Western science, Eastern art

In the early 16th century, Portugal was the dominant centre of spice trade in Europe. As Portuguese ships sailed home from the Indian subcontinent packed with ginger, cloves and nutmeg, new ships set sail with European soldiers, diplomats and scientists.

European doctor-botanists (1500-1700)

Garcia da Orta (c.1500-1568) was a Portuguese doctor who landed in India in 1534. Like other physicians of the time, who often used herbal medicines, Garcia had a good understanding of plants and their uses. He was the first European to carefully investigate the plants of the region. His book, Coloquios dos simples e drogas was published in Goa in 1563. It inspired Christobal Acosta, another Portuguese doctor, to write his Tractado de las drogas, y medicinas de las Indias Orientalis, published in 1578. This book is illustrated with simple woodblock illustrations.

As European powers vied for a slice of the lucrative spice trade, so followed their scientists; with the Dutch monopoly came Henrik Adriaan van Reede tot Drakenstein (1636-1691) a servant of the Dutch East India Company.

Scientific description and illustration went hand in hand. Drakenstein commissioned European artists to illustrate his lavish study of Indian flora of the Malabar region, Hortus Malabaricus Indicus (Amsterdam, 1678-1703) This magnificent set of folio volumes has large, dynamic but carefully observed images of Indian plants, reproduced effectively by engraved copper plates. It set the standard by which future Indian floras would be compared, and kick-started over a century of large illustrated volumes on exotic flora.

The East India Company (1700-1850)

With Britain's East India Company ('the Company') vigorously pursuing its own trade in India, yet more European scientists become involved in the race to discover, describe and utilise the wealth of natural resources. This resulted in many local artists being commissioned to carry out scientific illustrations, often of great beauty.

Europe had long since had a fascination with the Indian subcontinent, seen as exotic and mysterious. Before the 18th century, artists in Europe had illustrated the east by word of mouth, seldom seeing the actual animals or places. William Hodges (1744-1797) was the first professional landscape artist to arrive in India, and draw the scenery first-hand. The resulting prints were popular in Europe, and symptomatic of a growing interest for all things Eastern, be it illustrations of birds, insects or local peoples.


The foundation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784 was followed by a Company garden in Calcutta. William Roxburgh was appointed the Superintendent of these gardens, and along with Sir Joseph Banks was responsible for the publication of the Plants of the Coast of Coromandel, the first part of which was released in 1795.

A distinctively Indian watercolour of turmeric with light brown tubers and white and yellow flowers.
Turmeric plant. This painting is one of 2500 that form the Roxburgh Collection at Kew. Date: 1790-1812.

This sumptuously illustrated series demonstrated how Indian artists could effectively produce scientific illustrations to match those of Europe, and was followed by further publications by different botanists, using the talents of the Calcutta artists: Plantae Asiaticae Rariorae (1824-1832) and Illustrations of the Botany and other Branches of the Natural History of the Himalayan Mountains (1833-1840) being two of them.


The colourful birds of India received equal attention; John and Elizabeth Gould embraced the relatively new technique of lithography to provide over 100 plates for their much sought-after book A century of birds hitherto unfigured, from the Himalayan Mountains. From about 1830 lithography quickly overtook engraving and aquatint as the preferred medium.

A similar partnership of artist and scientist saw the striking publication Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya, published in the middle of the 19th Century; Joseph Hooker supplied the fieldwork, Walter Hood Fitch the illustrations.