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Monday, October 6, 2014

An artist ahead of his time

As someone interested in the birds of India and the history of their study, I decided to make best use of a brief visit to the UK in August 2014 to see the Hodgson and Tickell archives at the Zoological Society of London. I was not prepared for the surprise it held for me and it was clear that too little had been written about these works, particularly in a medium that was accessible to the people of South Asia who ought to know more about this legacy. My three hour perusal threw up many questions that need further research and it seemed worthwhile for me to leave some comments for future researchers.

A bust of Hodgson in the library of the Natural History Museum, London.
Oddly, this bust is not mentioned in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
This bust was bequeathed by Mrs Hodgson in 1913 to the museum.
"...It must also be remembered that, while Gould himself was a skilled craftsman, many of the books that bear his name were illustrated by others, including H.C. Richter, Edward Lear and Joseph Wolf. Indeed, some would regard the last-named as the greatest bird illustrator, particularly in his birds of prey, which combine accuracy with power. One must, I think, qualify this statement by 'of the western world', because the bird paintings from India and China surpass anything that the West has yet produced, and only these, perhaps, come in the category of great art.- David Lack, Review of Fine Bird Books, 1700-1900 in New Statesman 1953, reprinted in Enjoying Ornithology. p. 176

For years, I have wondered what those examples of Indian art might be that Lack saw as superior to the work of someone like Joseph Wolf and I finally have a candidate. Having seen other works from India belonging to the Mughal and Company schools of art, the claim seemed inaccurate. Most of the pictures of this period are flat, lacking perspective and often too small to be accurate. The draft drawings by Hodgson's artist(s) in the 1850s are however entirely different and do indeed rival the best works (including for example, those by Joseph Wolf) of the period, not only in artistry but for the care taken in capturing accurate postural detail from life.
Have you got the latest batch of drawings - twenty two sheets? And are they not wondrous work for a Nipalese? I have some more now executing which I dare any artist in Europe to excel and they are rigidly correct in their minutest detail.- Hodgson to James Prinsep cited in Datta & Carol, 2004, p. 138.

I only examined some bird plates in Volume I of Hodgson’s folios (of 8 volumes, 1125 sheets on birds and 487 on mammals [Cocker & Inskipp (1988):33-34]) and it is clear that these paintings are drafts, but they probably offer more for the researcher than clean final plates (the ones held at the Natural History Museum, which I have not seen). It might help if the draft versions and the final scanned images can be brought side-by-side to compare the styles and corrections incorporated. The draft illustrations in the ZSL are particularly interesting because of the numerous notes and corrections around the images as well as on the back of the sheets. These offer insights into the nature of the collaboration between Hodgson and his native assistants.

?चुरि थे?/ हे?. भौरा वास - some association with bees? for Microhierax

तरि वास - “inhabitant of the terai”

(Plate 40) A typical plate with multiple views, anatomical insets, notes. [Image rights belong to the ZSL]
Inset showing structure of sternum, furcula, toes and wing emargination details [Image rights belong to the ZSL]

Morphometric notes taken by the artist

मादिन (female)
  • चुच् से पुछ (bill) tip to tail
  • चुच् मुख से (bill) tip from face
  • चुच् माथ से (bill) tip from forehead
  • दीचा ? दीचा=ऊँचा =height of bill (A.Pittie)
  • चौरा - width (of what?)
  • पुछ tail
  • दाहिना (right? [what?])
  • फैलाई spread (wing span) (Sanyukta)
  • गोर
  • अंगुली नखसमेत toe with nail
  • पिछे अंगुलि rear toe
  • वजन weight

* the script used is not modern Devanagari. It appears to be somewhat similar to “Kaithi” as described by Eastwick but does not seem to match the description of Grierson.

Close up of the head of Falco peregrinus peregrinator - detail even in the pattern on the iris (and this is a draft)
[Image rights belong to the ZSL]
Hodgson published several notes on anatomy in the Journal of the Asiatic Society, particularly relating to mammals such as the red panda, Ailurus and the pygmy hog, Porcula. In a paper on Elanus (which he refers to in the text by its native name of Chanwa [Hodgson, 1837a]) published in the Madras Journal of Literature and Science, he shows some interest in the use of anatomical traits for bird classification. His foundations of taxonomy were based on the Quinarian system of Swainson which believed in a hidden order followed by the Creator, one based on a repeating pattern involving the magic number of five. The same Elanus paper is also interesting in that Hodgson explores behavioural similarities for the purpose of classification. It is possible that he never published such notes in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal where he would probably have deferred to Edward Blyth as the expert. Many of the illustrations include peripheral sketches of the furcula, sternum, tongue and feet. He was certainly well aware of the use of comparative anatomy in classification, but it seems like he trained his artist to look at these aspects as well.

Caption for illustration of Porcula salvania

लुफा भोटिया वॉली (? Bhotia valley dialect - see postscript) छोटा जंगली सुवर (small jungle pig) साल वन वास (dweller of Sal forests)

There were several script variations in use in Nepal and India in the mid-1800s. As someone with a working knowledge of Hindi, Sanskrit and modern Devanagari script, I was readily able to follow most of the writings and to understand the content. The fact that I was among the few that could read it indicated that these artefacts were not available to those who could appreciate it and to my mind there must be no shortage of interest particularly in the South Asian region. Based on the success of several online crowd-sourced transcription systems, one can expect that these can be readily transcribed if scans of the material were available online.

Here the artist notes that the species is found only in winter (and migratory) [Image rights belong to the ZSL]
The number in red is 789 and can be traced to Aquila imperialis in the catalogue (1846)

Reading through these notes one finds most often a statement on the habitat of the bird at its foot. They sometimes include one or more local names and sometimes notes on seasonality which make use of the English month-names transcribed in Nepali. Hodgson often made use of the distinctive local names in his scientific publications. He was perhaps among the few ornithologists in the region to incorporate local names into his proposed binomial names. Examples of these include his genera Sacfa, Lerwa, Cochoa and such species names as "salvania" (for little pig of the “sal van” or sal forests as in Porcula salvania). He was also, of course, among the major opponents of Lord Macaulay's idea of education through the medium of English and making his opinions known through such notes as his "The Preeminence of the Vernaculars, or the Anglicists answered". His use of local names to form binomials however did have opponents (mainly Jerdon) and he was forced to offer substitute classical names in 1841:
Although I think the prevalent humour of the day, which cannot tolerate any other than Greek and Roman names of genera in Zoology, is, in good part, absurd and pedantic, yet as I am told that continued non-compliance therewith on my part will be considered by most persons as a sort of excuse for past and future appropriations of my discoveries in this branch of science, as described in your Journal, I have now the pleasure to transmit to you a series of classical substitutes for my previous local designations. - Hodgson, 1841

The habitat notes include generalizations such as "always found in the mountains" or "always found in the Terai" which suggest that these are based either on the artist who had intimate knowledge of the bird or a hunter. Carol Inskipp pointed out that the artist and the hunter were different people. That Hodgson had trained hunters to collect specimens, we know from the notes of J.D.Hooker published in the biography by W.W.Hunter. He had to use hunters to obtain specimens from some areas as there were restrictions on his travel. [Cocker & Inskipp (1988):27-28] We do not know the identity of the artists for the specific plates, although it may have been Rajman Singh. There are however two styles in the depiction of the eyes in the birds which suggests more than one artist being involved. On the back of each plate, one finds a table of measurements. These were clearly made by the artist to aid in drawing the bird to scale, however the measurement also includes weight. It is clear that the plates were made to scale, and noted in Gray’s catalogue for each plate associated with specimens. On most pages, this table of measurements is translated into English presumably by Hodgson, however this does not appear to have been done with care. On one plate, matching by the unique numeric measurements, I found that the [peeche ka ungli] (=hind toe) measurement was copied into English against “weight”. This comes as a bit of a surprise given that Hodgson was an eminent orientalist and Tibetan scholar, but we see in some of his Asiatic Society notes that he had someone else do the transcriptions in Devanagari.

Plate 35. A different artist? Note feather shapes and highlight of eye. 

Hodgson was interested in local research on the flora and fauna and it was quite clear that he did not enjoy the fact that most of the ornithological expertise, based only on skins and no field knowledge, at that point of time was in London (or Paris). He complained quite openly about this:

...Whilst the face of our land is darkened with skin-hunters, deputed by learned Societies to incumber science with ill-ascertained species, no English zoological association has a single travelling naturalist in India; nor has one such body yet sought to invigorate local research, numerous as now are the gentlemen in India with opportunities and inclination for observation such us need but the appropriate aid of those bodies to render the investigations of these gentlemen truly efficient towards all the higher ends which the Societies in question are constituted to forward !" - Hodgson, 1837b

Is there then a possibility that Hodgson wished to include the names of the birds in Nepal for a work on birds that would also aid the people of Nepal? The book he wished to produce did not get enough subscribers in any case. [Cocker & Inskipp (1988):35] Carol Inskipp pointed out to me that the idea seems unlikely given the cost of producing such a work apart from noting that the final plates lack the Nepali notes.

Structural details, relative positions of the feathers -
line of scapulars and tertiaries indicated
[Image rights belong to the ZSL]

The notes and corrections on shape pencilled over or alongside the paintings are also quite revealing. Plate 155 showing the Black Baza is particularly interesting. The feather patterning is shown with great care (a biography of Joseph Wolf for instance points out that prior to him, raptors were drawn with many errors in feather patterning - however as pointed out earlier the ancient Egyptians were exceptionally good artists) and along the edge there are line marks indicating the end of the scapulars and the line of the tertiaries and it seems to me to be one of the earliest illustrative works that takes structural differences into account. Modern field guides of course routinely make use of such relative positions of the wing tip and tail for identification. Plate 161 has a note that the colour of the iris is conjectured to be brown. This being the rare exception, one would presume that all others were made from either live or freshly killed birds as mentioned in Gray's 1846 catalogue (also in the 1863 second edition, preface ii).

The way the highlight of the eye is drawn to produce a lively effect is done in style that could be specific to the artist. Some of the earlier (by numbering) paintings show a very different style, sometimes seemingly off-scale. These appear to be the work of a different or less well-trained artist. The toes on the feet are always drawn with good perspective, and they stand in contrast to the art of the same period in the so-called Company style [Archer, 1964] of art (compare the positions of the toes for instance in the works of Shaikh Zain al-Din or Bhawani Das for Impey)

There is clearly a lot to be examined and discussed but making the material accessible to researchers in other parts of the world would be a great step to take.

Image rights notice

All images other than the bust of Hodgson are property of the Zoological Society of London and may not be copied or used in any other publication without the prior permission of the Society. These images are reproduced here with the kind consent of the Zoological Society of London.

I am grateful to the ZSL for permission to view their holdings, librarians Michael Palmer, Emma Milnes and particularly Ann Sylph for her encouragement and assistance. Carol Inskipp provided many comments and insights from her earlier studies of the paintings. In no particular order - Ganesh Paudel, Nepal; Dr Jaysankar Jayaraman (CIFT, Kochi), Aasheesh Pittie and Lathashree Kolla (and her friends) helped in understanding the writings and the nature of the script. Wikimedia Foundation, USA supported my visit to London to attend Wikimania 2014; and Wikimedia UK's work at the ZSL was useful in making me plan my visit.


4-November-2014: I discovered a line of text by Hodgson where he calls S.R. Tickell as his brother-in-law. A little further digging, aided by Henry Noltie, led to the fact that Hodgson's brother William who was in Bengal was married to Samuel Tickell's sister Mary Rosa. William died in 1840 and Mary went back to England and remarried. Tickell was an excellent artist and was with Hodgson in Nepal and it is possible that he may have worked with Hodgson's artists. Of course Hodgon's wife Ann Scott was also a bit of an artist as indicated in the description of Sacfa hodgsoniae (dedicated to his wife "... whose accurate and tasteful delineations of Himalayan scenery will do much to attract attention to this fine field of scientific research.")

3-March-2015: Noticed that Hume had access to many of Hodgson's paintings and he uses a few anatomical ones in his notes on flycatchers (mentioned in the Yarkand notes - with Henderson).

17-July-2016: K. Ramnarayan pointed out to me that what I had interpreted as Bhotia valley could be Bhotia boli which is Bhotia dialect. He pointed out that there is an ambiguity in b and v in the central Himalayas. This seems to be a good match as this is indicated next to the local names indicated.

26-April-2016: The Calcutta Journal of Natural History has been digitized by the Biodiversity Heritage Library and in its pages are several illustrations of interest.
"Admirable illustrations from the pencil of my Newar artist are subjoined in this paper, and they are the more necessary in that this species has never been depicted, and that the only other species or Gracilis, is miserably distorted in Horsfield's delineation. I have added some organic illustrations of the genus from the same skilful pencil." [Hodgson - Observations on the manners and structure of Prionodon pardicolor, Calcutta Journal of Natural History 8: 40–45. (1847)]
14-December-2016 : Discovered a lithograph printed in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal that actually includes credits to Raj Man Singh. A number of art-works accompanying Hodgson's papers appear exactly like Raj Man Singh's works but carry only the names of the lithographers (and skip the artist). This Petaurista nobilis and another species of Petaurista from 1843 stands out.

22-October-2018 : Noticed this piece by Hodgson - where he supports the use of the local name of "Maina" - "The Indian Stares [Starlings] seem to have perplexed systematists most wo[e]fully, though, I fancy, there is not one of us exiles 'in the land of the sun,' but readily recognises the propriety of the native genus Maina." - Hodgson, B.H. (1836). "Additions to the ornithology of Nepal". Journal of the Asiatic Society. 5: 770–781.


Grierson's script illustration
Eastwick's script illustration

More links to explore


  1. Fascinating account

  2. Regarding the image "Morphometric notes taken by the artist", its फैलाई and your English translation is correct.
    Regarding the image "Caption for illustration of Porcula salvania", its लुंफा भोटिया बोलि. This sounds similar to Lung/Loon (dragon) Fung/feng (phoenix) soup from China. So It could very well mean Lungfeng Bhutia (Chinese/Tibetan) dialect.

    1. Thanks for your comments, yes I now see the ई !!