Review: Botanical Art from India: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection

Review: Botanical Art from India: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection special correspondent Aline Dobbie reviews Botanical Art from India: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection.

RBGE Publications

9781910877227_1024x1024As an early Christmas present to myself I ordered the wonderful book Botanical Art from India by Henry J Noltie. Earlier this year, for the India @ 70 celebrations, an India trail had been established for a few weeks in the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh.

This lavishly illustrated book is about a remarkable collection of botanical drawings in the collection at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE).

The links between RBGE and India go back for more than 250 years; surgeons who studied botany at the Garden as part of their medical studies laid the foundation of western knowledge of the Indian flora. Supplementing their written plant descriptions and dried plant specimens with botanical drawings commissioned from Indian artists, these men formed collections such as the one held in Edinburgh.

This book tells the story of these collections through the reproduction of a selection of 86 drawings that are both scientifically accurate and stunningly beautiful. Included are examples made in all three of the administrative units of British India, the Presidencies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras between 1770 and 1860.








The second book which attracts me is The Cleghorn Collection: South Indian Botanical Drawings 1845 to 1860 also by Henry J Noltie.

Cleghorn1_1024x1024I have already written about Hugh Cleghorn (1820-1895) in a previous article on the Scots India Connection. Cleghorn was one of the many remarkable Scottish surgeons who worked for the East India Company, but who used an official posting as a base for research on India’s rich flora, recording it in drawings made by Indian artists. His particular interest was in useful plants, which led to the major work in the field of forest conservancy for he is best remembered. The Cleghorn Collection reproduces more than 200 of these drawings in colour for the first time. These include drawings from nature, copies based on European prints, and Nature Prints made from herbarium specimens. I own a few copies of some of the prints of this collection.

There is also a book on William Roxburgh The Founding Father of Indian Botany by Tim Robinson which looks very attractive. Born in the mid-18th century, William Roxburgh was brought up in the centre of the Edinburgh Enlightenment, with all the patronage and intellectual curiosity that this entailed. He was appointed the first paid Superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden in 1793. There he continued his experimental work as well as considering the introduction of a wide range of crops. Always looking for ways to improve the lot of Indian workers and reduce the impact of famine, he suggested methods of developing local skills and introducing suitable plants to be used for food.

The Botanic Garden in Kolkata, as it is now known, remains on the other side of the Hooghly River at Howrah (thus quite far from the actual city) where the great station of that name continues to send and receive millions of Indians daily – something that intrigued me as a child when we would embark on long rail journeys around India during the 1950s. The Garden is today I am told sadly dishevelled and not cared for, but it could be restored if there is a will to do it and I wish that Kolkata and West Bengal Government and whoever has the authority would seriously consider returning the Garden to its former glory. The Archive of that Garden is a seriously important collection.

Discover more: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Publications

Aline Dobbie

Aline Dobbie is one of the UK’s foremost authorities on India. Born in India to Scottish parents she spent the first 16 years of her life in the sub-continent. An acclaimed travel writer, Aline is the author of a celebrated trilogy of books on India, including The Peacock’s Call –

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