Thomas Daniell played an instrumental role in graphically documenting a wide geographical and cultural range of sites across the Indian subcontinent, travelling more extensively than any of his contemporary colonial artists, and earning him the title ‘artist-adventurer’. This view of a ruined Mughal structure in Bihar is a remarkable example of Thomas Daniell’s response to the exotic architecture, flora and fauna he saw in India during his travels.
In 1784 Daniell received permission from the East India Company – the commercial company which controlled European access to Northern India - to travel around the country in the company of his nephew, William. They left England on 7 April 1785 and arrived in Calcutta via Canton early in 1786. Calcutta was the capital of British India and few painters went ‘up country’, beyond the areas in direct Company control. Most British artists during this period arrived in India as portrait painters, undertaking landscape painting as an ancillary, as such they rarely left the areas administered by the British. This makes the tours the Daniells undertook exceptional.
In September 1786 Daniell and his nephew set on the first of a series of pioneering tours: from Calcutta to Srinagar which was to last three years followed by a circular tour from Mysore to Madras (1792–3), and culminating in a visit to Bombay and its temple sites in 1793. It is possible to accurately chart their progress from William’s journal as well as the carefully notated drawings that both artists made. Mildred Archer writes in her Introduction to Artist Adventurers in Eighteenth Century India: Thomas and William Daniell: ‘Scarcely a day passed without sketches being made or worked up into full watercolours. Many of these are inscribed with titles and dates – those in ink being by Thomas and most of those in pencil by William. Together they form a vast pictorial record of the Daniells’ itinerary.’
This exceptional watercolour depicting a palace pavilion under a banyan tree resulted from a visit made in February 1790 up-country, 300 miles from Calcutta. The structure is part of the complex of the Sher Shah Suri tomb, a 7th century complex. Daniell is fascinated by both the exoticism of the dilapidated building and the immense banyan tree. This watercolour is likely to have been made on the spot and as such is one of the largest and most impressive ‘plein air’ studies of an Indian view made by a British painter during the eighteenth century. It is also the first time this view was recorded by a European painter.
After their first tour the Daniells, again based in Calcutta, sold one hundred and fifty oil paintings by public lottery and the proceeds enabled them to make a tour of Mysore. A second lottery was drawn in Madras in February 1793 comprising sixty-eight oil paintings and eight drawings, which funded their final tour of western India. The Daniells returned to London in September 1794, settling at 37 Holland Street, Fitzroy Square and began translating their studies into exhibition oil paintings which were exhibited at the Royal Academy and the British Institution.
Using the present watercolour as a study, Thomas Daniell painted an oil of the subject. Dated 1811, the painting was given by Paul Mellon to Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.
The Daniells most important project after their return from India was their best-known work Oriental Scenery (issued in six series between 1796 and 1808); 144 hand-coloured aquatint views of Indian views. These represent Mughal and Dravidian monuments, cityscapes and sublime views of mountains and waterfalls and formed the most extensive work of its kind, finding subscribers throughout Britain as well as in Calcutta and Madras. The large scale, number of plates, and use of colour printing were greatly admired and emulated.
As one of the largest and most impressive watercolour studies made by a British artist in India during the eighteenth century, this is an extraordinary monument to the intrepidity of the Daniells. Travelling far further and for far longer than any contemporary artist in India – their landscapes are more comprehensive and immediate than those by William Hodges or Johan Zoffany - the Daniells were the pioneering topographers and with their hugely popular prints, they sparked an international fashion for Indian views which endured throughout the nineteenth century.