The British Empire Library

Mimesis Across Empires: Artworks and Networks in India, 1765-1860

by Natasha Eaton

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Somewhere within this pretentiously-titled and almost unreadable book is the potentially interesting idea that the Company School of artists - Europeans painting in India before the Mutiny - were able to promote, through their pictures, the virtues of British rule over the perceived misrule and chaos of native administration. If this is indeed what the author is positing, then it certainly bears investigation. Paintings by Indian artists are considered here too, both those that foiiowed, or imitated, European works and the earlier miniatures which were criticized by Europeans for their lack of perspective. Since the author doesn't care to define 'mimesis,' dictionaries tell us that it is a specialized term meaning, in the artistic sense, 'accurate, illusionistic, a representation of the visual appearance of things, an imitation.'

The author's guru is Homi Bhabha, a post-structuralist disciple of Edward Said, and professor at Harvard University, who among other things was awarded second prize in a 'bad writing competition' in 1998. His influence is clear. The author declares in her long and abstruse Introduction that: 'Against the epistemic entanglement of bourgeois liberal modernity, which has been characterised by ideas about the authority of visual evidence... there is another regime of value and efficacy that implicates and determines what we now understand as being the protean development of a vernacularizing capitalism: the economies of the shrine, the bazaar and the nawabi court.' There is much else like this, which makes it difficult to isolate valid observations like William Hodges' fondness for drawing ruined buildings, about which he said'... this fine country [India] exhibits in its present state a melancholy proof of the consequences of a bad government, of wild ambition and the horror attending civil dissentions...'. The counter-argument of course is that ruins chime well with the fashion of the time for the picturesque, as Giles Tillotson pointed out in his book on Hodges, The Artificial Empire.

What is more serious, though, are the numerous inaccuracies throughout the book. Considering the extremely large number of acknowledgements to scholars in the field and the various grants which supported the author's studies, it is surprising these were not picked up on. Five of this reviewer's books are listed in the extensive bibliography, but on one page alone (page 184) I am misquoted three times and the wrong page reference is given. The picture by Hodges of Fatehpur Sikri (page 149) is not of course an aquatint, but a gouache. The Collector of Bihar's name was Augustus Cleveland, not Clevland. The Deb brothers of Calcutta did not commission full-length portraits of themselves, but three-quarter length images . And why are they described as 'creole oil portraits'? One could go on .. ..... The pictures are nice.

British Empire Book
Natasha Eaton
First Published
Duke University Press
Review Originally Published
Spring 2014 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe