Coffee table books are a dime a dozen these days, slick but shallow fly-by-night affairs, but, every once in a while, there comes along one which also makes an important contribution to the sum of human knowledge. John McAller’s Picturing India trains his lens on an important period of British Indian history, the heyday of the East India Company.

McAller has impressive credentials. Before his current position as lecturer in history at the University of Southampton, he was curator of imperial and maritime history at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. “The British engagement with India was an intensely visual one,” he points out. Drawing on the rich visual and textual archives of the British Library, he paints a portrait of the Company—in pictures.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, artists crossed the length and breadth of India, creating an impressive body of work, the artworks reflecting changing British attitudes and policies. Major artists associated with the era are represented, of course, like the Daniells and William Hodges. But given that only about 10 per cent of the visual material in the India Office collection was by professional artists, there is a wealth of new stuff here. Crucially, the role of Indian artists, like the Maratha artist Gangaram Chintaman Tambat, is acknowledged and their work well represented.

India offered rich material for the artists. This is what Hodges wrote on his arrival in Madras: “The clear, blue, cloudless sky, the polished white buildings, the bright sandy beach, and the dark green sea, present a combination totally new to the eye of the Englishman, just arrived from London, who, accustomed to the sight of the rolling masses of clouds floating in a damp atmosphere, cannot but contemplate the difference with delight: and the eye being thus gratified, the mind soon assumes a gay and tranquil habit, analogous to the pleasing objects with which it is surrounded.”

Also represented are a variety of genres, and not just the great colonial landscapes. Robert Mabon’s sketch of an Indian Guard Room (late 18th century) is clearly based on personal experience since he served in the Company’s army. The Panorama of a Durbar Procession of Akbar II, Emperor of Delhi, probably at Id or after Ramadan (c. 1815) has the signature of the Delhi School. One of the most remarkable artworks in the book wasn’t painted in India at all. The Italian artist Spiridione Roma’s The East Offering its Riches to Britannia (1778) is a powerful, if problematic, painting which used to grace East India House in London.

Given the richness of the material, Picturing India will give hours of reading pleasure to scholars and lay readers alike.