Thomas and William Daniell: Travel “Photographers” Before Their Time
Nur Hisyam Abdul Nasser
Have you ever wondered what other countries looked like in a time before cameras were developed? Find out as we travel alongside two ambitious British artists who were determined to show others what lay beyond their shores. In the late 1700s, it was difficult for many British people to picture the foreign lands that their sailors ventured to. Of these places, the landscapes of India, in particular, were shrouded in mystery. Determined to uncover the beauty of this exotic land, the artist Thomas Daniell decided to sail for India with the British East India Company (EIC); bringing his young nephew, William, along as his assistant.
Their challenging journey and task ultimately made them famous for being the first artists to illustrate the landscapes of India in detail. The following aquatint prints offer glimpses into what the world was like at the time.
Aquatint 1 − Gravesend
In 1785, the Daniells received permission from the EIC to travel on board the Atlas that was bound for China. Their journey started from the English port town of Gravesend, where many maritime voyages to the East Indies began. The bustling shipping hub owed its industrial success to its location adjacent to the River Thames.
Aquatint 2 − Madeira
Their journey took them across the Atlantic Ocean, along the coasts of Portugal and Africa. The island of Madeira was one of two coastal landscapes that the artists illustrated of the region. Funchal, the capital of Madeira, was a stopover port frequented by ships making their way to the East Indies.
Aquatint 3 − Cape of Good Hope
The Cape of Good Hope showed the Daniells how fearsome the seas could be. Its stormy waters claimed the life of a seaman before their eyes. Although feared by the most seasoned of sailors, the headland presented a new route to the unexplored lands of India.
Aquatint 4 − Watering Place Anjere-Point
To reach China, the Atlas had to sail across the Indian Ocean and through the Straits of Sunda, a narrow passage between the islands of Sumatra and Java. The route brought the Daniells past Anjere Point, a Dutch settlement located at Java. The place was frequented by Malay traders who conducted business with foreign sailors.
Aquatint 5 − Macao, China
After navigating through the Java Sea, the Atlas crossed the South China Sea and passed the Portuguese trading settlement of Macao. The port was known for being a trade hub that linked countries to China and Japan before the rise of Canton (present-day Guangzhou) and Hong Kong. It is now a global icon for entertainment and tourism.
Aquatint 6 − Whampoa Pagoda
Roughly four months after the Atlas departed England, the Daniells arrived in China at the island of Whampoa, the primary port of disembarkation for any European vessel. The majestic Chigang Pagoda, which still stands tall today, features prominently in their aquatint of Whampoa Island.
Aquatint 7 − Pedro Branco, Straits of Malacca
The Daniells remained in China until the end of 1785 before they departed for India. Their route took them past present-day Pedra Branca, a landmark that indicated the entrance to the Straits of Malacca. The artists noted that the turbulent waters around it failed to deter Malay sailors, as depicted in the above aquatint.
Aquatint 8 − Old Fort Gaut, Calcutta
About a year after departing England, the Daniells finally arrived at the land of their fascination − India. Calcutta was the capital of British India and was described by the Daniells as “the seat of a powerful and prosperous empire”. Mansions dotted its outskirts and Palladian-style buildings were erected within the city, juxtaposed against the exotic aesthetic of the locals. Kolkata, as it is now known, continues to serve as a major port in India.
These beautiful illustrations are just some of the 50 aquatints that the Daniells made on their journey to and from India, which were compiled into a publication titled A Picturesque Voyage to India. You can view some of these aquatints at the National Museum of Singapore’s An Old New World Bicentennial exhibition, which explores the 200 years before modern Singapore was founded (exhibition closes on 29 March 2020).
About the Author
Hisyam was a research assistant in the Heritage Conservation Centre’s Knowledge and Information Management department. He worked closely with the National Museum of Singapore to produce the digital interactives for An Old New World. When he’s not poring through his research, Hisyam can usually be found chilling to some music and food. He hopes that more people will get to see the passionate work that goes on behind the scenes of the many engaging exhibitions that are held in Singapore.