Patrick Russell: The unknown artist and famous naturalist of Vizag

From Monsieur Ross, after whom the famous Ross Hill was named, to Patrick Lawson, the namesake of Lawson’s Bay Colony, many a foreigner who set foot in the quaint town of Vizagapatam made their mark that would be witnessed by generations to come. Not only leaving behind his name but also publishing an informative account of his learnings about serpents and fish he came across in Vizag back in the late 18th century was a Scottish naturalist, Dr Patrick Russell. John Castellas, a Vizag heritage enthusiast and aficionado, narrates the story of the unknown naturalist Dr Patric Russell and how he went on to illustrate a detailed book volume about various species.

The early 1800s was the Age of Enlightenment in natural sciences and India’s flora and fauna captivated European naturalists. The animal kingdom provided tigers, lions, elephants and monkeys. The crows, kingfishers and water birds attracted the ornithologists. Insects, butterflies, fruit and plants in each of India’s regions also attracted zoologists and botanists. In Vizag, the Chief-in-Council (Collector and Chief Magistrate) was Claude Russell, whose brother was Dr Patrick Russell, a Scottish naturalist, who had studied medicine at Edinburgh. He arrived in India in 1781 to care for his sickly brother in Vizag, where he spent his time studying fish from the daily catch and also venomous snakes, which led him to become company botanist for the British East India Company. Between then and his death in 1805, Russell wrote, edited and published several works on scientific.

Dr Patrick Russell, naturalist

Each of Russell’s books was enhanced with finely detailed drawings of each specimen and the Telugu names were applied, as there were no known equivalents. In 1796, Russell published the first of what were to be four volumes titled An Account of Indian Serpents Collected on the Coast of Coromandel-

one of the first works in Europe about Indian snakes. This was followed in 1803 by another two-volume opus, Description and Figures of Two Hundred Fishes Collected at Vizagapatam on the Coast of Coromandel. An unknown Vizag artist rendered the exacting detail that illustrated the publications by the Scottish naturalist.

Russell wrote, “An Indian painter, whom I retained in my employment, had made progressive improvement in this new line. Endued by nature with a quick eye, patient and docile, he learned in a short time to delineate so accurately the parts pointed out to him, that his figures, howsoever deficient in art and grace, may, in general, be relied on in respect to fidelity in representation…. It was my original intention to have had the drawings, in like manner as the Coromandel Serpents, coloured from nature but after many fruitless attempts, I was obliged to relinquish my design. In a hot climate, the colours of fish are more rapidly fugitive after death than in serpents. They escape while the painter is adjusting his palette; and in the fine gradations from the most brilliant to the softer evanescent tints, nature, through boundless variety, ever maintains a certain harmony and characteristic simplicity in her transitions, that required a delicate pencil under more masterly guidance than my artist had pretensions to.”

Chundawah (Chanduva, చందువా, Pomfret)

Russell also wrote…The drawings of this collection, as before mentioned, were executed by an Indian; and, by the advice of artists at home, have undergone only a few slight corrections. Of the engravings, some are by Heath, others by Neele, and two or three by Skelton: but the greater part by Reeve, a young diligent artist, who in the course of this work has made a progressive improvement. The initials of the artists are engraved on the respective plates.

Wingeram (Vanjaram, వంజరం, Seer)

So, the artists engraving the drawings for printing, having their initials printed, and the Telugu names for unique species are reproduced, but the unknown Vizag artist who contributed the illustrations is just a footnote by naturalist Russell.

Patrick Russell decided to study venomous snakes and is often regarded as the Father of Indian Ophiology. India has quite a few venomous snakes, including the famous Indian cobra, and Russell thought it would be helpful if he could find easy ways to distinguish those that were dangerous from those that were not. Russell collected live specimens of a variety of snakes from the local population; he would listen to their tales about which species were the most deadly, and then experiment for himself. His standard of venomosity was the “chicken-minute

”, as in “When this snake bites a chicken, the chicken lives for 36 minutes.”

Russell returned to the British Isles in 1789 and began to collect his observations on the snakes of India into a book, the first part of which he published in 1796.  An Account of Indian Serpents is a tall folio with 44 folio hand-coloured plates of the snakes he collected. Although Russell does not talk about his illustrator, the first plate is signed “Skelton omnes fecit” – “Skelton drew and engraved all of these.” This is presumably William Skeleton, a noted Georgian engraver, who mainly illustrated travel books and scenic books and did not otherwise dabble in natural history, which I think shows in the very two-dimensional plates.  But they are hand-coloured, which adds something to their attractiveness. One image, depicting “Katuka Rekula Poda,” an exceptionally venomous viper, is of interest because the snake was later named Vipera russellii, Russell’s viper, in honour of our naturalist. A second part of An Account of Indian Serpents was published in 1801/02, with 44 more plates, and two more parts appeared after Russell’s death in 1805.

Bungarum Pamah, Gold banded Krait

During Russell’s time in Vizag, the secret of a remedy long used in South India for the bite of venomous and rabid animals, and generally known by the name of the Tanjore Pill, was purchased by the Madras Government from a local supplier. Besides arsenic and mercury, the medicine was found, upon analysis, to contain one or two unknown ingredients. Having procured parcels of these secret ingredients under their local names, Dr Russell himself made up a considerable quantity of the pills, carefully employing the prescribed proportions of each ingredient. These pills were distributed to the different settlements, with directions to the medical gentlemen, to report their effects, as occasions should occur. From Dr Russell’s own experience, as well as from some interesting communications by the surgeon at Vellore, it appears that this remedy has often proved fallacious, both in cases of the bite of snakes and of mad dogs. Perhaps that is the origin of the expression ‘Snake Oil’ and ‘Snake Oil Salesmen’ to describe modern-day fake and false selling techniques, be it social, commercial, or political.

Katuka Rekula Poda రక్త పింజరి, Russel’s Viper

In January 1789, Dr Russell voyaged to England with his brother and family. He deposited his collection of specimens of fish, and his Indian herbarium, in the Company’s Museum at Madras. He donated 67 specimens of dried snake skins mounted and captioned on paper to the Natural Science Museum in London.

Naja tripudians specimen in the Russell Collection

Patrick Russell established Katuka Rekula Poda (Telugu) as a venomous snake, next in toxicity only to the spectacled Indian Cobra Naja Naja. Testing the clinical features of bites of venomous snakes in dogs and chickens, he described the neurotoxic and hemorrhagic manifestations of viper venoms. He donated his collection of snake skins to the British Museum (Natural History), London. Dr Patrick Russell was a pioneer in Indian Zoology. Russell’s Viper Daboia russelii occurs almost in all South Asian countries and is a major cause of human fatality. The biological name of this reptile celebrates Patrick Russell (1726-1805), a Scottish surgeon and naturalist, who worked in the yesteryear Vizag in the Madras Presidency.

Prepared snake skins from one of the sheets in the Russell Collection

Should local history and Telugu journals identify an accomplished artist of 200 years ago, it would be a fitting sequel to the story of Vizag’s unknown artist who so capably illustrated nature.

Written by John Castellas whose family belonged to Vizag for five generations. Educated at St Aloysius, migrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1966, former General Manager of Engineering at Boeing & Qantas Airways, in retirement Lecturers in Aviation Management at Swinburne University and is a Vizag aficionado. He can be contacted at jcastell@ozemail.com.au.

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