YCBA re-examines Indian pottery

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Photo by Yale Center for British Art.

Of the paintings hanging on the walls of the Yale Center for British Art, not all are historically accurate.

On Tuesday, Edward Cooke, director of the study of American art and culture at British Art Center, led a discussion titled “Anglo (Mis)representation of Indian Craft: Arthur William Devis’ Indian Potter.” The talk focused on 18th-century European painters’ sometimes faulty depictions of Indian craftsmen at work.

Cooke based his discussion on the work of British artist Arthur William Devis, who began painting scenes of Indian pottery making while in India in 1792. Cooke said that while the 29-year-old Devis hoped to sell his portfolio for a living, the artist’s main goal was to capture and promote the British presence and interest in colonizing Bengal, where many of the potters worked.

Yale Center for British Art

“One of the things that is quite striking is Devis’ notion of scientific observation,” Cooke said. “He was presenting [Bengal] in photographic quality with a complete understanding of what was going on.”

Referring to a series of five small paintings, Cooke pointed out the techniques Devis used to ensure that the essence of Indian pottery was captured accurately, carefully depicting the setting and placement of objects. In an effort to stay true to Indian pottery tradition, Devis painted potters in a crouched position — a traditional pottery stance that varied from how English potters worked — and filled the scene with Indian pottery equipment such as brass vessels, clay tools and ceremonial spoons.

Yet Cooke noted that not everything Devis painted was correctly represented. The painting depicted potters throwing from the base of the pot, Cooke said, while in actuality, potters in Bengal worked strictly at the top of the pot. Cooke said that this inaccuracy may not have been entirely accidental.

“He’s putting his own spin on it,” Cooke said. “It’s intriguing how Devis comes in with his own kind of perspective and then misses the opportunity to understand the logic of their pottery production.”

Cooke said that this misrepresentation in Devis’ work increased the exoticism of Indian pottery for British viewers, helping to increase European interest in India through industrial tourism.

Amy Meyers, the director of the Yale Center for British Art, said the talk provided an important perspective on the views of English artists working in India. And, in an institution filled largely with two-dimensional works of art, the talk’s focus on three-dimensional crafts was unique.

“Cooke brought the vantage point of someone who studies material culture [and crafts such as pottery] to the British Art Center,” Meyers said. “Our collection is primarily made up of flat art.”

Audience member Dinesh Asthana said he liked that Devis exposed Indian pottery methods to the British public, since such common practices received no such special interest in India.

An exhibition featuring British and Indian artists, called “Adapting the Eye: An Archive of the British in India, 1770–1830,” has been on view at the British Art Center since early October.

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