General view of the Ajanta Caves, a temple and monastery complex carved into the Deccan rocks, by James Fergusson. Source: Herringham, frontispiece .

The Ajanta frescoes are wall-paintings in the Buddhist structures hewn into an ancient bow of rocks at Ajanta, in western India. Almost hidden from sight in the Deccan plateau of Maharashtra, the temple and monastery complex dates from the second and first centuries BCE up to the fifth and sixth centuries CE, when more structures were added. Subsequent to the rediscovery of the caves in the early nineteenth century, both the sculpture and the painted decoration in them proved highly influential. The area is now protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site, and much visited. Yet it has not lost its impact and atmosphere.

During the Victorian period, the British made two attempts to provide copies of the frescoes inside the caves before they deteriorated further. However, the results of most of these pioneering efforts perished in fires in England. They seem to have attracted misfortune. In a short essay entitled "The Expedition" that he contributed to his wife's book on the subject, her husband, Sir Wilmot Herringham, explains how she came to embark on a fresh set of copies. The poet and scholar, Laurence Binyon, who was then in the Prints and Drawings section of the British Museum, inspired her to go out in 1906 to sample the riches of the subcontinent's early art and architecture. She returned in early 1907 with a "rough sketch of a large Buddha" from the complex (Herringham 17). Binyon was impressed. Buoyed up by this interest, Christiana Herringham went out again in the winter of 1909-10 for six weeks, and in the following winter of 1910-11 for over three months, to make a full record of the frescoes.

King Bimbisāra, Queen, and Attendants seated within a palace pavilion. Source: Herringham, Plate I.

Christiana Herringham herself explains in her essay, "A Note on the History and Character of the Painting," that the paintings she copied, dating from 450-650, show events in Buddha's life and previous incarnations, with perhaps the addition of "semi-mythological history," adding that "they illustrate the court life and popular life of the time, as told in the romances and plays." As she continues with her description, it becomes clear that her fascination with them only increased as a result of her immersion in them:

To me the art is of a primitive, not decadent, nature, struggling hard for fresh expression. The artists had a complete command of posture. Their seated and floating poses especially are of great interest Their knowledge of the types and positions, gestures and beauties of hands is amazing. Many racial types are rendered; the features are often elaborately studied and of high breeding, and one might call it stylistic breeding. The drawing of foliage and flowers is very beautifuL In some pictures considerable impetus of movement of different kinds is well suggested. Some of the schemes of colour composition are most remarkable and interesting, and there is great variety. [18]

With her special interest in tempera and its techniques, she is full of appreciation for the artists' more painterly skills as well. Her copies, unlike those of her predecessors, were also painted in tempera.

Left: A Lotus Lake with Hunters and Wild Geese. Right: The Elephant Rejoins His Mother and Kindred in the Jungle .

During her two long stays, she was not without support. The Nizam of Hyderabad, within whose jurisdiction the caves came at that time, provided her with a camp and facilities, and (according to her Times obituary) five students from the Calcutta School of Art were selected as helpers, and funded for her by Abanindranath Tagore, the artist nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. On the last and longest visit, she was accompanied from England by a young assistant, the talented designer Dorothy Larcher (1884-1952).

From her husband's description in "The Expedition," it was a beautiful, completely unspoilt place:

Standing on the terrace, you look down upon the river bed curving away to a waterfall on the right, and beyond it rises a sloping rocky hill covered with scrub. In the rains the river becomes a mighty torrent, but in winter it dwindles to a stream with a few pools in it. Green parrots fly across it in the sunshine; monkeys, boars, and an occasional panther haunt it; and black buck feed in the valley. Everywhere on the banks are long bottle-shaped birds'-nests, something like those of our long-tailed tit. [Herringham 16]

But it was clearly an extraordinarily testing as well as rewarding experience: "Between the columns of many of the temples are hung great nests of wild bees, which must be carefully humoured to prevent dangerous hostilities; and in the deep recesses gibbering bats crawl sidling along the rock cornices, unaware that the concentrated stench of their centuries of occupation is their most formidable defence against man’s intrusion" (Herringham 16). What was more, Herringham's own working conditions were appalling. Her biographer Mary Lago reports that the French writer Charles Müller, who kept a journal during the five months he spent in India at this time, and saw her at her copying, was generally "caustic and condescending" about the English party; but even he could not help admiring the way "she worked tirelesly in the fiery furnace of the days and the freezing night air, travelling three hours daily to the caves, where she perched on a ladder in the gloom and the stench of bat droppings, ruining in her eyes and her health to piece together fragments of heads, hands, feet, animals" (209-10).

To complete his own picture of her life there, Wilmot Herringham reminds us that she also needed to supervise her team:

Lady Herringham had on her hands the management of the camp, the treatment of many sick persons who came to her from the neighbouring villages, and even of sick animals, besides the care of guests who from time to time visited her. Almost all provisions had to be obtained from Bombay and fetched from the nearest station, which was over thirty miles away. With bullock carts the journey Ukes about seventeen hours each way.

Nevertheless, her husband continues, the camp was "a great pleasure to her. She loved the freedom and the simple country surroundings of the life, and she much appreciated the open and friendly intercourse with the young Indian gentlemen who were her assistants. She was, moreover, deeply interested in the work before her: for she felt that she was face to face with the remains of a great civilisation and a great art, of which little was left but tradition" (16). Reading this, it is not hard to see why the whole experience affected her profoundly.

Although Lady Herringham is given as its author, the book that came out of the expedition, like the expedition itself, was a collaborative project. In its preface, Dr John de Le Valette, Honorary Secretary of the India Society, explains that it was published with donations from "His Highness the Maharaja of Mysore, Sir Wilmot and Lady Herringham, Dr. Victor de Goloubew, Mrs. Sophie Cunliffe Jay, and Mr. C. L. Rutherston," and was also supported by the Governments of India and Ceylon, "which have been good enough to take a large number of copies." The book was dedicated to His Highness the Nizam of Hyderabad, as a "token of a sincere appreciation of the kindly protection and substantial aid which Lady Herringham’s expedition received from his illustrious predecessor," and presented to the members of the Archaeological Society of India."

As for the significance of the copying work itself, the artist and art critic Sir William Rothenstein wrote in his contribution to the book ("The Import of the Ajanta paintings on the History of Art"):

So true is the psychological character of these paintings, so remarkable the delineation of human and animal forms, so prefound the spiritual portrayal of Indian life, that they may still serve to-day, in the absence of contemporaneous works of the kind, to represent the culture and character, rapidly changing though they now be, of the Indian people. [23]

It certainly seems that this has been the case. Abanindranath Tagore himself was keen to promote Indian art that was not in thrall to Western models, and his motive in helping with the copying project, even apart from his long friendship with Rothenstein, is easy to fathom. According to art historian Kajal Kanjilal, he was the "first major artistic figure of modern India," and "restored national pride by reviving the greatness of traditional Indian painting" (78). It may also be significant that he adapted the technique of tempera, which Christiana Herringham practised so enthusiastically, to help produce the soft colours of his own work.

Related Material


"Ajanta Caves" (brief description with video). UNESCO/NHK. Web. 7 November 2019.

Alambritis, Maria. [Review of] "Christiana Herringham: Artist, Campaigner, Collector" at Royal Holloway (14 January–8 March 2019). Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth-Century 3 June 2019. Web. 7 November 2019.

Bin Tahar, Omar. "Nizam's grandson seeks preservation of Ajanta Frescoes." Times of India. 10 November 2018. Web. 7 November 2019.

"Copy of painting inside the caves of Ajanta (cave 1) (by Robert Gill)." Victoria and Albert Museum. Web. 7 November 2019.

Herringham, Lady. Ajanta Frescoes. 1914-15. New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 1998. Internet Archive. Contributed by the Central Archaeological Library, New Delhi. Web. 7 November 2019.

Kanjilal, Kajal. History of Indian Art. Rpt. New Delhi: Saraswati House, 2016.

"Lady Herringham" (obituary). Times. 28 February 1929: 19. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 7 November 2019.

Lago, Mary. Christiana Herringham and the Edwardian Art Scene. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

Created 7 November 2019