Robert Smith and Redcliffe Towers Case Study: Building in India

Building in India

To cope with the climatic conditions old houses or ruins in India were often adapted for habitation, as many were constructed with tykhanas (underground rooms) which gave respite from the searing summer heat when temperatures typically rose to 40˚C. Sir Thomas Metcalfe (1795-1853), the British Resident in Delhi during the 1840s noted that in his Presidential House in Delhi the ‘Principal Teh-Khanah or under Ground Apartment [was] occupied during the Hottest Months of the Year’. [1] Smith was put in charge of renovating a house on the city wall between the Kashmir and Calcutta Gates overlooking the River Jumna.  The house had been built by 1805 for William Fraser (1784-1835), Assistant British Resident to Delhi, on a site once occupied by the Mughal Palace of Ali Mardan Khan (d. 1657), a noble at the Emperor Shah Jahan’s court, said to have laid out the gardens of the Taj Mahal and built the Qutub Minar.[2] Fraser, suggested to have ‘gone native’, gave up eating pork and beef, grew a Rajput beard, and kept a harem of six or seven wives.[3] By 1819 the bungalow-style house was vacant, and during the 1820s Robert Smith took occupation of it.  The extant building is an amalgam of British and Indian style architecture; a low central block, with a later domed roof and octagonal corner towers (see figure 6). 

6. Smith's Delhi Bungalow

Figure 6: Robert Smith’s bungalow (known as William Fraser bungalow), Delhi, India. Photograph by Diane James © 2014.

Visiting on 2 February 1828, Major Archer noted that ‘the view from Major Smith’s terrace looking towards the palace and the Selim Gurh, is very beautiful’.[4] Archer was extremely interested in the tykhana of the house: 

We went to see the Ty-Kounahs, or underground houses, forming part of Major Smith’s residence … they are formed in the walls of the ramparts, which being of great solidity completely exclude all heat … The one now under mention doubtless belonged at some time in the past to a man of great station or wealth; the descent to the apartment was about thirty feet, and the surprise and pleasure were equal, to find such beautiful rooms and so elegantly arranged and furnished.  Coloured to resemble marble, the eye is first deceived by the likeness; the deception is countenanced by the coolness, so different from that oppressive sensation always felt above.  Long corridors lead to different apartments, embellished with coloured walls, and other decorations, all by the owner’s own hands; and it should not be omitted, that many exquisite drawings of places of celebrity in Delhi and its neighbourhood, add to the appearance of this truly fairy palace.[5]

As Sylvia Shorto has noted the extant interior of the tykhana is made up of six rectangular rooms, and another square-shaped room slightly lower beneath, in addition to various other tunnels and rooms now bricked up.   One room includes ‘a coved bangla ceiling and a deep iwan (seating niche)’, with stucco and paint traces.[6]  Shorto suggests Smith painted the walls following the Northern Indian tradition of painting interiors, and that he continued this practice in his other houses.[7]  It is known from later British sales catalogues that, obsessed by sketching and painting, Smith used wall space to hang his copious paintings of India, and it is possible that these also covered the walls of the tykhana. It is probable that Smith added the two end towers to the bungalow; a central section flanked by octagonal towers with an arcaded gothic loggia (in this case filled in), was emerging as his architectural signature. This design echoed elements of Mughal architecture, the octagonal form often used in towers or bastions on gates or tombs.  In the Fraser Bungalow, the upper section of the towers below the balustrading is reminiscent of a cupola Smith designed for the Qutub Minar, exhibiting an experimental mix of styles, which would later become a trademark feature of Smith’s building projects.[8]   

In March 1823 Smith was selected to survey an ancient Mughal canal, known as the Doab (Jumna) Canal. [9]  It had been built in the seventeenth century by Ali Mardan Khan, but due to difficulties with the terrain the canal did not operate fully and had remained unused for many years.[10]  In 1825 Smith was joined by a new Assistant Lieutenant, Proby Cautley (1802-1871), who not only became his colleague, but also Smith’s friend for life.[11]  Both officers were withdrawn from their duties, to take part in the siege and capture of Bharatpore, near Agra, 26 December 1825; Smith, was wounded, and later mentioned in despatches.[12]  In September 1827, elevated to Major for his services at Bharatpore, he returned to be in charge of the restoration of the Jama Masjid (see figure 7), the great mosque built in Delhi by the Emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666).[13]  Major Archer, visiting in 1828, observed that ‘Major Smith … is particularly well qualified for the charge of restoring such magnificent relics of art, as much as by his exquisite judgement and taste in the style of the works, as his acknowledged professional talents, which place him among the foremost of his compeers’.[14]

7. Jama Masjiid reduced

Figure 7. The Eastern Gate of the Jama Masjid, Delhi, India. Photograph by Diane James © 2014.

Smith was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in June 1830,but by this time, his health was poor.  He left Delhi for Calcutta on his way to Europe, spending his leisure time during February and March 1830 sailing down the river Ganges sketching and painting watercolours, in the Picturesque style, of the scenes around him.[15] The Doab Canal project was finally completed by Proby Cautley in 1830, just after Smith had left India.[16]  On furlough at the Cape for eight months from 26 November 1830 Smith officially retired from the Bengal Army in July 1832, was created a Companion of the Bath on 26 September 1831, and later given the rank of Honorary Colonel in November 1854 in recognition of his pioneering engineering work.[17]  His retirement pension was £1 per day and, unlike the military adventurers or earlier nabobs, no fortune awaited him.[18]   Due to the ban on private trading, and the acceptance of gifts, it would have been unusual if he had left the East India Company a wealthy man.

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[1] British Library: RP 3041 (microfilm), Sir Thomas Metcalfe, Reminiscences of Imperial Dehlie Album.  Facsimile published as M. M. Kaye (ed.), The Golden Calm and English Lady’s Life in Moghul India (Exeter: Webb and Bower, 1980), ff. 84v-85r.

[2] See Charles Cramer-Roberts, Notes on The Taj Mahal and Its Garden, 1884, British Library online gallery: consulted 19 September 2013.

[3] Aleck and William Fraser’s letters in the Moniack House archive, quoted in William Dalrymple, City of Djinns: a Year in Delhi (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), pp. 100-109.

[4] Major Edward Archer, Tours in Upper India and in Parts of the Himalaya Mountains, 1, 2 (London, Richard Bentley, 1833), pp. 107-109.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sylvia Shorto, ‘Public Lives, Private Spaces: British Houses in Delhi, 1803-1853’, Ph.D. thesis (Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2003), p. 132.

[7] Ibid., p.133.

[8] Shorto, ‘Public Lives’, p. 131.

[9] Skempton, Dictionary of Civil Engineers, p. 637.

[10] Ibid.   

[11] Ibid.

[12] Hodson, List of the Officers, p. 133.   It was reported that Robert Smith, Captain: Sappers and Miners, was awarded a clasp to his India Medal, ‘Dispatches’, London Gazette, 10 June 1826.

[13] Hodson, List of the Officers, p. 133.

[14] E. Archer, Tours in Upper India, p. 107. 

[15] Hodson, List of the Officers, p.133; Phillimore, Historical Records, p. 442.  See Mildred Archer, The Tranquil Eye: The Watercolours of Colonel Robert Smith [of] a Journey Down the Ganges 1830 (London: Al-Falak and Scorpion Communications and Publications, 1982).

[16] Skempton, Dictionary of Civil Engineers, p. 637.

[17] Hodson, List of the Officers, p. 133; Phillimore,Historical Records, p. 442; Dix Noonan Webb consulted 19 September 2013; BL IOR/Z/E.4/43/S464, Smith, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Smith, Bombay Infantry created C.B.

[18] Raymond Head, The Indian Style, (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1986), p. 19.