At a time when the predominant architecture [in India] was either Greek-inspired or in military-garrison method with minimal ornamentation, Chisholm is credited with blending indigenous building styles with classical British staples to popularise an architectural language that came to be called "Indo-Saracenic." It defines colonial Madras to date. [Elias]

Robert Fellowes Chisholm, © THG Publishing Private Ltd., which allows reuse for non-commercial personal or academic dissemination.

Not much seems to be known about Robert Fellowes Chisholm's background except that he was born "to artist parents" in London, and went out to India as a "special engineer to the Government of Bengal" in 1859 (Elias). The first part of this tallies well with the description of him, later on, by Lord Napier, the Governor of Madras, as "a little, clever Cockney crammed with high-art to Ruskin level" (qtd. in Jaywardene-Pillai 242). As early as 1863, the "little, clever Cockney" had impressed Napier with his entry into the competition for the city's proposed university and senate house. Following the judges' decision in his favour, he was transferred to Madras to superintend this important work. The transfer was approved in June 1865, after which Chisholm began to make what would be a lasting impact on the city — through his role as Consulting Architect to the Government of Madras, through the influence he exerted as head of the new School of Industrial Art there in 1876-77, and, more directly, through the buildings he designed there. Jan Morris writes, "If you came to Madras at the start of the nineteenth century you thought you were approaching a foreshore lined with Grecian temples: if you came at the end of the century, it was like sailing into some fantasy of orientalism" (216).

The Napier Museum, Trivandrum.

Much of this transformation was down to Chisholm, who has been described as "[o]ne of the most versatile architects to work in British India" (Davies, "Chisholm, Robert Fellowes"). Around the time he first went to Madras, he designed the Lawrence Asylum in the Presidency's summer capital of Ootacamund in a classical style. But his new structures in Madras itself, including the senate house with its onion-domed corner towers and polychromy, set the stage for the eclectic mix of major buildings that so dramtically changed the waterfront. A key factor here was his mission to Trivandrum in 1872, where he was sent to designed a museum in honour of Napier, who was then (briefly, following the Earl of Mayo's assassination) the acting Viceroy. Napier himself was "an enthusiastic advocate of native styles" (Davies 196), and Chisholm's own admiration for Keralan architecture carried through not only into the museum building, but into the buildings he designed on returning to Madras, especially the General Post Office — although later alterations and additions have partially obscured it. Mary Beth Heston writes,

Chisholm‘s time in Travancore inspired his early work in a new kind of architecture for India that crafted a felicitous blend of lndic or "native" and "modern" elements. Within the broadest definition of Indo-Saracenic, Chisholm is one of its earliest practitioners, even if his early encounter with Travancore and its role in shaping his early work have been largely forgotten. In subsequent designs Chisholm would develop a range of buildings that drew on the indigenous traditions of the particular region in which he was working but brought in other features as well, so that his work remained eclectic in its inspiration. His work in Madras immediately following the Napier Museum, as has been noted, shows how thoroughly his time in Travancore had inspired his forays into this Kerala mode of stylistic interplay, but Travancore was only one of various regions whose indigenous architectural traditions he explored. [242]

In 1886 some problem over accounts led to Chisholm's resignation from his position in Madras, and the next phase of his career played out in Baroda, where he also designed major buildings, such as law courts, for the Maharajah. His masterpiece there was the University, with its "74-feet diameter dome, ... the biggest free-standing dome built by the British" (qtd. in Elias).

Cadogan Hall, Chelsea © Tim Glover, licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.

In 1871 Chisholm had become a Fellow of RIBA (the Royal Institute of British Architects). He had often spoken there, and had also published papers on, for example, the Palace of Madura in the Transactions of RIBA, Vol. XXVI, 1875-76, and the Chandragiri Palace in the Indian Antiquary, Vol. XII, 1883 (see Havell 213). In this way he had earned "a reputation as an expert on Indian architecture, especially as a dome builder" (Jaywardene-Pillai 242). He returned to England for good in 1901, and in these twilight years designed a few works here, notably the First Church of Christ, Scientist in 1907, which is now Cadogan Hall in Sloane Terrace, home to the Philharmonic Orchestra. This building, though much altered inside, sports one of his typical Indo-Saracenic towers. He died in London on 28 May 1915. — Jacqueline Banerjee


Related Material


Das, Pradip. Henry Irwin and the Indo-Saracenic Movement Reconsidered. New Delhi: Partridge, 2014.

Davies, Philip. "Chisholm, Robert Fellowes." Grove Art Online. Web. 16 April 2019.

_____. Splendours of the Raj: British Architecture in India 1660-1947. London: Penguin, 1987.

Elias, Esther. "The man who chiselled the city’s skyline." The Hindu, 20 August 2014. Web. 16 April 2019.

Havell, E. B. Indian Architecture; Its Psychology, Structure and History from the First Muhammadan Invasion to the PresentDay. London: John Murray, 1913.

Heston, Mary Beth. "Mixed Messages in New 'Public' Travencore: Building the Capital 1860-1880." Art History 31: 211-247.

Jaywardene-Pillai, Shanti. Imperial Conversations: Indo-Britons and the Architecture of South India. New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2006.

Metcalf, Thomas R. An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain's Raj. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Morris, Jan, with Simon Winchester. Stones of Empire: The Buildings of the Raj. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.


Walker, Paul. "Institutional Audiences and Architectural Style: The Napier Museum." Colonial Modernities: Building, Dwelling and Architecture in British India and Ceylon . Edited by Peter Scriver and Vikramaditya Prakash. London: Routledge, 2007.

Created 16 April 2019