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  Henry Salt. “No. III: Calcutta,” 1809.  
Salt, Calcutta

Henry Salt. “No. III: Calcutta,” 1809. Hand-colored aquatint engraving on wove paper by D. Havell after Henry Salt. Published in Twenty-four Views in St. Helena, the Cape, India, Ceylon, the Red Sea, Abyssinia and Egypt (London: William Miller, 1 May 1809). Image size (including text): 17 1/2 x 23 1/2". Sheet size: 21 1/4 x 28 3/4". Very faint scattered spotting. Overall excellent.

This outstanding and rare view of Calcutta based on a watercolor by Henry Salt (1780–1827) was published by William Miller in Twenty-four Views in St. Helena, the Cape, India, Ceylon, the Red Sea, Abyssinia and Egypt, a portfolio of large-format aquatints that comprises one of the best early-19th-century visual records of the exotic “Orient.” Miller intended the portfolio to be a continuation of Thomas and William Daniell’s Oriental Scenery (1795–1809), a collection of aquatints created from the brothers’ watercolors of the sights they observed on a journey to India. The two portfolios are uniform in size, style, and execution, but the work by the Daniell brothers is the better known of the two. Nonetheless, the aquatints by Salt and his engravers are equal to those of the Daniells, and the present work is a superb example of Salt’s ability to capture the atmosphere of a picturesque locale.

Salt here presents an elevated view of Calcutta on the River Hooghly, the most westerly and commercially important arm of the Ganges. Calcutta was founded in 1690 by the British East India Company on the banks of the Hooghly and the port grew to provide access from the sea to the hinterland of Bengal, India’s richest province. The Hooghly carried to the sea a large volume of exports brought to Calcutta by the railways and river steamers. Salt’s view looks over the warehouses built along the river that were once the lifeline of the Raj’s trade and commerce. In the distance, ships loaded with Indian cottons, silks, tea, and Bengali opium can be seen plying the river for transport to Europe.

Henry Salt, the artist, traveler, and diplomat, is best known today in the field of Egyptology. During an appointment as British consul-general in Alexandria in 1815, he accumulated a collection of Egyptian antiquities, notably the head of Ramesses II, which he presented to the British Museum, and the sarcophagus of Ramesses III, which was bought by the Louvre. He also sponsored the excavations of Thebes and Abu Simbel, carrying out significant archaeological research himself at the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx.

Born in Lichfield, England, in 1780, Salt began his career as an artist, receiving his training under the topographical draughtsman Joseph Farington and the portrait painter John Hoppner. Salt was introduced to the Orient in 1802, when he was hired to accompany the antiquarian George Annesley, the viscount of Valentia, as his secretary and draughtsman on a tour of the East. The two men visited India via the Cape of Good Hope, Benares, Lucknow, Ceylon, and Madras. Salt then explored the Red Sea area and in 1805 visited the Ethiopian highlands. He returned to England in 1806. Salt’s watercolors from the trip were used to illustrate Lord Valentia's Voyages and Travels to India, published in 1809, and twenty-four were reproduced as aquatints in Miller’s spectacular portfolio. The plates are valued for their historical and architectural accuracy, recording as they do buildings now demolished and places altered beyond recognition.

A magnificent view of Calcutta from one of the most important British color-plate books of the 19th century.


Copyright 2003, William R. Talbot