The colonized from the colonisers’ eyes

‘A Return to Sri Lanka: Images of Sri Lanka from British Collections (1640-1900s)’ a unique exhibition will showcase 400 years of interaction between Europe and Sri Lanka.
Smriti Daniel speaks to the man behind the venture

Sipping his tea, John Falconer tells me that on the morrow he will visit Jaffna for the first time. He’s looking forward to it – though he once lived in Trincomalee as a five year old, a Navy brat, he’s never been that far North before. John is here in his role as the lead curator of Visual Art and curator of Photography at the British Library and he and his co-curator, photographer Menika van der Poorten are heading out to inspect venues for ‘A Return to Sri Lanka: Images of Sri Lanka from British Collections (1640-1900s)’.

The exhibition promises to be quite extraordinary – in one space visitors will find a wonderful variety of maps, manuscripts, prints, paintings, sketches and photographs, selected for the insight they offer into 400 years of interaction between Europe and Sri Lanka. Among them are some of the earliest surviving photographs of Sri Lanka, an array of rare maps of the island, a nine panelled scroll depicting the ancient Kandy Perahera, exquisitely shot studio pictures of plants from the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens and accurate paintings of underwater landscapes.

Checking out venues for exhibition: Menika van der Poorten and John Falconer. Pic by Sanka Vidanagama

On the table in front of us is the grand plan for the exhibition – the book with its large, cream, ruled pages is filled with tiny images carefully arranged according to chronology and placement. Each will be accompanied by captions in Sinhala, Tamil and English, Menika promises.

The images and text will be mounted on locally manufactured, free-standing, portable panels so that the exhibition can be transported from Colombo to Galle, Kandy and finally to Jaffna. The 100 images that actually make it to the display will be high quality digital facsimiles, life sized for most part – the originals are in the care of British institutions such as the British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Natural History Museum.

“The exhibition will cover the period from the late 18th century up to the 20th century,” says John, explaining that the generation and preservation of many of these images were quite closely linked to colonial endeavour on the island. “You take over a territory and you want to record it, you want to document it. That brings in the map makers; that brings in the natural historians because they want to exploit the natural resources. Still, there is scientific endeavour and it’s all mixed in. But the end result is some very beautiful art work.” Such materials largely commissioned and produced by Europeans have long been maintained in collections abroad. Now John and Menika hope to offer the Sri Lankan public a taste. When the tour is complete, a gift of the digital prints will be made to the country.

With just under a month to go till its opening in mid-September, things are falling into place. Explaining that their considerations now are practical ones, the two are anticipating “that sudden rush to bring it all together at the last moment.” “There is always something,” says John, “no doubt we’ll have a few panics as we go along.” However, he hopes that having worked closely with the Ministry of Heritage and others like the Jaffna Library they will have made “networks and collaborations for the future,” that will make other such events possible.

The exhibition will be arranged under 12 sections. Here, we take you on a short tour:

First impressions

As the Dutch and the Portuguese strive to claim Sri Lanka for themselves, we see the island through the eyes of those like Dutch East India Company man Philip Baldaeus and English sea captain Robert Knox. Johann Wolffgang von Heydt’s ‘Allerneuester Geographisch- und Topographischer Schau-Platz’ (1744) offers views of the landscape. The European engravers who produced these illustrations relied on second hand accounts and so inaccuracies abound, still these offer a glimpse of Sri Lanka in an early, formative period.

A Portuguese view of Sri Lanka

Each map is clearly defined by the cartographer’s priorities. There are the vivid, colourful Portuguese maps that track the colonial outposts and possessions on the island. The irony, notes John, is that by the time these were published in 1635, the Portuguese were already on their way out, helped along by the Dutch.

Pedro Resende Barreto, Plan of Jaffna, c. 1635 BL Sloane 197 f.345
Vessantara Jataka

Then there are the 17th century mariner’s maps, where the interior is left blank except for Adam’s Peak, among the few landmarks visible way out to sea.

A favourite with the curators is Captain G. Schneider’s New and Correct Map of the Island of Ceylon, published in 1822.

“He originally worked for The Dutch East India Company and when it got taken over by the British he promptly switched sides,” says Menika of the canny Schneider.

His original manuscript can be found in the British Library and is eight feet tall and boasts remarkable detail.

“The maps are interesting not only because they are quite beautiful but because they show us the way Europeans saw Sri Lanka,” says John.

The Kingdom of Kandy

For centuries, the Kingdom of Kandy resisted European domination. Here, the last important independent monarchy in Sri Lanka, its rulers and culture are documented by the would-be invaders. Images date to the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.

After the Portuguese were ousted by the Dutch (1658) and the Dutch by the British (1796), the British launched a concerted effort to subdue Kandy. From one, unsuccessful attempt in 1803 comes a map of the King’s Palace obtained by a British officer. Kandy would eventually succumb in 1815.

Buddhism in Sri Lanka: the Kandy Perahera

The great Perahera festival – one of the oldest Buddhist ceremonies in the world - has always fascinated visitors to Sri Lanka and the early Europeans were no exception. They documented it in a variety of media. One beautiful scroll, made up of 9 separate panels captures the entire event. Produced by an unknown Sri Lankan artist, the panorama was probably commissioned by a European customer. In its entirety it is around 20 feet long, says John. “The text actually has translations into English,” says John, explaining that the naive, bright style adopted by the author to describe the Perehera’s participants is “really quite fun.”

A Tropical Eden: the natural history of Sri Lanka

In this section, the lush abundance of Sri Lanka flora and fauna are lovingly captured by naturalists and artists. Pieter de Bevere drawings were among the earliest natural history drawings from the island to become available to European naturalists. Artist George De Alwis was known for his exquisitely detailed studies of butterflies and moths. Eudelin de Jonville, founder of the botanic garden at Peliyagoda, included particularly fine illustrations of animals, plants and insects in a comprehensive, though unpublished, description of the island.

Menika pushed for the inclusion of the eccentric amateur naturalist and traveller Eugen von Ransonnet-Villez. He used a diving bell to survey the underwater landscape, and his drawings of coral formations (complete with fish) were published in ‘Sketches of the Inhabitants, Animal Life and Vegetation in the Lowlands and High Mountains of Ceylon’ (1867). Eventually, naturalists turned to photography. In the 1870s, Charles Scowen produced many striking, beautifully printed photographs of the island’s flowers and trees in his Kandy studio.

In search of the picturesque

“Sri Lanka was looked on as this tropical paradise full of wonderful plants and sights and landscapes, which coincided with the picturesque movement in Europe,” says John, pointing out the work of men like Samuel Daniell who lived in Sri Lanka from 1805. “He died quite young and is buried somewhere on the island,” says John. There is also the work of private Patrick Lysaght who worked with watercolours and artillery officer John Deschamps whose lithographs were published in ‘Scenery and Reminiscences of Ceylon’.

Faces and places

Photography was considered the province of professionals until the 20th century – it was easier to buy prints than to attempt the technically challenging and laborious process. From the early 1860s onwards, commercial studios sprang up to meet the demand for photographic souvenirs.

Eugen von Ransonnet-Villez, Group of corals near the fort of Galle, c. 1867.

Of note were William Skeen and Co., who did business from 1860 till around 1920, and Charles Scowen himself. Their photos were sometimes reproduced in European newspapers and journals and provide a unique historical record of a vanished era.


Drawn from the British Library’s collection of Sinhalese, Pali and Sanskrit manuscripts, these were chosen for their visual appeal, says Menika.

They cover the spectrum from palm-leaf to paper and copper-plate, many with richly embellished covers like that of the ‘Sarvajnagunalankaraya,’ a collection of religious sermons. On display will be two beautifully illustrated Jataka stories - a palm-leaf manuscript of the ‘Vidhurapandita-jakata,’ and a paper scroll of the popular ‘Vessantara-jataka’ - and a rare example of an illustrated palm-leaf manuscript in colour.

Collecting Sri Lanka: Arts and crafts

A pair of finely-carved, ivory 18th century temple guardian figures illustrate the sophistication of Sri Lankan craftsmen. Their skill extended to woodwork, textiles and other crafts and was lauded by Europeans throughout the colonial period. Craftsmen from the island were also put on display at international fairs and exhibitions, complete with recreations of their workspaces.

Photography: A new medium of record

“Photography came to Asia almost immediately after it was invented in 1839,” says John. Pioneer Frederick Fiebig, a visitor to Sri Lanka in 1852, was responsible for some of the earliest surviving photographs of the island. Among them are 70 views of Galle, Colombo, Kandy and the surrounding hill country. Painstakingly hand coloured, these were calotypes. “Fiebig is a bit of a mystery,” says John explaining that after his work was sold to the East India Company, Fiebig simply disappeared. Anyway, the likes of Fiebig would soon be replaced by commercial photographers who belonged to firms.

Discovering a sacred landscape

Photography was recruited for the purposes of archaeological survey and some of the finest work of the 19th century is found in the documentation of the major sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya by the photographer Joseph Lawton. Between 1870 and 1871 he took well over 200 photographs. These, taken before any extensive restoration had been undertaken, are of archaeological and artistic significance.

Growth of a plantation economy

Ceylon would become famous for its tea industry and this section looks at its economic and historical development from the mid-19th century. Island wide development saw a boom in roads and railways – built to support the new industry. Photographers captured the rapidly shifting landscape and the fabled life of the European in the plantations.

‘Return to Sri Lanka’ is produced in collaboration by the British Library and the British Council (Sri Lanka), with funding provided by the World Collection’s Programme. Exhibition dates and venues: Lionel Wendt Gallery Sept 14 - 28, Jaffna Public Library Oct 5 -19, Kandy City Centre Oct 24 - Nov 6, Galle Municipal Council Nov 11- 24.

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