(Mr Benwell) was ‘conspicuous for original and pleasing delineations of native life, landscape and buildings in India, evidently drawn on the spot...’ — Buckland’s Dictionary of Indian Biography
‘In Calcutta, the road-sweepers belong to a government department. Their operations are directed by a Sirdar, and the cleansing effect is perfect. Their peculiar switch-like brooms are used with a degree of expertness really astonishing, and with so much regularity that the roads, after being swept, present very much the appearance of the lines on an engine-turned watch-case.’ — From Benwell’s notes on Indian Life, ca 1850
It would seem as if British curiosity about the India of those times — one speaks of the first half of the 19th century — was inexhaustible. Our land was more or less passing under their control and the East India Company had had much to do with it. Droves of people from ‘back home’ steadily kept coming to India — soldiers, traders, adventurers, even artists — serving the ‘John Company’, observing this ‘strange’ land and its people, hoping to make a fortune here, documenting it for sharing impressions and images with their families when they went back. What one is equally surprised by is the number of people among them — professionals or amateurs — who could draw, and draw well. The list is long: some names have survived, others have slipped into obscurity. The artist about whom I write here is someone I had never heard of till recently: Joseph Austin Benwell.
It was an engraving by him, ‘Mehtahs (mehtars) or Street Sweepers in Calcutta’, which aroused my curiosity for I wondered who would be interested in a routine street scene like that. I decided to track him down.
Joseph Austin Benwell (1816-1886), I learnt, was ‘an English artist, engraver and illustrator’. Born in a Quaker family at Southwark, London, he opted for life as a travelling artist, it appears. Somewhere in the 1840s, he joined the East India Company and set off for India where he stayed for many years, travelling, sketching, painting, engraving. During his long absences from home, he also travelled to the Middle East, turning out some striking images of caravans, encampments and Bedouin families in a style that is generally described as ‘Orientalist’. His subjects, as has been pointed out, were principally ‘Egyptian, Syrian and Arabian’, specialising in small communities and their camps and caravans, painting scenes from the Holy Land, mainly of Jerusalem, Palestine and Sinai. One of his more well-known works was of the Crimean War, where he featured Florence Nightingale, the famous ‘Lady with the Lamp’, nursing the wounded.
For me, the most absorbing part of his considerable work is what he turned out in India. What one is struck by is the fact that he was not drawn to the dramatic or the spectacular — of which our land had a great deal to offer — but to the ordinary, the quotidian or ‘alltag’, as the Germans call it. ‘The Dawkwallas of Bengal’, for instance, ‘Methods of conveying cotton in India to ports of shipment’, ‘Hindu bathers in the river Jumna surprised by a water-snake’, ‘Shoeing a bullock’, ‘Modes of travelling in India’, and the like. What adds to the interest of these engravings or sketches is the fact that he kept writing a diary as he travelled in which, sometimes, he would describe in fair detail a scene that he had drawn. There is this delightful engraving showing ‘A squad of elephants saluting the Commandant at Dinapore’, to take an example. He happened to see the scene of a large number of elephants temporarily picketed. On one occasion, ‘the Commandant of the station was inspecting them, and as he passed down the line, the word ‘Sulaam kurro’ was loudly shouted by the mahouts, who themselves made a low salaam, as the elephants immediately poised their trunks perpendicularly in the air’. One sees this in the engraving, but Benwell adds, as a matter of sharp observation, that ‘each elephant is tied by the foreleg to a picket driven into the ground, and is thereby kept in his place’. An engraving showing the ‘Perils of Dawk Travelling in India’ has a large group of hyenas and jackals surrounding the palanquin in which he, in a poor state of health, had been travelling and had come in the night to rest outside a ‘Dawk Bungalow” which had been abandoned by careless keepers. “I composed myself for a short sleep, the stillness of the night and the cessation of motion being favourable to repose. I soon fell into an uneasy nap, from which I was disturbed by the sounds of sniffing close to my ears. Through the cane bottom of the palanquin came a strong menagerie-like odour, and the sniffing noises increased until I seemed completely surrounded by them. I now began to realise my position. Fastening the sliding doors on each side, I peered through the small windows in front, and discovered, to my great consternation, that I, in my frail vehicle, and still more frail state of health, was beset by a pack of hyenas, wolves and jackals.” It ends with the travelling artist’s life being saved by the bungalow-keepers arriving with oil-lit torches in their hands. But, one can almost visualise the scene even if the engraving was denied to us.
There are scenes filled with sepoys, priests, messengers and ‘milk women’ summoned to help resting soldiers. This is what made Benwell’s art attractive to the London Illustrated News, a publication back home which was widely read and in which he began to be referred to as ‘our artist’. Issue after issue carried ‘illustrations’ by Benwell, who was also commissioned by John Capper, author of the then popular book — ‘The Three Presidencies of India’ — which traced the rise and expansion of British possessions in India. In that, however, it was not all to the glory of the British, or the British forces. One of the illustrations shows a British Commandant waving a white flag of truce while surrendering to the force of Hyder Ali of Mysore in the Battle of Pollilur.
Clearly, there is much to see — and savour — in what this Quaker artist recorded in his Indian days.
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