In December 1911, the Raj commemorated the Imperial Durbar in style, with King Emperor George V and Queen Mary present. In Delhi, the royals were treated to an impressive display of pomp and pageantry, with a ceremonial parade with regiments in their varied colours. The Raj was at its peak at the time and earlier that year, two dedicated and talented soldiers had published The Armies of India, a lavishly illustrated book with detailed text. Published under the Arthur and Charles Black imprint, the book saw several reprints and it still remains in print.
Alfred Crowdy Lovett, the book’s illustrator, had by this time, served in the army for thirty years. Born in 1863, he had received early encouragement for his drawings, winning third prize for a competition in the iconic British publication, Boy’s Own Paper. Growing up in Croydon, London, Lovett’s path appeared chosen, as was his father’s before him. James Lovett served as a high functionary in the postal department and was part of the increasingly creaky bureaucracy of a colonial empire.
An artist and career soldier
Alfred Lovett joined the army in 1882. As part of the Gloucestershire Regiment, he served in Karachi and parts of western India, living in Poona, Ahmednagar and Bombay between 1883 and 1893. Soon after, he sailed to Aden for a campaign in Egypt before returning to England to become a military instructor. He resumed active service around 1901-’02, and commanded his troops with distinction in several early First World War campaigns, at Mons and Ypres on the French-Belgian border. Lovett secured praise and promotion in quick order, but for most of his life as a soldier, he continued to paint, his creations winning him well-deserved praise. He sketched soldiers in all their fine colours, and in India, his subjects included civilians.
The Armies of India was well-timed. The race for arms and colonies was on between European powers, and Britain was determined to maintain its head start. The numerous regiments, especially in the Indian subcontinent, made for stunning visual representation of the power of the Empire. The varieties of uniform and regalia underscored the size and the disparate people the Crown ruled over. The army, besides being a symbol of power, also showcased glory, and Lovett’s illustrations established this in full measure.
The book received glowing reviews, and Lovett’s paintings were especially singled out. He wasn’t exactly an artist, said one reviewer, but he had an eye for colour and detail. Every soldier, whether from the native states or from another part of the British Empire, was drawn with precision and exactness, and Lovett could bring a figure to life with deft brush strokes. While Lovett – and the consensus was clear on this – wasn’t clearly of the same mould as highly-regarded military artists like Richard Simkin or Orlando Norie, he had his strengths. But this assessment was clearly an understatement, for Lovett’s paintings, to this day, continue to fetch high prices at auctions.
Theory of marital races
The book had copious amounts of text provided by another army man, George Fletcher Macmunn, who was senior to Lovett and had served with equal distinction, ending up as administrator in the Palestinian issue in the 1920s. Its foreword was by another military man, Field Marshall Earl Roberts.
Macmunn was already a well-regarded author. His interests traversed a wide terrain – from the mysterious religious cults of India to a novel on a brave freewheeling soldier in Kashmir to a life of Sweden’s 17th century king, Gustavus Adolphus, known for his shrewd war acumen. In Armies, Macmunn detailed the trajectory and development of the British Indian armies from straggly unfit, treacherous units maintained by the three presidencies in the mid-18th century, to well-organised, well-equipped and well-dressed army regiments in the post-1857 period.
Regiments and battalions were staffed according to the belief both Roberts and Macmunn shared in equal measure: “the theory of martial races”. Propagated by officials and the quack scientism fostered by the racial bias of the age, the theory held that some races were inherently more valorous and courageous than others and hence had better fighting skills. Therefore, they were ideally suited for the British Indian army.
Macmunn’s first chapters in Armies expounded on the chaotic beginnings of the army in India, and then went on to detail the campaigns against the Marathas, Mysore and the Punjab. These long-drawn campaigns gave the East India Company an idea not merely of the different ethnic groups within the land, but shaped a classificatory pattern for use in policy – conforming to beliefs accepted widely within the colonial system, where ethnic groups were ranked on certain parameters.
For example, as Armies in India stressed, the Sikhs and the Dogras were fierce, loyal soldiers, as were the Rajputs, because they had fought wars through their history and offered their loyalty unconditionally. But as Armies in India also (erroneously) states, soldiers from Bengal and the South were effete and degenerate, though they were arguably more intelligent. After the revolt of 1857, as the Crown took over the administration and the army, such beliefs became sacrosanct and the army regiments were organised around ethnic groups with the Sikhs, Rajputs, Dogras, Pathans and Gurkhas being the most sought after.
Such organisation also helped the much-cited “divide and rule” efforts of the British. Quite rightly, these beliefs and the theories that sustained them were soon enough discredited in ample measure. Yet the book’s charm, even today, lies in Lovett’s sumptuously illustrated paintings. It plays up to the nostalgia for a bygone age, romanticism blinding many to colonialism’s evident revulsions. The paintings showing uniformed soldiers speak of a time when regalia mattered in every measure, as much as artillery and skill. The Empire and native states vied to have their soldiers stand out in their finery, for this reflected the state’s glory too.
During World War I years, Lovett came to command the East Lancashire regiment. Unfortunately, he contracted an illness and a year after the war ended, in 1919, he died aged 55. His paintings won him greater acclaim after his death. Not only did they feature often in Royal Academy exhibitions, they are, even today, sought by collectors and connoisseurs alike.
From the 1850s onward, military painting, of course, was already ceding its way to military photography that first made its mark during the Crimean War of 1853-’54. Painting denoted the glory of war, and those who fought it. Photography brought in the devastation, and the grime. Perspectives changed, and so did worldviews. Yet Lovett’s paintings remain a testimony to the past, and to the mixed legacies of colonialism.