Wednesday, February 28, 2024

    The forgotten art of Poonah Painting that kept women busy in Victorian England

    The Poonah Painting’s popularity in 19th century England can be attributed to its ability to mimic the aesthetics of oriental art, which was highly sought after at the time.


    It’s unlikely that anyone in Pune today would have heard of an art form called ‘Poonah Painting’, although this art which flourished in Victorian England was named after the city. The craft was extremely popular in 19th-century England but later declined into oblivion.

    Poonah Painting was a kind of stencilling that involved the imitation of oriental artwork, particularly in the depiction of flowers, birds, and other natural subjects. The craft was popular among women and, for a considerable period, considered an essential part of a girl’s education in elite English society. The style was also called Theorem Painting or Oriental Tinting.

    The popularity of Poonah painting in England during the era could be attributed to its ability to mimic the aesthetics of oriental art, which was highly sought after at the time. This artistic technique provided a way for artists to create visually striking and intricate designs on various surfaces, including paper, silk, velvet, crepe and light-coloured wood.

    A meticulous process
    To create a Poonah Painting, one required what was called Poonah Paper, a kind of tracing paper, and a Poonah Brush, a stompy round-headed brush. Many establishments trained young girls in the craft and advertisements to this effect can be found in newspapers and magazines of that era.

    The process involved the meticulous tracing of objects, cutting and layering to achieve a visually striking effect.

    As per The Lady’s Book (1831), the process began with laying a piece of Poonah Paper over the original subject, such as flowers, fruit, or butterflies, and the outlines of each colour were marked using a steel point. These outlines were then cut out, either with a sharp-pointed penknife or specialised tools designed for this purpose.

    Another piece of tracing paper was then used to mark and cut out the compartments for each colour. This process was repeated until a series of frames with openings through which a specific colour can be applied to the paper were created.

    The main template was then placed on a drawing board and the colour was applied using a flat Poonah brush held perpendicularly. Then, one after the other, all the frames were placed and colours were applied using separate brushes. Shading was achieved by gradually reducing the amount of colour on the brush and applying it from the edges as needed.

    Women from rich households would often embellish the paintings by giving touches of gold or ruby bronze to the wings or bodies of insects. A mixture of gum water and the desired metallic powder is brushed onto the paper, followed by the application of dry gold or bronze powder, which was rubbed until smooth and polished.

    A ‘frivolous’ art?
    Since Poonah Painting was not drawing and painting in the truest sense and it was exclusively seen as a women’s activity, it was often looked down upon. It was also linked to vanity among women. Evidence of this can be found in 19th-century literature.

    William Makepeace Thackeray, the author of Vanity Fair, wrote to his would-be wife Miss Isabella Shawe in July 1836, justifying calling her “frivolous” in an earlier letter. He described a “frivolous lady” as one who “occupies herself all day with the house and servants” or “someone who does nothing but Poonah Painting and piano forte”.

    In a short story titled ‘Madame Gerald’, published in the magazine All The Year Round, edited by Charles Dickens, the author describes the Poonah works as “hideous daubs” of paint.

    Edward Fitzgerald, the Victorian poet known for translating Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, lists qualities of a girl that he takes a romantic interest in a poem titled ‘Because’.

    “Because you don’t object to walk,

    And are not given to fainting;

    Because you have not learnt to talk

    Of flowers and Poonah-painting.”

    In the second half of the 19th century, the craft was in decline in England and by the late 1860s, it was almost forgotten. Hints of this can be found in a short story published in Tinsley’s Magazine in 1868, in which the author, while describing the heroine writes:

    “…Also, she touched harp with grace, if not with accuracy; and she was adept at a fearful art of torturing flowers which has happily survived in our days only as a name, as a mystery, still darkly whispered of as ‘Poonah painting’”.

    Neha Raj
    Neha uses his broad range of knowledge to help explain the latest gadgets and if they’re a must-buy or a fad fueled by hype. Though her specialty is writing about everything going on in the world of virtual reality and augmented reality.



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