The Roof of the World

I acquired this small watercolor a number of years ago. At first, it may not appear an outstanding work of art, but in its own very special context it is a rather remarkable historical document.

Briggs Watercolor

Above: Its paper yellowed with age but with unfaded colors, Captain David Briggs’ study captures a view of what is probably the Arun Valley in Nepal. The painting measures approximately 12 1/2 inches wide by 9 3/8 inches high (31.9cm x 23.7cm). c. 1860 Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia/soldiersofthequeen.com

The painting depicts an idyllic if dramatic mountain landscape replete with two travelers in the foreground and a hilltop village in the middle distance. Unsigned, the painting bears a period pencil inscription on the reverse which reads: “China, drawn from
memory by Captain Briggs on board the Oriental for me.
”  Also inscribed in another hand are the words “Tibet?” and “Arun Valley”. At some point, someone seems to have been trying to determine the precise location that Captain Briggs had chosen to paint.

Briggs Inscription

Above: Although faint, the pencil inscription on the watercolor’s back is legible enough to read. It provided key information in researching the origins of the work. Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia/soldiersofthequeen.com.

This inscription is what led me to purchase the painting since it seemed to indicate that it may have been drawn by a British officer of the Indian Army during his passage home. Exactly when was an initial mystery although the style of a work seemed to indicate the 1850s to the 1860s time period.

At this time my research seems to identify the artist as then Captain David Briggs of the 17th Native (Bengal) Infantry which was part of the British East India Company’s army. Briggs served while a Lieutenant and later Captain as the Superintendent of Hill and Mountain Roads in Bengal during the 1850s. Although nothing of Briggs educational background has come to light he must have studied more than a modest amount of engineering since positions such as the one he was appointed to would at a later date been held by officers of the Royal Engineers.

David Briggs was born around 1825 to Colonel Briggs possibly at Fifeshire, Scotland. Hewas appointed Ensign on 11 June 1841 and was promoted as follows: Lieutenant, 8 September 1843; Captain, 27 July 1855; Major, 11 June 1861; Lieutenant-Colonel, 11 June 1867. He was promoted Brevet Colonel at an as yet undetermined date and promoted Major-General on 23 January 1875. Briggs saw active service in the field during the Indian Mutiny during 1857 as Superintendent of the Army Transport Train and was present at the siege and capture of Delhi. He also served during the Bhutan Campaign of 1865. He was married to Miss Elizabeth Sleeman at Jabbalpore, India on 29 September 1849. Briggs died in 1908 at Fifeshire, Scotland.

After examining the painting at some length I thought it possible that Briggs was depicting from memory the mountain that in 1857 would become known as Mount Everest. Briggs held the rank of Captain from 1855 to 1861 so the painting must date from that time period. Given that Briggs did the watercolor from memory it could very well be a view of the mountain from the Arun Valley in Nepal. If this is the case then this painting is one of the earliest European artistic representations of the worlds highest peak I have personally seen.

I posted this image on my original but now defunct solidersofthequeen blog some time ago and received the following information from Peter G:

“I walked up the Arun Valley in 1986 following the original Everest expedition route used by Tilman in 1950. On this trek, I learned that Everest was not visible from the Arun Valley due to it being blocked from view by the extensive Chamling Ridge. If the painting depicts a view from the Arun Valley in Nepal as you suggest, then the mountain in the painting is very likely to be Makalu – 5th highest mountain in the world. Makalu dominates the Arun and appears like a beacon to the north as you progress up the valley, very much as is represented in the painting. I recall such a view from the village of Tumlingtar.

However, if the painting is from the Tibetan reaches of the Arun, then it is possible it is Everest, although I feel the foreground depicts a very Nepali scene rather than a more barren Tibetan landscape.”

arun-valley

Above: A present-day view looking up the Arun Valley towards Mt Makalu. Captain Brigg’s painting was apparently rendered from memory and there is no way to know his precise vantage point from which he originally viewed the scene. Given that, this view does bear more than a passing resemblance to that shown in his watercolor. Photo courtesy of gorkhaadventure.com.

Given the evidence such as it is, my guess is that Captain Briggs’ painting does indeed offer us a view of Mt. Makalu from the Arun Valley in Nepal. The original owner’s guess that the locality was in China was in error since the widely traveled Captain Briggs never visited China. The “Tibet?” guess is also out of the question since that remote kingdom was closed to Europeans until it was forcibly opened by the 1903-04 expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Edward Younghusband.

 

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