Henry Noltie – Scottish Surgeons and Indian Botany: Dispersed Collections of Drawings and Specimens, a Case Study from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

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Event Date: 6 December 2011
Flett Lecture Theatre
Natural History Museum
London SW7 5BD


Wallich and Indian Natural History:
Collection Dispersal and the Cultivation of Knowledge



Henry Noltie (Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh)
Scottish Surgeons and Indian Botany: Dispersed Collections of Drawings and Specimens, a Case Study from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh


Abstract: In the library of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a gigantic filing system known as the ëIllustrationsí or Cuttings Collection. This contained about 250, 000 herbarium sheets bearing visual representations of plants, ranging from newspaper cuttings to original drawings. Used as a taxonomic tool (to supplement herbarium specimens) the arrangement was purely taxonomic, with all related historical information on artists, patrons, original collections and provenance lost. Familiar with the collection from his Indian taxonomic studies, the author, in 1998, started to extract and reorganise a vast corpus of more or less entirely unknown drawings by Indian artists, as it was only by reconstituting the original collections that their history and significance could be reconstructed ñ in some ways analogous to making a natural classification to replace an artificial one based on the single ëcharacterí of the name of the plant depicted. The largest part of the Indian material emerged once to have formed a diverse collection assembled by the pioneering Indian forest conservator H.F.C. Cleghorn (1820-1895) containing literally thousands of original drawings made from life, and tracings from botanical works, documenting his travels and researches, some used for teaching purposes at the Madras Medical College, and some relating to the Madras Exhibitions of the 1850s. But far more emerged: notably a collection of drawings made for Alexander Gibson (1800-1867), another pioneering forest conservator, relating both to his forest travels in Western India and the garden of the Bombay Presidency that he superintended at Dapuri. Of pre-eminent taxonomic importance were the drawings made by two Telugu artists, Rugiah and Govindoo, for the Madras surgeon Robert Wight (1796-1872). Major monographs on the Gibson and Wight collections have resulted. In this talk I will discuss how this research was undertaken, in order to rediscover the histories of these collections, and to re-establish links between the drawings with drawings in other collections, with related documentary sources, and with herbarium specimens, in Scotland, England (especially Kew, the Natural History Museum and the British Library) and India, together with field excursions to the sites where the work (in many ways a joint Indian-British enterprise) was originally created. The talk will also discuss the importance of the copying of drawings and the transmission of visual knowledge ñ in particular the role of Nathaniel Wallich in the creation of two sets of copies made from the pre-eminent Roxburgh Icones at Calcutta Botanic Garden. This will illuminate both positive and negative aspects of Wallichís enigmatic character.

Biography: Henry Noltie has been based at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh since 1986. With degrees both in botany and museum studies, his work has included taxonomy (specialising on monocots of the Sino-Himalayan region) and curating exhibitions relating to the RBGEs historical collections. For the last decade his work has revolved around the history of Indian botany, especially on the drawings made for Scottish East India Company surgeons by Indian artists.


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