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Colonial legacy

review - Splendours of Imperial India: British Architecture in the 18th and 19th Centuries By Andreas Volwahsen. Prestel, 2004. 303pp. £65

The architectural legacy of the British in India is an involved and beguiling subject, and at first glance this substantial book promises to be its definitive survey. With many striking contemporary photographs, historical images and a fair sprinkling of plans and diagrams, it would be easy to assume that this was a well-illustrated work of substantial scholarship. That proves, unfortunately, to be a misapprehension.

The text reads falteringly and is peppered with long quotations. Had these been diagnostic observations from original sources or early commentators, that would not give cause for concern, but when you start reading whole paragraphs culled from contemporary writers like Jan Morris and Philip Davies, you realise that this is an account which is mired in secondary sources.

Perhaps it is just as well that the work of other writers is so thoroughly embedded in the text - it provides some linguistic flair and pithy observation to a book which has all too obviously been translated from the German.

More positively, many of the excellent photographs are by the author himself, although unfortunately their captions are often inadequate or give incomplete information.

Thankfully, however, the subject is so interesting that the book is not without value.

Volwahsen succeeds in taking the reader on brisk, if disjointed, patrol through some of the key themes of a highly complex story.

From the establishment of power-bases by the East India Company to the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India, the use of architecture as the expression of imperial domination is Volwahsen's emphatically stated - and sometimes overstated - theme.

Different styles are presented as indexes of colonial attitudes, with Neo-Classical designs such as Government House in Calcutta presented as reflecting nostalgia for the home country. This rather obvious gloss rather neglects the fact that Neo-Classicism was the most widely used language of public architecture in Britain itself at the same period. Volwahsen argues more convincingly that the adoption of Mogul-influenced architectural forms, in particular for palaces of the Maharajas and administrative buildings in Madras, was intended as a deliberate referencing of an earlier imperial culture.

Although Volwahsen rightly emphasises the influence in India of key buildings in Britain, such as Gibbs' St Martin-in-the-Fields, his knowledge of British architecture appears too sketchy to be convincing. One of the most intriguing aspects of British buildings in India is that, however much they may seem to express an idea of Britishness, they never quite look like they have been transported stone by stone from London or Edinburgh. Even with something as apparently formulaic as the Royal Armorial, Indian inflections or accents can always be detected - as with the exuberant example over the entrance to the Viceroy's Lodge at Simla, with its exaggerated strapwork curves and flamboyant lion's mane.

To me, a building that Volwahsen describes as being the complete incarnation of the English country house, the Secretary's Lodge in Simla, is crucially mediated by Indian architectural forms.

A brief chapter on the influence of Indian architecture within Britain attempts to bring the book to a neat conclusion, but for all its ambition, it is an opportunity lost. As with Volwahsen's book on Imperial Delhi (Prestel, 2002), the subject only comes alive sporadically - and more through its impressive images than its pedestrian text.

Neil Cameron writes on architecture and art

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