I came across the name of Sir Charles D'Oyly (1781–1845) in a book by the eminent art-historian, Mildred Archer, in the early 1980s. Mildred specialised in 18th and 19th century art in colonial India by European and Indian artists, including those of the Company School. In 1991, Academy Publishers in Dhaka brought out a commendable publication on the valuable sketches of D'Oyly, based on his original rare book Antiquities of Dacca, first published from London in 1816. It is a general assumption that D'Oyly's friend, the renowned artist Chinnery, acted as his tutor and mentor in his artistic endeavours. Apparently, their artworks are very similar, especially their drawings (sketches) and watercolours, which can even confuse the most discerning eye. However, the notable British art-historian, Giles Eyre, had reflected on this dilemma and wrote that, "the influence of Chinnery on D'Oyly is hard to define. Giles Tillotson in his prescient and carefully researched work Fan Kwai Pictures for the Hong Kong Bank (London, 1987) does not think he (D'Oyly) was in any formal sense a pupil. Probably Chinnery's influence especially in the Dacca years when they roamed the mofussil together in search of rural subjects and the picturesque, was more seminal than direct. Even if D'Oyly benefitted from observing the compositional method of approach by Chinnery, his technique is very much his own”.
Bishop Reginald Heber (1783–1826), the Metropolitan Bishop of Calcutta, who travelled throughout India in the early 1820s in the performance of his Episcopal work paid a befitting tribute to D'Oyly. He wrote, “I found great amusement and interest in looking over Sir Charles' drawing books; he is the best gentleman artist I have ever met with. He says India is full of beautiful and picturesque country, if people would but stir a little from the banks of the Ganges, and his own drawings and paintings certainly make good his assertion.”
With the advent of the internet in these parts and its popular usage today, the name of Sir Charles D'Oyly is widely known to the users, especially in connection with his early 19th century memorable sketches of Dhaka and its environs, released online by the British Library, London, and hence in the public domain now, for quite some time. There is hardly anyone here who has not seen these images online, in particular the forever curious, young ones.
D'Oyly produced hundreds of finished watercolours and drawings of the Indian countryside, its rivers and cities. Dr Maurice Shellim, physician, painter and art-historian wrote, "D'Oyly's drawings, watercolours and lithographs are well known. Less known is his work in oils. Indeed, until comparatively recently his oil paintings were often misattributed, sometimes to Chinnery or to William Daniell. They have, therefore, become scattered and difficult to find.” I have reproduced in this article four of D'Oyly's oil paintings on Dhaka with known provenance. I have it from authoritative sources that there are a few more D'Oyly oils of Dhaka in existence, in small private collections in Britain. The owners are either unaware that they have a D'Oyly or, simply disinterested to share it in the public domain. It must also be mentioned here, that in recent years quite a few counterfeit or fake D'Oyly's, including some on Dhaka, have surfaced in the international art market.
It appears that D'Oyly did not leave behind any diary of his stay, a long duration of nine years, spent in Dhaka. At least, so far nothing has surfaced. Therefore, we are sadly deprived of an important chapter in his life spent in Dhaka both as a top Company official and also as an avid artist. However, we remain indebted to D'Oyly for his exquisite sketches of the historic landmarks of early 19th century Dhaka, most of which do not "physically" exist any longer. To date, it is the earliest known series of architectural documentation of the visual history of Dhaka, before the advent of the camera here. D'Oyly put Dhaka on the "cultural map" of the world as early as 1816, with the publication of his book, Antiquities of Dacca from London, truly a work of enduring allure.
Now, a chronological brief on Sir Charles and the D'Oyly family. The shores of Sussex and Kent in south-east England inherit an ancient history of war and successive invasion. Like many old English families of the region, the D'Oyly family was French before it became English. It traces its descent from one Seigneur de Oyly of Oyly, near Lisieux in Normandy. In more recent times, the D'Oyly's served with distinction on European battlefields. It is also a family of "old India hands". It has had multiple connections with India. The Indian connection started by Sir John Hadley D'Oyly, 6th Baronet, was continued by four successors to the title. Dr Maurice Shellim has observed that, "five generations continued to serve in India, in one capacity or another, and the men and women of this family were more often in the East than in England.”
Sir Charles D'Oyly, the highly skilled British amateur artist was born on September 17, 1781 in Murshidabad, Bengal, the first child of Sir Hadley D'Oyly, 6th Baronet and Diana Rochfort. Charles D'Oyly's father was the Resident of the East India Company at the court in Murshidabad of Sayiid Babar Ali Khan Bahadur, Nawab of Bengal. As a boy, D'Oyly was taken to England in 1785 by his parents for his education. In 1798 he returned to Calcutta and entered the East India Company's service as an Assistant to the Registrar, Court of Appeal, Calcutta. In 1803 he was appointed as Keeper of the Records in the Governor General's Office, Calcutta. In 1805, D'Oyly married Marion Greer, his first cousin, in Tumluk, Bengal.
In 1808, D'Oyly was appointed as the Collector of Dhaka, an important post which he held until 1817. While posted to Dhaka he invited his friend the accomplished English professional artist George Chinnery (1774–1852) to join him in Dhaka, as his house guest. In their leisure time, the two friends would go around Dhaka looking for exotic rural landscapes and other picturesque subjects, of which there was no dearth in those days. D'Oyly drew and painted with gusto. Artistically, it was one of his productive periods. In 1814, Marion, D'Oyly's wife, died. In 1816 his collection of uncoloured engravings, Antiquities of Dacca, was first published from London.
In 1817, D'Oyly married Marion's friend Elizabeth Jane Ross. In the same year, Charles left Dhaka permanently. In 1818, Sir John Hadley D'Oyly, the 6th baronet, Charles D'Oyly's father died, who then succeeded to the Baronetcy as the 7th Baronet. The same year, he was appointed Collector of Government Customs and Town Duties, Calcutta and was also appointed as honorary ADC to the Marquis of Hastings. In 1821, he was appointed Opium Agent, in Patna where he founded, The Society of Behar School of Athens and published, Costumes and Customs of modern India. In 1825 he published from London, Tom Raw The Griffin, an illustrated satirical poem. During the years 1826–1830, D'Oyly published several sets of lithographs. In 1831, he was appointed Commercial Resident in Patna, India.
From April 1832–May 1833, D'Oyly went on leave to South Africa. He left Calcutta on the ship Thalia on February 3, 1832, and arrived at Cape Town on April 3, 1832. There he rented a house, Goose Lodge, near the castle and stayed there for nearly a year. He produced a large number of pictures, sometimes four drawings a day. Next, he went on a five week tour of the Western Cape, where he painted pictures of farmhouses he probably stayed in. He returned to Calcutta on the ship Cervantes, on May 28, 1833.
In 1833, D'Oyly was appointed Senior Member, Board of Customs, Salt and Opium, and Marine Board, Calcutta. During the period of 1833–1837, D'Oyly produced a set of twenty-five pen and ink drawings of Calcutta. These are now in the collection of the Victoria Memorial, Calcutta. He retired in 1838, and spent three days with his family in The Table Bay, South Africa, on their way to Europe on the ship Thomas Grenville. He finally settled down in Italy.
On September 21, 1845, Sir Charles D'Oyly died at Ardenza, near Leghorn, Italy. In 1848, three years after his death, the magnificent series of his 27 coloured lithographs, Calcutta and its Environs, (London, 1848), was published.
In November, 2017, I had the pleasure of meeting in Dhaka, Sir Hadley Gregory D'Oyly, 15th Baronet, of Shottisham, Norfolk, England and a direct descendant of Sir Charles D'Oyly, 7th Baronet. He shared with me, a rare old book on the history of the D'Oyly family and also showed me a recently published book on another kinsman of his, Sir John D'Oyly (1771–1824), 1st Baronet, of the Kandy Baronetcy, who is famously known in Sri Lankan history as, “D'Oyly of Kandy”. It has some beautiful illustrations.
I told Sir Hadley D'Oyly that he had come to Dhaka, exactly 200 years after the departure of his ancestor Sir Charles D'Oyly from here, in 1817. Now, isn't that an interesting coincidence!
Waqar A Khan is the Founder of Bangladesh Forum for Heritage Studies.