Military Art and the British India Army


Military Art and the British India Army
Though photography superseded military art after its introduction in the 1850s, paintings still remained the medium of portraying the splendor of the military especially its soldiers and their uniforms. The British Empire was in ascendancy and the full dress and field dress uniforms of its regiments, especially of the British India Army, were a visual representation of its power.

Richard Simkin (1850-1926) was the earliest and one of the best known illustrators of Anglo-Indian army uniforms. He was born in Kent, UK and joined a volunteer regiment before attending art school and emerged as a military artist in the early 1880s. He spent much of his time at Aldershot and was employed by the War Office to design recruiting posters and illustrate the Army and Navy Gazette. From 1888 onwards he completed a series of 177 plates on the British Army and in 1901 created a series on ‘Types of the Indian Army’ after obtaining most of the information from the Colonial and India Exhibition of 1886. While he was a prolific painter, his figures resemble the cards of Indian and other soldiers inserted in packs of Scissor cigarettes of W.D. & H.O. Wills Ltd during the early 1900s.

Left: A VCO of 18 Tiwana Lancers.
Right: Risaldar Major Sher Khan in the uniform of the 17th Cavalry at the 1937 Coronation of King George VI

A more versatile illustrator of the soldiers of the British India Army and their uniforms was Major A.C. (Alfred Crowdy) Lovett (1863-1919). He was an artist as well as a career soldier who joined the army in 1882 and for 10 years served in Karachi as well as Poona, Ahmednagar and Bombay. Soon after 1893, he sailed to Aden for the campaign in Egypt before returning to England to become a military instructor and resumed active service around 1901-’02. Lovett had received early encouragement for his drawings, winning a prize for a competition in the iconic British publication Boy’s Own Paper. He continued to paint throughout his career and won acclaim as the artist for the authoritative study by G.F. MacMunn titled The Armies of India which had a foreword by Earl Roberts. It was published in early 1911 and the timing was excellent. The Raj was at its peak and in December the same year, the Imperial Durbar was held in Delhi where the King Emperor George V and Queen Mary were treated to an impressive display of pageantry and a ceremonial parade with regiments in their varied colours matching the colour plates painted by Lovett.

Watercolours of Indian household staff by A.C. Lovett - showing a Bootlair Saheb, Malee, Dirzee, Bobberjee (Bavarchi),
Chupprassee, Dhobie, Dogboys, Syce and Bheestee

The book received glowing reviews, and Lovett’s paintings were especially singled out. Lovett secured praise and promotion in quick order and continued to paint, with his creations winning him well-deserved praise. His watercolours depicted various dress uniforms of the British India Army during the years before the Great War. These were the dying years of colourful and distinctive uniforms before sense and economics prevailed. During the First World War, Lovett commanded his troops with distinction in several early battles at Mons and Ypres and rose to command the East Lancashire regiment. Unfortunately, he contracted an illness and died in 1919, at the young age of 55.
Lovett’s watercolours depicted various dress uniforms of the British India Army during the years before the Great War. These were the dying years of colourful and distinctive uniforms before sense and economics prevailed

“He wasn’t exactly an artist,” said one reviewer, “but he had an eye for color and detail.” A variety of soldiers from the regular army, native states and other parts of the British Empire, was drawn with precision. While Lovett wasn’t of the same mold as highly-regarded military artists like Simkin, he had his strengths and could bring a figure to life with deft brush strokes. Some critics understate his work but his art won him greater acclaim after his death and his paintings often feature in Royal Academy exhibitions and are sought by collectors.

Left: Maj Frank Wilson, 19th Lancers - soldier, author and artist. Right: A working drawing by the artist of an officer of Scinde Horse

Soon after Lovett’s untimely death, Chater Paul Chater (1879-1949) took up the brush to paint figures of the British India Army. He was born in Calcutta and after an unsuccessful attempt to qualify as a mining engineer he left for Hong Kong to work for his uncle who was a great merchant. He subsequently married the daughter of another great eastern trading house. During the First World War he fought in France and Gallipoli and retired as a captain. Finding UK too cold, he settled in Nice where he started painting uniforms of the British Indian Army. Though he had no formal training as an artist, the uniforms were very accurate but it was in faces that he excelled. He would carefully construct the features of Sikhs, Dogras, Punjabis, etc. on a much larger scale than the figure and then redraw and reduce them to fit on the body in the final drawing. Most of his images were based on high quality b/w prints from periodicals but some were modeled on Indian Orderly Officers at Buckingham Palace or at the Investiture Ceremony in London. The colors of the uniforms he obtained from Indian Dress Regulations and other publications in his large library. He also regularly visited the India Office Library, to confirm details of color and uniforms which he filled in under a magnifying glass. He also sourced the works of earlier artists but only as base material and his figures did not have the woodenness of Simkin that I referred to earlier. Chater was generous to a fault and would gladly gift his paintings. Sadly, before his death, close to a hundred of his art works were stolen.

An expert on historical Indian Army uniforms commented that it was “a tragedy that the artists who got the uniforms right always painted the wearers as if they were stuffed dummies, while those who could paint real live men always fell down on the details of the uniform.” However, Chater was an exception and his painting that I find stunning is of Risaldar Major Sher Khan, 15th Lancers who was one of the most outstanding figures at the 1937 Coronation of King George VI.

A Jat Daffadar from Rohtak district. Ink drawing by Lt Col Frank Wilson, 19 Lancers

While my father Major General Syed Shahid Hamid was compiling So They Rode and Fought, a short history of British India Cavalry, he was assisted by Lt Col J.B.R. Nicholson of the 18th KEO Cavalry. Nicholson was a friend and the editor of Tradition, a journal of the International Society of Military Collectors. He was a decedent of famous Gen Nicholson but nothing like his forbear in body or temperament. He was a gentle soul of over 80 years and moved around with an oxygen bottle. During the two months that he stayed with us, my mother was constantly worried that he might pass away. Col Nicholson had a great sense of humour and used to tell my mother “Tahirah! If the vultures come to get me, don’t bother to send me back to the UK. Just bury me somewhere at the back of your garden.” Fortunately, he returned home intact and during one of my father’s yearly visits to UK, Col Nicholson generously gave him a portfolio containing painting and sketches by the artist Lt. Col Frank Wilson.

Information on Francis Arthur Holmes Wilson, who was born in 1901, is elusive. He was an author and artist as well as a soldier and his own book, Regiments at a Glance which portrays badges and uniforms of the British Army, lists him as “Lt-Col... late Royal Scots Fusiliers and 19th King George V’s Own Lancers, Indian Army.” Tony McClenaghan, a friend of my father, who was the general secretary of the Indian Military Historical Society, provided me an extract of Wilson’s record of service from the 1946 Half-Yearly Army List. Wilson was commissioned into the Indian Army in 1922 and as a lieutenant was employed with the Royal West African Frontier Force from 1928-1930. At the beginning of the Second World War he was a major and an acting lt col during the war. A photograph provided by Tony shows Wilson in the dress uniform of 19th Lancers which indicates that he was posted to this regiment during the 1930s and in 1943 he was commanding a squadron during the Second Arakan Offensive.

Wilson was a very versatile artist as his evident from his portfolio that I inherited. A set of about 20 figures in cavalry uniforms of the inter-war period are all painted in the style of caricatures but his uniforms are as accurate as any of the artists who preceded him. His work on cavalry uniforms was published in a special cavalry issue of Traditions which Col Nicholson edited. Half of the 20 figures are complete but what I find much more interesting are some of the rest which were his working drawings with notations, He also painted figures from infantry regiments of the India Army of the same period. Also in my possession are his working drawings of soldiers in post 1857 uniforms – some on camels. The portfolio contains cartoons in ink but my favorite which shows that he could paint portraits, is the profile of a daffadar from Rohtak.

The varieties of uniform and regalia underscored the size of its army and the different people that the Crown ruled over. Besides being a symbol of power, the army also showcased glory and the illustrations by these artists established this in full measure. However, some like Simkin and Wilson went a step further to show the people of India themselves.