Two Scottish architects in Mumbai

Two Scottish architects in Mumbai

Dr Sarah Longair (University of Lincoln) explores the role of Scottish architects in shaping imperial architecture and how useful such examples are in the context of four nations history

On a station platform in York in 1904, John Begg (1866­–1937), Consulting Architect to the Government of Bombay, interviewed fellow Scot George Wittet (1878–1926) for the post of his assistant. Begg’s wife warned him against this appointment: ‘whatever you do, don’t have that fellow: he will boss you’.[i] Begg may have found the name Wittet familiar, as he coincided from 1888–9 with George’s cousin, John (1868–1952), while training in the offices of the famed Scottish architect and antiquarian Hippolyte Blanc. Begg ignored his wife’s advice and appointed George Wittet, who took up the post in India later in 1904. After three years as an assistant, Wittet succeeded Begg in the Consulting Architect for Bombay role when the latter was promoted to Consulting Architect of the Government of India. Between them, Begg and Wittet created some of the most famous of Mumbai’s landmarks and important buildings elsewhere in India. Begg was responsible for numerous buildings in his twenty-year career in India while Wittet’s major works included the Prince of Wales Museum (now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya museum) and the Gateway to India, the symbolic backdrop to the departure of the last British troops to leave the subcontinent in 1948.

Departure of British Troops from India – 28 February 1948 by the Gateway of India, designed by George Wittet (1878–1926) and opened in 1924.
via Wikicommons

Both architects had formal architectural training before their appointments to service in the empire. The employment of qualified architects only took hold in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in India. Earlier in the century, either engineers in the military or those in the Public Works Department, not necessarily with training, were responsible for the majority of buildings in South Asia.[ii] Begg arrived in Mumbai after training with Blanc and Alfred Waterhouse amongst others, and practiced in South Africa in 1898–1901. Wittet trained with various practices in Scotland and finally in York. Begg was instrumental in bringing more young trained architects from Britain in the early twentieth century, although he still in 1920 bemoaned the fact that colonial authorities listened more readily to civil and military voices than those of professional architects.[iii]

Stylistically it seems both men had differing preferences. Begg was a keen proponent of so-called Indo-Saracenic architecture, studying local buildings and incorporating elements into his work. Perhaps his training in Blanc’s office had instilled in him the skill of carefully examining historic buildings. Wittet was not keen on these eclectic styles, but nonetheless observed local buildings carefully and could design in this fashion when required. His first major commission was the Prince of Wales Museum, for was asked by the Government of Bombay to revise his design to fit with Begg’s Indo-Saracenic Post Office building. Wittet redesigned the museum in a ‘scholarly Muslim Deccan manner’.[iv] He resisted delving further into the Indo-Saracenic and advocated classical and Renaissance styles for his subsequent works.

Both men were also instrumental in architectural education in India. Begg established a technical draughtsmanship course which Wittet then transformed into a four-year architectural curriculum that he began teaching at the Sir Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy School of Art in 1908. Peter Scriver and Amit Srivastava note that it was ‘the first generation of graduates from the J. J. School who were to form the nucleus of the Indian Institute of Architects, which was formally established in Bombay in 1929’.[v] While Begg returned to Scotland in 1921 to private practice then established a partnership and was involved in architectural education, Wittet died at a relatively young age in Mumbai in 1926. Both men made major contributions to Mumbai’s cityscape as well as the future of the architectural profession in India.

I highlight the contribution of these two men and their professional relationship to consider the as yet under-studied role of Scottish architects within the historiography of imperial architecture. Throughout the rich history of Scotland and empire is an emphasis upon the contributions of Scots in professional fields, with particular attention being given to medicine and education. An area missing from the current scholarship is the involvement of Scottish architects in shaping imperial cities around the world.

From the numerous references under the entries to ‘Scots’ and ‘Scotland’ in G. A. Bremner’s edited volume Architecture and Urbanism in the British Empire, it is clear that Scots were centrally involved in architectural endeavours across the Empire from its earliest years.[vi] The authors in this collection are careful to record the national origins of British architects and the chapters on New Zealand and Australia particularly note the significant proportion of Scottish architects designing buildings in those regions.  Stuart King and Julie Willis emphasise the diversity of ‘British’ architecture in Australia, highlighting the distinctive nature of Scottish influence and expertise in comparison with those of Irish and English architects.[vii] The most famous Scot involved in urbanism and architecture in the empire is probably Patrick Geddes, the highly influential proponent of urban planning in Britain and around the empire.

The work of Begg and Wittet and their professional relationship has potentially much to offer to our understanding of Scottish architects in the empire. There are several reasons why the role of architects is useful in the context of Four Nations history and poses pertinent questions. For example, how influential were Scottish architectural networks in securing posts and patronage? Architectural circles are sufficiently small and well-documented to enable such professional contacts to be established. Analysing professional networks has been noted by Devine and MacKenzie as a significant factor in adding to our understanding of Scotland and empire.[viii] We should also consider how far was there a discernable Scottish style to designing buildings as noted by King and Willis with reference to Australia.

These and numerous other questions emerging from this preliminary research demand that we break down metropole and periphery binaries and consider the flows of information, ideas and people around the empire, while also considering what is specific about the Scottish connection. A forthcoming symposium at Edinburgh University organised by Alex Bremner, Harriet Edquist and Stuart King will explore these and other questions and bring together scholars working on this exciting new angle of four nations history and the extensive influence of Scots upon the imperial and post-colonial cityscape.

[i] John Begg, ‘The Work of George Wittet: An Appreciation’, Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects 36, no. 14 (1 June 1929): 539.

[ii] Gavin Stamp, ‘British Architecture in India, 1857-1947’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 129, no. 5298 (1981): 359.

[iii] John Begg, ‘Architecture in India’, Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects 27, no. 14 (29 May 1920): 334; Peter Scriver and Amit Srivastava, India: Modern Architectures in History (London: Reaktion Books, 2015), 77.

[iv] ‘George Wittet’, Dictionary of Scottish Architects accessed 9 June 2017.

[v] Scriver and Srivastava, India: Modern Architectures in History, 96.

[vi] G. Alex Bremner, ed., Architecture and Urbanism in the British Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[vii] Stuart King and Julie Willis, ‘The Australian Colonies’, in Architecture and Urbanism in the British Empire, ed. G. Alex Bremner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 335.

[viii] John M. MacKenzie and T. M Devine, Scotland and the British Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Dr Sarah Longair is a Lecturer in the History of Empire at the University of Lincoln, having previously worked at the British Museum for eleven years. Her research explores British colonial history in East Africa, South Asia and the Indian Ocean world through material and visual culture. Her first monograph, Cracks in the Dome: Fractured Histories of Empire in the Zanzibar Museum (Farnham, 2015), examined the history of the Zanzibar Museum, including the work of its architect, John Sinclair.

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