Telicherry (Kerala) sketched by Edward Lear in 1874
On September, the 24th 1874, Mr Edward Lear (1812-1888), who was staying in Bangalore (now ‘Bengaluru’), wrote in his diary:
“Walked to Orr and Barton’s and got my photographs…”
Lear is best known for his nonsense verse, lesser known as an artist. Although never as successful as his contemporaries (e.g Holman Hunt, Lord Leighton, Alma-Tadema, Turner, Millais, and Rossetti,) in the 19th century UK art world, he was a wonderful landscape artist. In addition, he was highly skilled at depicting flora and fauna (especially birds: he was said to rival Audubon). Oddly, his talents did not extend to great representations of the human form except in comical cartoons, at which he excelled.
Restless, Lear travelled the world in search of the ‘picturesque’. He visited many places, including Albania, which is what got me interested in him in the first place. He recorded his travels in sketchbooks, and later transformed some of these into oil paintings - the medium which he hoped to master - but never really managed. Lear described his trips in diaries that he later published as travel journals, his pen producing portraits of the places almost as eloquently as his fine sketches and watercolours.
Recently, I discovered that Lear visited India (including Ceylon). He did so at the invitation of an old friend, Thomas Baring - Lord Northbrook, who had become the Viceroy of India in 1872. I bought a reasonably priced second-hand copy of Lear's "Indian Journal", introduced and edited by Ray Murphy (published in 1953). Unlike his other travel journals (e.g. for Albania, Greece, Corsica, and Southern Italy), this book contains Lear's actual diary entries rather than a later polished-up literary version of them.
Lear describes almost every day of his trip to India, which lasted from November 1873 until January 1875, when sickness and bad back pain forced him and his Albanian servant Giorgio to end their rambles, which had taken them from the heights of the Himalayas to the deep south of India and through Ceylon.
The trip was dogged with problems: logistic, illness, food, and so on. Yet, even on the worst of days, Lear found something redeeming to write about. Lear enjoyed Indian 'local colour', but was often less than lukewarm about British colonial social life. He preferred the ‘really Indian' places to those places favoured by the British. Many a place where the British liked to spend time relaxing were loved because, to use Lear's words, because of their:
Lear visited Bangalore twice. His first sojourn was between the 13th of August 1874 and the 21st of that month. He arrived there on a train that passed through:
“Arkonam … at the junction of the Bombay-Madras and Madras-Malabar lines.”
At this his junction in Tamil Nadu, now known as ‘Arakkonam’, he had to spend a night in a waiting room. In Bangalore, he took rooms for himself and his servant in the Cubbon Hotel, which he did not rate highly on arrival. However, a few days later, he noted:
“The food at this hotel is good, and the service quiet and unobtrusive…”
Kora Chandy wrote in “The City Beautiful” by TP Issar (published1988):
“…let me turn to Infantry Road and the present office of the Commissioner of Police. Some 100 years ago, it was the leading hotel in Bangalore, called the Cubbon Hotel. The facilities it advertised included a ball room, ‘complete suites of the bachelor’s apartments’ and ‘carriages on the premises. In the early years of the century the British Resident purchased this property and his office was located there until 1928…”
In 1911, the Cubbon Hotel still existed, when it was leased by Spencer’s, which was then in the hands of the Oakshott family. The Cubbon Hotel was rated along with the (still extant) West End Hotel as being above average in Murray’s “Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma, and Ceylon” (10th edition, published 1920). Therefore, the Resident must have purchased it sometime after 1920. Maya Jayapal writes in her “Bangalore: roots and beyond” (published in 2014):
“… the Cubbon Hotel… was constructed in the prevailing style of colonial architecture, sometimes called Greco-Roman. It is now the police commissioner’s office…”
A photograph (see below) in TP Issar’s book confirms Jayapal’s description of the architecture.
Lear considered Bangalore:
“… an odd place, not over beautiful, but contains three picturesque bits and, I think, one general view. The tall coco-palms are a chief characteristic, but the queer houses are odd indeed…”
On the 15th of August, he visited the Lal Bagh gardens, concluding that:
“… he had never seen a more beautiful place, terraces, trellises, etc., not to speak of some wild beasts. Flowers exquisite… There is something very rural quiet about this place… walked with Giorgio to some granite rocks, and a little tank, where I drew till it began to rain, ven I cum back…”
This little excerpt exposes Lear’s liberated approach to spelling. I have visited Lal Bagh often, and have seen its large tank, which contains an island. The large tank is separated from a smaller one, often filled with waterlilies, by a causeway. I am not sure about which water feature Lear was writing. Next day, he visited Ulsoor Tank, but arrived too late to sketch it. The Tank, which is still in existence, is a veritable lake with several islands in it. Zafar Futehally and Kora Chandy writing in Issar’s book, noted:
“It extended over an area of 125 acres and was constructed by Kempegowda II during the second half of the 16th century.”
It supplied drinking water to the civilian and military population of Bangalore until the 20th century.
That day he praised Bangalore in his diary:
“This station is very extensive and populous, and seems in some ways the pleasantest I have known in India. A sort of homely quiet pervades everything, and the air is delightful, ditto flowers. Birds are numerous but make absurd noises.”
All over India, Lear remarked on the peculiar birdsong he heard. He left Bangalore on the 21st of August, heading for Madras.
Lear returned to Bangalore on the 23rd of September 1874, arriving by train from Salem. His journey had not been uneventful. Near ‘Cajdoody’ (this is probably modern day Kadugodi, which is on a railway close to Whitefields, and, relevantly, a couple of still-extant large bodies of water), a bridge was down. Lear wrote:
“Descending from the carriage, we had to walk along a narrow edge of clay by the steep side of the embankment; this was … difficult. … Next, a descent, with a crowd of natives, and still more awkward pass over loose planks to a boat … ferried across deep and rapid water, the result of a broken tank which had so swollen the stream as to carry away the bridge. Then came a hoisting up slippery wooden steps … to the level of the other train…”
Lear and Giorgio arrived exhausted in Bangalore on the 23rd of September 1874 after a thirty-minute train journey from the flooded area. It was the following day that he visited Orr and Barton’s to collect some photographs – of what he does not say. Throughout his visit to India, Lear bought photographs, which he might have used to remind him of places that he had seen.
On my last visit to Bangalore in 2016, I bought some jewellery from Barton’s, whose extensive shop is within Barton Tower on MG Road. From its earliest days, it had been a jeweller but it came as news to me that it was also known for its photography. The 1920 Murray’s guide to India (see above) lists “Barton & Sons” both as a jeweller and a photographer. One of the Mr Bartons must have been an exceptional photographer. M Fazlul Hasan writes in his “Bangalore Through the Centuries” (published 1970) that when an equestrian statue of Sir Mark Cubbon was unveiled in March 1866, many photographers rushed forward to ‘snap’ it, but:
“Owing, however, to the fading light and other difficulties, only two, Major Dixon and Mr Barton, succeeded.”
Bangalore was not Lear’s last port of call in India. He went on to visit several other places including Sri Lanka before returning via Kerala to Bombay, and thence back to Europe. It was noticing that he had visited Barton’s, a shop I know well, that prompted me to write this piece based on the lesser-known travels of a well-known cultural figure of the nineteenth century.
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