Robert Wight and the Illustration of Indian Botany
The Hooker Lecture - Read at the Linnean Society of London, 8th December 2005
By Henry Noltie
In 1824 Wight’s broader interests and anatomical training were recognised, when he was appointed to the medical superintendence of the Public Cattle Depot near Mysore. This was an important breeding establishment built up in the previous century by Tipu Sultan, who developed ‘Amrit Mahal’ cattle as draught power for his artillery, but as I discovered in 2002 these are now a rare breed (15). Wight was supposed not only to look after the health of the staff of this large establishment, but to investigate, by dissection, the diseases that were killing the cattle. Significantly it was here that Wight first employed a draftsman, though his name or what he drew is not recorded. But in less than a year Wight was struck down by malaria and had to resign from the insalubri- ous swamps of Seringaptam.
Wight was then appointed to the post of Madras Naturalist by the great Governor of Madras, Glasgow-born Sir Thomas Munro in 1826 (16). The Madras Government had long recognised the potential of science in developing the commercial possibilities of natural resources. The first official Naturalist they appointed was Linnaeus’s pupil J.G. König in 1778, who started as a mission- ary at the Danish trading post of Tranquebar. König was succeeded by Patrick Russell, then William Roxburgh. Of the eight holders of the post over the 50 years of its existence no fewer than five were Edinburgh trained. We will return to Roxburgh, so I will show a portrait of the less well known Patrick Russell (17) in a soft ground etching by William Daniell after a wonderful drawing by George Dance (faithful to the last nose hair), made in London in 1794 in the same month that he drew Haydn. Daniell must have had much to talk to Russell about during the sitting, as he had accompanied his uncle Thomas to India where they painted the notable sights and antiquities (later famously engraved) including, in 1792, the falls of Courtallum that 40 years later would become one of Wight’s most productive collecting localities. Russell is best known for his work on Indian snakes (which were painted for him by Indian artists), but he also collected plants for the Naturalist’s collection that was inherited by Wight. These collections were kept in Fort St George, the military and administrative headquarters of the East India Company at Madras (18), specifically in the Office of the Medical Board (19 which still stands, now occupied by the Engineer of the Andaman part of the Indian Navy). By this time Wight was commissioning paintings from an Indian artist called Rungiah, who may or may not have followed him from Mysore, and in 1826/7 Wight made an extensive, nine-month collecting trip around South India. Because of the loss of Wight’s private diaries and all but 110 autograph letters almost nothing is known of his thoughts and personal experiences. But here (Fig. 6) is an example of the rich and colourful indigenous Indian culture that he must have encountered on his travels.
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