret! "
I felt pleased with this artist, and satisfied. His description of the native method of painting had been very interesting, and had quite come up to my expectations. Directly afterwards he shattered all my hopes for Indian art in one fell swoop by remarking that this old method was of no use whatever, and that the only good principle was that of the Bombay School, which all the artists were now endeavouring to copy. After having listened to this fascinating description with enthusiasm, as though he knew what he was talking about and believed in it, to be told that he was following in the footsteps of the Bombay School of design was depressing. Then he went on to talk of perspective and drawing from the antique, and soon I began to feel that things were fairly hopeless. As a sort of final touch, he undid a paper parcel and showed me in a tawdry little gold frame an appalling miniature of the Viceroy niggled, small, and with no merit in it whatever. This man is a typical native artist. Nearly all his fellow-craftsmen seem to face art in the same way so different from the artists in Japan, so much less artistic, and we could not help feeling that there was in very truth no living art at all in India, and that the Viceroy, strive as hard as he may, will not produce revival. . . . .
Lord Curzon talked of the art of the country and of the bad influence that had been brought to bear on it. One felt that he had really studied this subject, and that it came very near to him. He realised as no one else seemed to have done that the art of India was slipping away, and that if vigorous measures were not taken to foster and encourage it we should live to say that there was no living art in India. [187-88]
Menpes, Mortimer. The Durbar. Text by Dorothy Menpes. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1903. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of California at Los Angeles Library. Web. 27 May 2017.
Last modified 2 June 2017