Tuesday 20 August 2013

James Prinsep, Scholar of India

James Prinsep (London, England, 20th August 1799 – London, England, 22nd April 1840)

Portrait of James Prinsep by Emily Prinsep
James Prinsep by Emily Prinsep

After gadding about Austria, England and France in the company of all sorts of flighty types and royals, the times seems right to venture a little further afield. Slap on your fard, grab your parasol and make sure you've got a fan handy, because it's time to return to India in the company of a noted British scholar.

Born to a family who had made a fortune in the Indian indigo trade, James Prinsep enjoyed a classical education and trained in architecture as a student of Augustus Pugin. However, a serious illness left the young man with poor eyesight and his career plans evaporated. Prinsep's father pulled a few strings and secured his son a job in the assay department at the Indian mint; to prepare him for the role the young man was trained as a chemist at Guy's and served his apprenticeship at the Royal Mint, where he developed an early affinity for his newly-chosen career path.

Photograph of the Prinsep coin, 1840
The Prinsep Coin, 1840

At the age of 20, Prinsep arrived in India and began his new life under the tutelage of Horace Hayman Wilson, making an instantly favourable impression in the assay department of the Calcutta mint. After less than a year he was moved to Benares to work as an assay master and remained in that position for a decade. His initial training in architecture set aside for now, he focussed his efforts on scientific discovery and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1828.

As well as his scientific achievements, Prinsep was a master draftsman, producing perfectly detailed sketches of myriad subjects from the constellations to fossils, palaces to machinery. More than anything else though, Prinsep loved antiquities. His work in the mint left him with a fascination with the production, design and history of coins and amassed a huge collection from across the Indian subcontinent, tirelessly cataloguing them and delving deeply into the history of money in India. He also developed a passion for inscription, gaining particular note when he successfully translated the Delhi edicts of Ashoka.

Photograph of a fragment of the Sixth Pillar of Ashoka
Fragment of the Sixth Pillar of Ashoka

In Benares the young man rekindled his love of architecture and as his eyesight improved he devoted his spare time to producing a map of the city that had become his home. He adored life in Benares, chronicling the people and streets that he saw every day in a series of paintings and drawings that were published in England. Living in relative comfort he was dismayed at the poor sanitation that the people of Benares had to endure and played a major role in sanitary developments, as well as championing a number of architectural initiatives.

Buoyed by his professional successes, Prinsep returned to Calcutta where he succeeded Wilson as assay master, the student finally stepping into the shoes of the man who had trained him. He would later take Wilson's role as secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, extending the Society's publishing interests into a number of scientific areas.

Photograph of Prinsep Ghat
Prinsep Ghat

As his career soared so too was his personal life settled, with Prinsep marrying Harriet Sophia Aubert in 1835; however, it would not be long before tragedy struck. Three years after his marriage Prinsep began to suffer from debilitating headaches and vomiting, his worsening condition eventually causing him to leave his adopted home and return to England. Upon his arrival he was already seriously ill and would never fully recover; the man who had roamed amongst the ancient sites of India died at 31 Belgrave Square from an infection of the brain.

Prinsep's name lives on in name of the plant Prinsepia whilst the grieving people of Calcutta memorialised him in the shape of Prinsep Ghat, a Palladian porch beside the Hooghly River that stands to this day.

Photograph of Cherry Prinsepia
Cherry Prinsepia

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