Between the late 18th century and early 19th century, Calcutta transitioned dramatically from a monopoly under the English East India Company to a flourishing hub of private enterprise. The Charter Act of 1813 marked a turning point that broke the Company’s stranglehold on trade, except for opium and tea.

William Prinsep, 23, entered this newly opened market to work as an agent for the silk trade of his brother-in-law George Haldimand in Calcutta in 1817. It was a departure from the restricted trade environment his father, John Prinsep, had experienced in the late 18th century.

John Prinsep was among the select few agents who had been permitted to engage in trade that did not directly compete with Company interests. He had a legacy of advocating for free trade, as evidenced by his influential pamphlet “A Review of the Trade of the East India Company”, which laid the groundwork for this newfound economic freedom.

His son, however, arrived in a vastly different Calcutta where agency houses proliferated, offering opportunities for private traders and merchants, unheard of in his father’s time. John Prinsep, alongside contemporaries, especially the likes of economist Adam Smith, championed “fair and open competition”, embracing the ethos of economic liberalism – and what better place than Calcutta of the early 19th century?

The bustling capital of British India was a fusion of opulence and chaos as aspiring free traders flocked to the city, seeking to make their fortune in silk, indigo, cotton and opium. Alongside the steady stream of traders were also artists – young men and women keen to study and document the colonial stronghold.

William Prinsep was also as adept an artist as he was a businessman. He moved around the elite circles of British Caluctta but in his paintings is a visual narrative of the multifaceted aspects of the colonial stronghold. His art reflected the allure of the oriental picturesque but also exhibited a fascination with colonial Calcutta’s bustling commercial life. Also evident was his fascination with the city’s glamour and the rural life of Indians.

Yet, as vivid as his art was, William Prinsep’s memoirs, written several years after he returned to Britain, justified colonialism and segregation from native Indians.

Village with a small tulsi altar and a watercarrier with his bullock, by William Prinsep, 1840. Credit:

A businessman in Calcutta

Upon arriving in Calcutta, William Prinsep delved into the city’s burgeoning business landscape. He joined Palmer and Company, a prominent agency house doubling as a banking institution, and quickly rose the rank of partner. The faltering fortunes of Palmer and Company, however, prompted him to pivot to Carr and Tagore, dealing with coal, in 1835.

Carr and Tagore epitomised the wave of bi-racial enterprises that flourished amidst the economic liberalism of the early 19th century.

This transformative era also saw the emergence of luminaries like Dwarkanath Tagore, an enlightened liberal merchant – also Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather. William Prinsep’s association with Carr and Tagore coincided with the burgeoning presence of Indian entrepreneurs in Chowringhee Lane, a thoroughfare previously restricted to the “natives”.

William Prinsep’s entrepreneurial spirit was expansive: he established an array of ventures, including the Union Bank (which later faced failure), the Bengal Tea Association, the Bengal Coal Company, the Bengal Salt Company and a tugboat company, among others.

Government House, Calcutta, from Esplanade Row showing the South East gateway. Credit: William Prinsep, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Through his business career, William Prinsep left an indelible mark on Calcutta’s commercial landscape, contributing to its evolution into a thriving hub of economic activity. John Prinsep and his sons, over time, diversified their business to expand into other regions like Asia and Australia.

By 1825, William Prinsep and his six brothers were actively employed in the Bengal Presidency: Charles, Thoby, George, and Thomas in Calcutta, James in Benares, and Augustus in remote regions. This collective presence was not only a formidable network of influence rooted in familial ties but also expanded their interconnectedness by way of marriage with other East India Company families.

A watercolour by Thomas Prinsep, of a view of Chittagong, in Bangladesh, dated 1825. This image, from an album compiled with his brother William, shows the washing green, where cloths were laid out to dry in the sun. Credit: Thomas Prinsep, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Art in colonial Calcutta

Accompanying this influx of traders to Calcutta in the early 19th century was an array of civil servants, merchants, soldiers, and amateur artists.

Many of them were students of English painter George Chinnery. Notable among Chinnery’s students were Charles D’Oyly, of the “Bihar School of Athens”, Maria Browne, Jane Atkinson, and James Baillie Fraser. Chinnery also mentored John Prinsep’s sons – William, James, and Thomas – who, over time, gained renown in Calcutta for their artistic endeavuors.

Trained in “Chinnery-esque” style, William Prinsep’s art was vivid in its depiction of life and culture in colonial Calcutta.

Calcutta of the early 19th century pulsed with an energy as diverse as its inhabitants. Bustling bazaars and marketplaces teemed with merchants hawking spices, silks and gemstones, while ships coursed the length of the Hooghly River, the lifeline for trade and commerce.

Elegant vessels and their billowing sails jostled for space with local boats, their hulls laden with goods from distant lands. Majestic structures, characterised by grandiose columns and imposing facades, stood proudly – a reminder of British power and authority.

William Prinsep’s canvases captured this in all its glory: from the vibrant festivities of Durga Puja to interactions between Indians and the English. His repertoire extended to scenes of the city's docks, the intricate activity of goods being loaded and unloaded, and the grandeur of its architectural landmarks and opulent mansions.

He skillfully depicted scenes of Indian puppetry as a popular form of entertainment and contrasted the splendor of costume parties and balls with the humble dwellings of local Indians.

Europeans being entertained by dancers and musicians at a splendid Indian house in Calcutta during Durga puja. Credit: British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

His artistic lens, thus encompassed the diverse landscapes and livelihoods of colonial India. His association with D’Oyly led him to join the Bihar School of Athens in Patna.

Artists would congregate at D’Oyly’s home to share creative work and enjoy entertainment. Remarkably inclusive for its time, the school also welcomed Indian artists. But Unlike D’Oyly, who was disdainful of Calcutta’s high society, William Prinsep revelled in its glory and opulence.

He acquired a Garden Reach Home where he lived a life of luxury and moved among the elite circles of Calcutta’s businessmen and civil servants, leveraging his family’s networks through trade and matrimonial alliances while painting in his leisure time.

William Prinsep found amusement in the British imitation of Indian lifestyles, evident in events such as Indian-themed costume parties. In his painting, Fancy Dress Ball at Mrs Casement’s – William Prinsep can be seen dressed up as a “Chinaman”. He also captured quirky details like D’Oyly holding his brush like a hookah.

Calcutta’s Durga Puja celebrations, featuring Indian dancers and musicians, or staged theatrical performances, were also subjects for his canvas as he captured the cultural fusion and contrasts of colonial Calcutta.

"Garden overlooking the river. A small boy, with a servant carrying a sunshade, is watching decorated boats on the river," a watercolour with pen and ink, by William Prinsep, 1835. The view is of the garden at his brother Charles Robert Prinsep's house at Isherah in West Bengal.

In the late 1830s, William Prinsep traveled to Canton and Macao, painting glimpses of these places. Canton also had a rich culture of art ateliers frequented by mixed groups of artists. In 1838, William Prinsep met Auguste Borget, another itinerant artist from France, with whom he traveled to Pearl River Delta and went sketching in Macao.

Borget had previously met Chinnery, who had a lasting impact on his artistic style. Later, Borget visited Calcutta where he possibly met William Prinsep again and produced art that reflected the French style as well as Chinnery’s trademark of the picturesque.

William Prinsep’s visual chronicling has not been given much credit when compared to other amateur artists of his time. It was only in 1982 that Mildred Archer curated an exhibition on Thomas and William Prinsep in India, displaying their under-appreciated art.

Racist views hold

William Prinsep’s art reflected the culture and glimpses of the residents wherever he traveled. Yet, his views were typically racist of his time. After he retired in 1841 and returned to Surrey in Britain, he penned down three volumes of Memoirs of William Prinsep chronicling his life and reflecting on colonial India.

In the memoir, written in the 1870s when British rule had been firmly established in India, William Prinsep justified the racial segregation in Calcutta and the British right to rule. He portrayed Calcutta as a British domain, with Indians only as a background to the narrative of the British Empire in India.

William Prinsep’s allure for the “other” can be discerned from his many paintings that capture the customs, people and villages of India. In Canton, too, with his teacher Chinnery, he painted locals worshiping a deity in a Cantonese temple.

A photograph of William Prinsep's painting of the A-Ma temple, built to the Chinese sea goddess Mazu, in Macau. Credit: William Prinsep, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The written account, in sharp contrast to his visual chronicles, William Prinsep’s memoirs paint a vivid picture of early 19th-century Calcutta as a bastion of British influence, where young Britons preserved their identity. Within tight-knit family networks like the Prinseps, there were ample opportunities for socialising, ranging from cultural pursuits such as painting and amateur drama to leisure like boating and dinners.

Despite daily interactions with Indians, the British predominantly associated with their own social circles, reinforcing a sense of exclusivity. Indians were relegated to the periphery, facing formal and informal barriers against forming close bonds with the ruling British. British officers were discouraged from forging personal connections, purportedly to maintain control and prevent abuses of power.

For William Prinsep and his contemporaries, Calcutta epitomised a British domain, with Indians occupying peripheral roles in the broader colonial narrative, notwithstanding the fact that biracial companies with Indian merchants were being formed.

His drawings and paintings depicted the way Calcutta unfolded itself before him but his memoirs better describe his perception of the British Empire and the trading world in general, and his life in particular in Calcutta.

He died in Surrey in 1874.

Sonal is Assistant Professor of History at Motilal Nehru College, University of Delhi. She specialises in the history of colonial India.

The inside of Chowringhee Theatre, Calcutta, from the circle looking towards the stage, showing the first few rows of seats, by William Prinsep. Credit: William Prinsep, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.