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Museums -> Images of A Lost Empire

Treasured Nineteenth Century family album from Imperial Delhi acquired by The British Library
(18 August 2003)

Sir Thomas Metcalfe's family album compiled in Imperial Delhi has been accquired by The British Library.A unique and important album of nineteenth-century Indian watercolours has been acquired by the British Library. The paintings show views of Mughal and pre-Mughal monuments in Delhi. The album has been acquired with the generous assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Art Collections Fund.

Watercolour of Bahadur Shah.The 120 paintings are contained in an album called Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi, compiled by Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe (1795-1853) in 1844 for his daughters in England. He also added descriptive text based on his own research into the history of the monuments. The album is also deeply personal with Sir Thomas jotting down touching words to his daughters. One entry reads, "For my dear girls from their affectionate father. Dehlee 25th Nov 1844. The last I shall see of my dear child Charley."

The eldest daughter Emily later wrote: "It is treasured as a most precious memento of her beloved father and of her beautiful and happy home where her first years in India were spent 1848-1853." The album was cherished by her descendants until 1985, and the Library is fortunate in being able to acquire it on its reappearance in the market.

The album also includes poems penned by the last of the Mughal emperors, Bahadur Shah (1838-58). A well known Persian verse, written in beautiful Persian script in the Emperor's own hand, is also in the album. In translation it reads:

A Friend is he, who proffers Friendship's hand
When care or grief our kindred feelings claim
Not he whom prosperous days alone command
And is a Friend or Brother but in name.

Painting of SirThomas Metcalfe.Among the many other images in the album are a spectacular processional painting showing the Emperor and his court and Metcalfe seated on elephants in the great procession to celebrate the Eid - the feast celebrating the end of Ramadan.

There are also painted depictions of various modes of transport in India, and pencil drawings of various scenes by David Thompson, an Anglo-Indian artist living in Delhi. Later members of the Metcalfe family have also added text and a number of other items.

The album is a reflection of the literary and cultural worlds of Delhi at a time of great amity between Muslims, Hindus and British, a world that was destroyed by the clashes between the British forces and Indians in 1857.

Following conservation work the Metcalfe Album is now on display in the John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library in London, until 1 October 2003. The album will also be digitised and the images will be freely accessible on the Library's Collect Britain website at during 2004. Some information and images are already available on the British Library website

Jerry Losty, Head of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, at the Library's Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections, said, "The Delhi book of Sir Thomas Metcalfe adds one of the most significant heritage items connected with the British in India in the 19th century, to the world renowned collections already in the Library. Besides its historic interest and its beauty, it is an immensely personal document, a 19th century Englishman's account of Delhi, a city he loved, and which he passed on to his daughters in the belief that they would do so too."

He added, "It remained a treasured family heirloom for over a century, before circumstances forced it on to the market. Thanks to the contributions of the National Art Collection Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, this beautiful album has been bought by the Library, and will soon be accessible for all to see."


Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe (1795-1853) first arrived in Delhi in 1813 when his brother Charles Metcalfe was Resident to the Emperor's court, and he lived there for 40 years without a break. Metcalfe became the agent at Delhi in 1835 (when the post, of great ceremonial and historic importance, had been downgraded by the Utilitarians who governed British India from Calcutta) and ran the 'Delhi Territory', the area around the old capital under British control since 1803. The Emperor retained control of the royal palace (Shah Jahan's Red Fort, built 1639-48).

Sir Thomas (he succeeded his brother as Baronet in 1844) was an important figure in the cultural climate of Delhi in this period, and his work in investigating Delhi's history and antiquities can be compared with other major figures in the 'Delhi Renaissance', a period when Indians began themselves to investigate the events of the 18th and 19th centuries, which left them subject to British rule.

Despite being a cultured and literate man, Metcalfe never published anything, since he died in harness, allegedly poisoned by one of Bahadur Shah's queens in 1853. In 1830 he began to build Metcalfe House, a great house on the river Jumna north of Delhi, above the Red Fort. He filled it with his collections of art treasures and books, as well as a collection of relics of Napoleon, to whom he was devoted. Metcalfe came from an Anglo-Indian dynasty which sent many generations to India both before and after him. Metcalfe House was destroyed in 1857, and very little of his collection survives.

The paintings are attributed to Mazhar 'Ali Khan and his studio. Mazhar 'Ali Khan was the principal topographic artist in Delhi during this period. The album is one of the two principal works associated with him, the other being a panoramic scroll of Delhi already in the British Library, and probably painted for Metcalfe in 1846. In common with other Mughal artists of the period he still worked in a style influenced by 17th century Mughal art, with some concessions to British taste. Little survives in India itself of the paintings of this period at this aesthetic level, and the period still waits serious art historical research.

The Asia Pacific and Africa Collections of the British Library contain in the Prints, Drawings and Photographs section of the old India Office Library, the national collection of visual documentation from the British period in India and south Asia. In particular there are large collections of topographical drawings of Delhi and its principal monuments done in the 19th century by Indian artists, backed up by photographs from the late 1850s onwards. Two unique items already in the collections are associated with Metcalfe and the 'Delhi Renaissance'. These include a large panoramic scroll done by Mazhar 'Ali Khan in 1846, almost certainly for Metcalfe, and a large manuscript map of Shahjahanabad or Mughal Delhi drawn by an Indian cartographer with Urdu inscriptions from the 1840s, by far the most important map of Delhi to survive from this period.

Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi - 1842-44, album (26 by 20.5 cm), bound in dark brown morocco, consisting of 102 folios (25 by 19 cm), with laid down 120 water-colour paintings (8 by 13 cm) by Mazhar 'Ali Khan and his studio, surrounded by manuscript text written by Metcalfe. It returned to Delhi with the elder daughter Emily, then aged 17, in 1848, and was given to her on her marriage to Edward Clive Bayley in 1850. It is one of the few items from Metcalfe's collections to escape the destruction of Metcalfe House in 1857. It descended in the Bayley and Ricketts families until 1985.




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