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Forbes, James, 1749–1819

A voyage from England to Bombay with descriptions in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Physical Description:
13 volumes : illustrations, maps ; 54 cm
Rare Books and Manuscripts
Folio A 2023 69
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
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Copyright Status:
Copyright Not Evaluated
Related Content:
View a description and listing of collection contents in the finding aid
Archives & Manuscripts
After spending almost twenty years in India working for the East India Company, James Forbes returned to England in 1784. He had kept a daily journal in India, where he recorded the fauna, flora, landscape, buildings, and people of Bombay and the surrounding area, eventually filling up 150 folio volumes with his drawings and observations. They served as the basis for his illustrated Oriental memoirs (published in 4 volumes, from 1813 to 1815), but do not seem to have survived. It appears likely that he dismantled them, copying text as he needed, and cutting out drawings and watercolors, either for an engraver to copy for publication or for remounting in other volumes, such as the set he presented to his daughter Elizabeth on her twelfth birthday.
The volumes were previously numbers 1-13 (of 50) in "The Forbes Collection" in the library of St. Mary's College, Oscott. The collection was presented to Oscott by Charles Forbes, comte de Montalembert, upon the death of his mother, Eliza Rosée Montalembert (née Forbes). Yale Center for British Art collections include the following volumes from the material previously at Oscott: A voyage from England to Bombay with descriptions in Asia, Africa, and South America, 1765-1800, 13 volumes (Folio A 2023 69); Travels in Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, in 1796 and 1797, 1796-1799, 2 volumes (Folio A 2023 70); Views in England, Wales, and Scotland, circa 1787-circa 1819, 3 volumes (Folio A 2023 71); Birds, insects, flowers, and fruits, circa 1788-1817, 1 volume (Folio A 2023 72); Collection of British portraits, circa 1700-1817, 3 volumes (Folio A 2023 73).
Bound in early 19th-century gilt-tooled red straight-grained morocco.
Rohatgi, P. "Early Impressions of the Islands: James Forbes and James Wales in Bombay, 1766-95," in Bombai to Mumbai: changing perspectives.
De Almeida, H. Indian Renaissance: British romantic art and the prospect of India, p. 305, etc.
Provenance: Elizabeth Rosée, comtesse de Montalembert (née Forbes); Charles Forbes, comte de Montalembert; St. Mary's College, Oscott, Birmingham; Sotheby's, 7 Nov. 1966 (lot 273); Paul Mellon.
The collection comprises thirteen manuscript volumes containing excerpted correspondence and illustrations concerning James Forbes's travels in India, with a particular concentration on the natural history of India. The manuscript was finished in 1800, although most of the drawings are those done at the time of the voyage, circa 1765-1776. Volume 1 includes a presentation page, dated 11 April 1800, in which Forbes gives the set to his daughter, Elizabeth Rosée Forbes. Elizabeth would later edit and revise the second edition of Forbes's Oriental memoirs (1834).
Volume 1 includes Forbes's "Preface in finishing these volumes in the year 1800," which notes, "... six years have elapsed since I began these volumes ... I know well the numerous defects which the eye of criticism must discover in these epistles; they were commenced before the age of sixteen, and continued through various employments in the East India Company's service, during a series of eighteen years ... I sent the letters to my friends as they were written, and they are still in possession of the originals; they were chiefly intended to elucidate the drawings which accompanied them; and in these volumes I have preserved a numerous collection of my humble attempts to delineate the various subjects in natural history, from the imperial elephant to the smallest insect ..."
The 13 volumes include almost 520 watercolor illustrations and a number of colored and uncolored engravings, and engraved and manuscript maps. Some of the illustrations have been cut and mounted from another source--probably one of his earlier notebooks--while others must have been copied from his original sketches. The drawings comprise: approximately 80 views, including fine drawings of San Sebastian, Rio de Janeiro, Simon's Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and other marine and coastal views on the route to India, as well as a large number of views in India; approximately 100 drawings of South American, South African, and Indian birds; approximately 130 drawings of flowers, fruit, and other plants; approximately 120 drawings of animals, butterflies, reptiles, and fish; approximately 50 drawings of costumes, domestic scenes, and other miscellaneous subjects; and approximately 40 drawings of Chinese flowers, birds, fish, etc.
The natural history drawings have been produced with almost scientific precision and help explain Forbes's reputation as one of India's leading amateur naturalists of the period. Forbes's full-page drawing illustrating the mulberry, with butterflies and other insects, is a fine example of his work in the present volumes. He notes some basic facts about the plant: "In Hindoostan, we have not the large rich Mulberry common in England ... Ours grows on a much larger tree than the former, with a rich foliage, the fruit sweet and luscious, hanging like caterpillars on the branches, long and thin, varying in color of red, white, and brown" (letter 65, 1 June 1778, vol. 10, p. 16). At the bottom of this drawing, Forbes includes an excerpt from The botanic garden, the famous poem written in 1792 by Erasmus Darwin, Charles Drawin's grandfather.
Subject Terms:
Animals -- India -- Pictorial works.
Bombay (India) -- Description and travel.
Bombay (India) -- Pictorial works.
Clothing and dress -- India -- Pictorial works.
East India Company -- Officials and employees.
Forbes, James, 1749-1819 -- Correspondence.
Forbes, James, 1749-1819 -- Travel.
Forbes, James, 1749-1819.
Forbes, James, 1749-1819. Descriptive letters and drawings.
Forbes, James, 1749-1819. Oriental memoirs.
India -- Description and travel.
India -- History -- British occupation, 1765-1947.
India -- Pictorial works.
India -- Social life and customs.
Montalembert, Charles Forbes, comte de, 1810-1870 -- Ownership.
Montalembert, Eliza Rosée, comtesse de, -1839 -- Ownership.
Montalembert, Eliza Rosée, comtesse de, -1839.
Natural history -- India -- Pictorial works.
Oscott College -- Ownership.
Plants -- India -- Pictorial works.
South Africa -- Description and travel.
South Africa -- Pictorial works.
Travel literature.
Botanical illustrations.
Ornithological illustrations.
Travel sketches -- India.
Views -- India.

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