Of all the nineteenth-century naturalists who have been obscured in Charles Darwin’s titanic shadow, Brian Houghton Hodgson (1800-1894) must surely rank as one of the most extraordinary. An East India Company diplomat and scholar, he was stationed in Nepal between 1820 and 1843, a period when European knowledge of the Himalayas – its peoples, cultures, and natural history – was extremely sparse. His polymath’s curiosity was given free rein, and in his day he enjoyed a fine reputation as an ethnologist, religious scholar, and naturalist. Almost forgotten today, to his contemporaries he was a trail-blazer, and it is largely as a zoological pioneer that he is becoming known once again.
I first encountered Hodgson whilst researching at the Zoological Society of London, which today holds the greater part of his collection of zoological drawings and watercolours. These he amassed over thirty years, latterly whilst living in Darjeeling in northern India. Throughout the same period he wrote over 140 articles on zoological subjects and collected tens of thousands of physical skins and specimens. The latter are now scattered across dozens of private and public collections, and represent around three-quarters of the total known species endemic to Nepal. All of the drawings were commissioned from a small group of Nepalese artists. The majority of the drawings – 1,076 of them – depict birds, which were bound into a total of six volumes in the late-nineteenth century under the slightly-misleading title ‘Birds of India’. A further 600 sheets are devoted to mammals, bound into two additional volumes as the ‘Mammals of India’.
What is immediately striking on leafing through these volumes are the beauty of the images they contain. Himself no great artist, Hodgson was fortunate to secure the services of Rajman Singh, a member of the chitrakar caste of hereditary artists from the Kathmandu Valley. That we know of Singh at all is highly unusual, for European naturalists rarely troubled themselves to record the names of their artists. It is a measure of both Singh’s artistic prowess and his success in adapting to European conventions of scientific illustration that he has not passed into the ill-deserved historical oblivion that was the fate of most of his contemporaries.
Hodgson’s collecting was not simply the activity of a dilettante with time on his hands. The early nineteenth century saw the high-point of the illustrated zoological folio as a ‘serious’ work of science, the age of Audubon and Gould. By the 1830s Hodgson, rightly, viewed himself as an expert on Himalayan animals and determined to publish his own illustrated work, which would set him amongst Britain’s scientific elite. Liberally-annotated in Hodgson’s spidery handwriting, the drawings were to be used in conjunction with physical specimens as the scientific foundation for Hodgson’s great work. When suitably ‘polished up’ and lithographed, they were to serve as the analogues for the species themselves, maintaining their vivid colours and impression of life long after the physical specimens had lost their lustre.
Despite issuing a ‘Prospectus’ in 1837 and piquing the interest of dozens of wealthy subscribers, Hodgson never realised his dream of publishing the ‘Zooloogy of Nipal’. Cut-off from the real centres of scientific patronage in London and Calcutta, Hodgson lacked the connections and the business acumen that made John Gould (for example) such a formidable naturalist-publisher. When approached by Hodgson for help, Gould was unenthusiastic and raised such outrageous conditions that Hodgson baulked. That Hodgson continued to collect drawings into the late 1850s suggests that he never entirely gave up on the idea, but in the 1870s the entire collection was split between the Zoological Society and the British Museum, where they remain today.
Yet the Hodgson collections today represent much more than a failed ambition. Despite being superseded by the great transformation of science in the late-nineteenth century, the paintings are hugely significant. Though serving as repositories of the rare and the ephemeral, the images had an instructional purpose. As working documents, they shaped interpretations of the species they depicted. Here, I think, lies their importance, for at a time when British and European naturalists were beginning to see the natural world and humanity’s relation to it in revolutionary new ways, it was at least partly through the prism of Himalayan cultures. As syntheses of Nepalese and European aesthetic traditions, the Hodgson images demonstrate that the creation of scientific knowledge was a reciprocal process, not only between artist and naturalist, but between West and East.