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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Robert Gill

Other: Maj. Robert Gill 
Other: Major Gill 
Other: Major Robert Gill 
Dates:  1804 - 1879 (Check - Impressed by Light gives 1874)
Active:  India
British amateur photographer and military officer in India, who served in the Madras Infantry from 1824. Known as ‘an excellent draughtsman’ he was occupied for over a decade, from 1844, in making painted copies of the wall paintings in the cave temples of Ajanta. Most of this work was destroyed in the Crystal Palace fire of 1866, but Gill had taken up photography in the mid-1850s, and from the early 1860s until his death he produced an important archaeological record of Ajanta and other sites. Two volumes of his photographs, The Rock-Cut Temples of India and One Hundred Stereoscopic Illustrations of Architecture and Natural History in India, were published in 1864, with texts by the architectural historian James Fergusson.
(Contributed by Ajay Sharma, January 2008)

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Robert Gill
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA)

The son of a London stockbroker, Gill joined the Madras Native Infantry at the age of twenty and was to spend most of his life in India. “An excellent draughtsman,” Gill was “entrusted with the duty of making drawings of the architectural and Pictorial remains in the Caves of Adjunta [Ajanta]” starting in 1844, according to his military service record, and this type of assignment would later inform his photographic work. In twelve years of highly dedicated labor, Major Gill, although hobbled by illness and impeded by strife in the region, produced a fine series of documentary paintings. Tragically, many of them were destroyed in a fire at the Crystal Palace in London in 1866; the few survivors are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Gill became a photographer in the mid-1850s and was a corresponding member of the Photographic Society of Bombay. Although his initial work was in collodion, he exhibited a series of calotype views before the society in 1856. The competition was stiff, but, as the society’s journal pronounced in the same year, Gill had “the most on view, and all, without exception, perfect,” the society said, calling it “very evident” that he “not only understands the details of photographic manipulation, but evinces very high artistic skill.” For one important set of views, Gill had written in the journal the previous year, he could “think of no plan other than anchoring a Balloon whence to operate in front of the cave, when it happens to be on the side of a steep hill” (the society opined that perhaps he could try an extra wide-angle achromatic lens). Gill battled the government over payment and delays but finally completed his work on the Ajanta paintings in 1863. He was buried in India, his spirit living on in his son, who became an important traveler. 
Roger Taylor & Larry J. Schaaf Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 4 Nov 2012. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
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Robert Gill
Doorway of Buddhist Vihara, Cave XXIV, Ajanta, with Major Gill seated in entry 
1868-1870 (ca)
Family history 
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John Falconer, British Library 
A Biographical Dictionary of 19th Century Photographers in South and South-East Asia

Amateur, India
Son of John (a stockbroker) and Ann Gill of Hackney; baptised at St Botolph’s, Bishopsgate, 26 Oct 1804. Married Fanny Flowerdew (variously spelled Flawerdon): daughter Frances Eliza Menchin b. 25 Jul 1842, baptised, Madras 27 Aug 1842,[1] son William John, b. 10 Sep 1843, baptised Bangalore, 13 Nov 1843.[2] This son entered the Royal Engineers and became a celebrated traveller (see DNB). Entered Madras Infantry 1824. In the 1844 he was seconded to make painted copies of the paintings in the Ajanta Caves (his service record states that ‘he is an excellent draughtsman’), a task which occupied him for about twelve years. Almost all these paintings were later destroyed in the Crystal Palace fire of December 1866 (the surviving paintings are in the Victoria and Albert Museum). He had in the meantime taken up photography and devoted the rest of his life to documenting the caves of Ajanta and other architectural sites. His photographs (sent back to England in c.1863) appear in J. Fergusson's One hundred stereoscopic illustrations of architecture and natural history in Western India (Cundall, Downes and Co., London, 1864), with 74 small albumen prints inserted, and The Rock-cut temples of India (John Murray, London, 1864), with 100 albumen print stereo doubles. Collection of 47 of his architectural views of sites in Berar made in the 1860s are in the National Archives, Bhopal (Thomas, infra.)
Gill was a corresponding member of the Photographic Society of Bombay and an active photographer in the mid-1850s. A letter from him, addressed to the society and dated Ajanta 24 May 1855, records his problems with the deterioration of collodion, and suggests that it should be manufactured in Bombay rather than imported.[3] A further letter, read at the meeting of 7 August 1855, regrets that he is at present unable to contribute prints to the society, but hopes to do so soon.[4] In the October issue he writes from Aurungabad asking for advice on ‘the most feasible plan of obtaining a representation of an object such as a Hindoo Cave Temple, when the nature of the ground in front would not admit of a view camera being taken to a distance sufficient to allow the whole view to be properly represented’. He states that ‘I can think of no plan other than anchoring a balloon whence to operate in front of the cave, when it happens to be on the side of a steep hill.’ The journal advices the construction of ‘a lens made particularly for such work, viz. a double achromatic of large diameter and very short focal length.’[5] At the society’s exhibition in February 1856 he exhibited calotype views, which were praised, but not considered the equal of the best work on view. He also showed ‘positive pictures on collodion’ which were more highly regarded: ‘The pictures were chiefly single portraits and groups, and the race lay between Major Gill, Mr Crawford and Dr Ballingall. Major Gill, as having most on view,and all, without exception, perfect, may perhaps be considered entitled to the first place, although Mr Crawford’s portraits and Dr Ballingall’s view of the Temple of Umbernauth, were not one iota inferior to any one of Major Gill’s. Major Gill, it is very evident, not only understands the detail of photographic manipulation, but evinces very high artistic skill. His ‘Dancing Girl’, ‘Widow and Children’, and ‘The Sisters’, are perfect gems of the art, and he may be justly proud of them. By the memorandum which accompanied, we observe they were taken in a fraction of a second. It would be interesting to be informed of the particular formula by which these pictures were taken’.[6] On 20 March 1856, he writes from Ajanta enclosing a ‘small compilation of precepts’, relating to composition and lighting of ‘collodion positive portraits’
On 29 March 1858, Gill writes from Ajanta reporting the despatch of paintings to Madras. ‘I have another batch in hand and which will be shortly completed; there will then only remain the be copied to complete the pictorial remains: these I hope to be able to get executed during another season for my health is far from good.’ He renews his request for a new apothecary to replace Mr Woodbridge who had died the previous year, adding ‘I should be sorry to appear importunate but must beg of you to solicit Government to provide me with medical assistance: my assistant and his eldest boy have now fever, and I have had dysentery off and on for the last fifteen months and it is rather unpleasant being without even a person who can compound medicines.’[7] Government was unable to supply a new apothecary, although he was given permission to employ a pensioned medical subordinate.
On 10 January 1859 Gill reported that ‘a body consisting of upwards of 1,000 Rohillas, Arabs and Bheels looted and burnt the village of Adjanta on the 2nd instant.’ Several neighbouring villages had shared the same fate, his servants had lost most of their possessions and were so frightened that ‘I have thought it advisable to remove my establishment to Jaulnah for a short time until the inhabitants may be induced to return permanently to their homes and order may be restored to this part of the country.’ Government approves this action.[8]
On 10 May 1861, the Madras Government enquired about Gill’s progress at Ajanta - what remained to be done and how long he expected it to take. In his reply from Ajanta (undated), Gill wrote ‘that I am at present employed upon the ceiling, and in making fair copies of ground plans; there still remains about twelve months’ work to execute.’ He additionally stated that ‘During the late disturbances, I taught myself photography and occupied myself from time to time at such times as I was able in taking pictures of all parts of the caves of which the light permitted, and I have herewith despatched by banghy 45 (forty-five) prints. I have several more negatives from which I have not yet printed, but shall do so shortly and forward - all that the camera can command without artificial light, I have accomplished. Printing I have found the most difficult process in the art of photography, and have therefore sent my negatives to England to be printed, and as soon as I receive them, will send Government some complete copies.’ He also wrote of further photographic plans: ‘I have just received advice of the despatch of ‘artificial light’ from England which will, I hope, enable me to take the interiors of all the caves, and thus complete the most perfect representation of the caves which could be obtained.’ In conclusion, ‘Finishing the ceiling, (a laborious work from the unnatural position of the head) putting together my memoranda, in the form of a short description of the caves, and photographing the interiors will, I apprehend, fully occupy the time I have named. Should I prove successful with the arificial light, Government will, I hope, taking into consideration the heavy outlay I have had to make in making myself a proficient in photography, reimburse me the expense thereof.’[9] This is mystifying, since Gill had certainly been a proficient photographer since the mid-1850s. His assertion that he had just learnt photography specifically to photograph at Ajanta may have been a ploy to persuade Government to underwrite his expenses.
On 1 January 1862, Gill wrote further of his photographic work at Ajanta: ‘I have the honor to infom you that a few days ago, I forwarded per banghy to your address a box of Stereographs for submission to Government. The artificial ligth alluded to in my letter...has arrived, but owing to the damaged state of the chimneys from salt water, I have not been able to test its power, which however I hope to do shortly, when I shall report thereon for the information of Government.’ [10]
On 5 January 1862 Gill wrote asking for an extension for his work until the end of 1862 (his commission was previously due to expire on 30 June 1862). This was reluctantly acceded to (‘but positively to no later date’). Gill also refers to the fact that ‘my health has long failed me, and I have been repeatedly urged to go to England, but my anxiety to complete my task has induced me to remain at my post’.[11]
On 6 December 1862 Gill wrote asking for a further extension, a consequence of ‘severe indisposition’ which was preventing the completion of the painting of the ceiling: ‘the piece is large and measure [sic] thirty-seven feet by nine.’: ‘I trust that Government taking into consideration this loss of time, and the laboriousness and tediousness of the work, both myself and assistant being obliged to work on scaffolding, lying on our backs, may be pleased to allow me to remain here on duty for six months more; I ask for no Staff pay for self, but hope that Government may be induced to continue to pay my assistant his pay of 100 Rupees a month for January and February 1863.’ Governor in Council refused request. [12]
In the face of this refusal and in his anxiety to continue the copying, Gill then asked to be allowed to take leave six months leave to complete the work, noting that ‘I have had only four months’ leave during the last 18 years’. Government reluctantly allowed him a further six months duty at Ajanta.[13]
In response to the Government of India’s request regarding the gathering of photographic representations of ‘Architectural structures and other works of art in India’ [No. 57-4031 of 29 August 1867 and No. 14-931 of 24 February 1868], ‘we have communicated with Major Robert Gill, who resides at Adjunta, and who may be possibly known to you by name as an accomplished photographic artist, enquiring if he could supply photographs of the Cave Temples at Adjunta and Ellora. In his reply Major Gill expresses his willingness to undertake the duty, but to obtain good pictures solicits Government to provide a special camera for the purpose. He observes, “the space in front of all the caves is so confined that a lens of short focus is an absolute necessity, and for this purpose Dallmeyen’s [sic for Dallmayer’s] new patent wide angle Rectilinear lens has been expressly made.” We request, therefore, that you will issue instructions that a Dallmeyen’s [sic] lens, such as specified by Major Gill, for pictures 10 x 8 inches in size, with a supply of chemicals, may be carefully packed and forwarded to us overland without delay. And we request that an ordinary camera for pictures 10 x 8 inches in size may be also forwarded at the same time.’[14]
512. Letter from the Chief Secretary to the Government of Fort St George No. 487, dated 18 April 1868 - forwarding a copy of the proceedings of the Madras Government relative to thepurchase by them, under instructions from the Secretary of State, for £300 of photographs, etc., of the Caves of Adjunta, the property of Major Gill; requesting that this Government will order the payment of the amount on receipt of the photographs, etc., from Mr Burgess, Principal, Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy’s School, and have them kept in some secure placew till orders for their disposal are received from England; and suggesting the course this Government might adopt should they be of opinion with Mr Burgess that Major Gill should be re-employed to re-copy such of the paintings in the Caves of Adjunta as may be still in sufficient preservation.
‘RESOLUTION. - Mr Burgess should be informed that the whole of Major Gill’s photographs and drawings, according to the list given by him in his letter to the Government of Madras, have been purchased by Government, and he should be requested to give them to the Acting Chief Secretary to Government, who will give him a receipt in acknowledgement.
2. A copy of the resolution of the Government of Madras to be sent to Major Gill, with a request that he will inform Government to whom the money should be paid on his behalf. The money will be payable as soon as the drawings and photographs have been received.
3. His Excellency in Council entirely concurs with the Government of Madras that it is very desirable to secure some substitute for the paintings so unfortunately destroyed at Sydenham [in 1866], and considers no person could be more fitly employed than Major Gill in the work of re-copying the Cave paintings still in preservation.
4. Major Gill should be requested to furnish this Government with a report on the present condition of the paintings, the time it would take him to re-copy such of them as remain, or to make careful tracings of all, with finished copies of a few of the best, as has been suggested by Mr Burgess.
5. Major Gill should forward a memorandum of the expense which would have to be incurred, in addition to the remuneration to be offered to himself for his services.
6. The sum of Rs. 3,000 will be debited to the Government of Madras, and the drawings and negatives will be kept in the Secretariat until orders are received for their disposal from the Secretary of State. In order to utilize the small drawings it will be necessary to employ some one to arrange them. Those measurements in regard to which there is some discrepancy might be forwarded to Major Gill, with a request that he will test the measurements and correct them.’[15]
Payment of £300 to Gill for Ajanta drawings, photographs etc., accepted. Despatch of 27 April 1868 (IOR/L/PandJ/751 p. 37, not yet transcribed). Also note on suggested further employment by Burgess, ibid., p. 83, dated 18 Aug 1868.
Buried at Ajanta, where there are four graves near the Furdapur Gate outside the Serai,belonging to the Gill family. One of them is inscribed ‘To my beloved Peroo, died 23 May 1856’ (O.S. Crofton, List of inscriptions on tombs or monuments in H.E.H. the Nizam’s Dominions, Hyderabad, 1941).
IOR/L/MIL/9/155 ff. 286-89; IOR/L/MIL/11/42 f. 135; for detailed documentation of Gill’s paintings at Ajunta, see IOR/F/4/2164 (104569).
See also, G. Thomas, "Major Robert Gill in the Nizam’s Dominions" (History of Photography, vol. 7, no. 4, Oct-Dec 1983, pp. 323-27.
Financial Papers
Minute Letter No. 1374
A. H. Layard Esqre: rec. August 1863
Subject: Stereoscopic Negatives of the Caves of Ajunta etc.
Mr Layard solicits the assistant of this Office in the publication of a series of Stereoscopic Negatives of the Caves of Ajunta, and Rock Temples of Ellora, by Major Gill who was employed by the Indian Govt:, in making drawings of the Architecture of the Caves. Mr Fergusson has offered to write a small Volume descriptive of these Photographs, and a Publisher can be found if a previous Subscription is obtained.
Mr Layard states that the cost of the work will be about £3.3 per copy and asks that copies to the value of £150 or £200 may be ordered by this Office.
Instructions are solicited.
The Finance Committee recommend that 50 copies be taken.
Foreign Office, Aug. 3/63
Dear Baring,
Major Gill, who has been for some years employed by the Indian Gov. in making drawings of the architecture and details of the wonderful Caves of Ajunta, sent me over some time ago a very fine collection of stereoscopic negatives not only of the Ajunta monuments but also the Rock Temples of Ellora and other interesting Hindu remains of Central India. I have been doing my best to get a publisher for these very interesting and important contributions to Indian archaeology. Publisher...of India - Fergusson, who takes, as you know, a personal interest in these things and is as liberal as he is enthusiastic, has now offered to write a little volume description [descriptive?] of these photographs and we can find a publisher provided we can obtain the security of a previous subscription. I spoke on the subject to Sir C. Wood and he encouraged me to hope that your office will contribute something by purchasing a certain number of copies. Fergusson thinks the work would cost £3.3 - could you help towards it of subscribing for £150 or £200 worth of copies?
If you would like to see the negatives, or would wish anyone at the Office to examine them I can send them any day. They are very scientific and highly interesting. It would be a thousand pities that after so much time and labour has been expended upon these that they should remain useless.
Yours, etc. A. H. Layard

  1. Λ IOR/N/2/21/f.123. 
  2. Λ IOR/N/2/21/f.404. 
  3. Λ Journal of the Photographic Society of Bombay, No. VI, July 1855, pp. 103-4 
  4. Λ Journal of the Photographic Society of Bombay, No. VIII, September 1855, p. 126 
  5. Λ Journal of the Photographic Society of Bombay, No. IX, October 1855, p. 159. 
  6. Λ Journal of the Photographic Society of Bombay, Nos. XIII-XVII, February-June 1856, pp. 26-7, 29. 
  7. Λ Gill to Chief Secretary to Govt., Fort St George pub. con., 20 April 1858, IOR/P/249/66 pp. 113-14. 
  8. Λ Gill to Chief Secretary to Govt., 10 January 1859 and order thereon, Fort St George pub. con., 1 February 1859, IOR/P/249/68 p. 172. 
  9. Λ Mad. pub. con., 22 June 1861, pp. 595-96. 
  10. Λ Gill to Chief Secretary to Government, Madras public proceedings, 27 January 1862, IOR/P/249/78, p.55. 
  11. Λ Gill to Chief Secretary of Government, Madras public proceedings 5 February 1862, 5 February 1862, IOR/P/249/78, p.75. 
  12. Λ Gill to Chief Secretary to Government and order thereon, Madras public consultations, 23 December 1862, IOR/P/249/78, p.853. 
  13. Λ Gill to Chief Secretary to Government, dated Ajanta, 5 January 1863 and order thereon, Madras public consultations, 3 February 1863, IOR/P/249/79, pp.74-5. 
  14. Λ Letter from General Department, Bombay, to London, dated 28 March 1868; Bombay Public and Ecclesiastical Letters, no. 11 of 1868, IOR/L/PandJ/3/879 f. 158. 
  15. Λ Bombay Public Proceedings, No. 971 of 1868, IOR/P/441/51. 

Visual indexes

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Visual indexes for this photographer are available for subscribers.There is so much more to explore when you subscribe. 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Robert Gill.] 
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