Europe's first ethnographic survey of India

SOLYNS, Balthazar A collection of two hundred and fifty coloured etchings descriptive of the manners, customs, character, dress, and religious ceremonies of the Hindoos. (Calcutta, 1799)

Provenance: Thomas Phillips, 1846

Balthazar Solvyns. A collection of two hundred and fifty coloured etchings descriptive of the manners, customs, character, dress, and religious ceremonies of the Hindoos. Calcutta, 1799.

Flemish artist Balthazar Solvyns (1760-1824)  spent the best part of six years during the 1790s in India working on this book, which is widely regarded as the most ambitious printing project undertaken in India to that time. On his return to Europe he was shipwrecked on the coast of Spain and lost many of his original notes and drawings.

The publication was a commercial failure which left Solvyns in dire financial straits. However, the work attracted the attention of the eminent orientalist Sir William Jones, and it was with his enthusiastic support that Solvyns reworked and vastly improved the plates and prepared an enlarged text, in both French and English (translated by his wife Mary Anne Greenwood). This reworking and rewriting took years to complete (using up his wife's considerable  fortune) and it was not until 1808 that the first part was published. Over the next four years it was issued in 48 parts with a total of 288 colour-printed plates. The work was an influential model for the Company School of Indian artists during the 19th century who produced suites of drawings of occupations for the British serving in India.

See further: R.L. Hardgrave. A portrait of the Hindus : Baltazard Solvyns and the European image of India. (New-York, 2004)