Political and Social Landscapes of the East India Company

A Comparison of Colonial Views by William Hodges and James Frazer

William Hodges’s The Marmalong Bridge and James Baillie Fraser’s A view of Government House are both examples of how representations of the Indian landscape were changing, due to new materials available at the time. However, this comparison also provides a commentary on how compositional elements contributed to the political and social landscape of the East India Company’s (EIC) presence in India. Furthermore, by elevating the presence of Western modernity as the focal points of both works, they reinvigorate the orientalised ideal of colonial superiority over India.

William Hodges, The Marmalong Bridge, 1783, Oil on Canvas
William Hodges, The Marmalong Bridge, 1783, Oil on Canvas
James Baillie Fraser, A view of Government House, from the eastward, 1826, aquatint
James Baillie Fraser, A view of Government House, from the eastward, 1826, aquatint

At first glance, a notable difference is the mood of the landscape paintings. Hodges, as an academic landscape painter, creates a sublime view of the Indian landscape while also projecting its historical relevance. The setting in The Marmalong Bridge allows Hodges to display a stark contrast between the ancient civilisations of India against the backdrop of a matured landscape occupied by the bridge, one that embraces modernity brought by foreign commercial investment.

Whilst Hodges is concerned with depicting the sublime, Fraser, with the advent of aquatint and the capabilities of the Camera Obscura, displays the imposition of growing British dominance in India through a topographical view of Government House in Calcutta. Unlike Hodges, Fraser was not commissioned by the EIC but his work, nevertheless, instils the idea of orientalism as evidenced through the use of light. The use of light in both paintings is triumphal, emerging in the background, drawing the viewers eye towards the modern and architectural elements of the compositions.

Moreover, a significant similarity between the two works is the overtly horizontal and separative special arrangements concerning the placement of indigenous figures and architectural contrast. Hodges uses this separation to convey a positive and progressive intervention of European traders in the antiquated Indian landscape, within the context of an ongoing war. The inclusion of an Indian Sepoy alongside a central female figure in a classical pose amongst a group of indigenous figures reinforces the idea of development from an ancient civilisation.

The idea of compositional separation is also present in Fraser’s work around 45 years after Hodges’s The Marmalong Bridge. Fraser’s separation displays a commentary for the emerging political tensions and the growth of racial distinction as a common sentiment that was gathering pace ultimately leading to the 1857 Indian uprising/mutiny. Similar to Hodges’s work, one of the central female figures is representative of the antiquated Indian society against Western modernity. What is starkly different however, is that the indigenous figures are positioned in the shadow of the imposing neoclassical Government House and are presented in a state of awe as they gaze upon the white building.

The EIC criticised the grandiose architecture and construction of the palatial building, modelled on British prototypes, as it typified imperialistic values rather than the merchant values promoted by the EIC. This led to the recall of Lord Wellesley, demonstrating the power and influence of the EIC. Similar to Hodges’s Marmalong Bridge, the Triumphal Gateway arch and a surrounding fence act as a separation of culture.

Whilst Hodges displayed modernity as progress through investment, Fraser encompassed the idea of material wealth and the power of the British rulers and the differentiation of culture by an overt display of neatness of the Government House site set against the chaotic Indian foreground.

The Triumphal Gateway arch is based on Syon House in England and utilises the triple archway that resembles the Roman Arch of Constantine through which processions passed, although the central arch of the Triumphal Gateway was large enough to accommodate elephants.

Hodges’s oil painting romanticised the landscape combining both an escapist but historically charged approach that articulated the ethos of Warren Hasting’s regime. Though there is a clear separation in the composition, the naturalistic quality does not define one aspect more than the other. Instead, it encapsulates the setting as a whole. In other words, The Marmalong Bridge manages to capture the progressive attitude of the EIC while acknowledging and respecting Indian culture. Here he attempts to bring forth a timeless portrayal of the Indian landscape through juxtaposing ancient, historical and contemporary elements. In contrast, Fraser creates a far less romanticised view through topographical views of Calcutta with aquatint that allows for attention to detail highlighting certain aspects of the composition more profoundly than others. The work can be seen as mostly documentary, in line with that of the Daniell Prints, but in comparison to Hodges’s work, A view of Government House can be articulated as a visual depiction of the imperial ethos of Lord Wellesley’s regime and the changing attitudes towards cross-culture.

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