Many of the nineteenth century’s explorers were glorious amateurs, like Godfrey Thomas Vigne (1801-1863), who just sailed off to India in 1832 and spent the next seven years travelling in the Western Himalaya. Although he was only thirty at the start, that wasn’t even his first extended tour overseas.
Vigne was born the son of a cricketer, in Walthamstow, then a village near Epping Forest, to the north-east of London. He was schooled at Harrow, and destined for law. He became a barrister at the tender age of twenty-three, but then started to get itchy feet. At some stage in his youth, he seems to have learned to paint, and painting, travelling and cricket became the main ingredients of his life. In 1831 he spent six months travelling across North America, painting plentifully, but presumably not playing cricket much.
The following year it was time for an even greater adventure. He set off by ship to India, then travelled and painted through Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet. He is thought to have been the first Englishman to visit Kabul, and the first European to have described Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world.
It was probably his painting that saved his life on many occasions: one of very few Europeans who had ventured to those parts at the time, he seemed able to get himself out of difficulties by dashing off a quick watercolour portrait of whoever was pointing a gun at him.
On 15 February 1833, he painted this superb watercolour view of Trebizond, now the city of Trabzon, on the Turkish Black Sea coast. On the Silk Road for trade between Europe and Asia, it was a cosmopolitan gateway to Persia and the Caucasus.
By July of that year, Vigne had reached Hazar Chum Mazenderan – Persia, in mountains midway between the port of Chalus on the Caspian Sea and Tehran in Iran. The layers of low cloud create a spectacular effect as the distant mountain ridges float in the sky high above the gorge cut deep by the River Chalus.
On 23 July 1839, on his way back to Britain, he visited the Tomb of Themistocles with the Gulf of Salamis behind. Themistocles led the combined Greek naval force to victory here in battle against the Persian Empire in 480 BCE. When he died in the city of Magnesia, Ionia, in 459 BCE, his official tomb was built there, but it was rumoured that his bones were taken back to Greece.
Vigne wrote accounts of those seven years which were published in 1840 and 1842, and it wasn’t long before he was off on further travels.
On 9 April 1844, he had his First Sight of Jerusalem from the Jaffa & El Arish Road, an unusually bleak view with the Mount of Olives, and in the distance the Mountains of Moab, which are the other side of the Valley of the Dead Sea.
Vigne’s illustrated accounts of his journeys made not only fascinating reading, but were important intelligence for those European nations who had interests in the Middle East and India at the time.
In 1846, as the first battle was fought in the Punjab between the forces of the East India Company and the Sikh Empire, engravings made from Vigne’s sketches and paintings were published in the Illustrated London News. This page shows The War in India: sketches in the Punjaub and Sikh country: house of General Ventula, at Lahore; General Ventula; Sikh officer; Rajah Suchett Sing (Malek Adel).
Illustrations of the War in India: Sikh soldiers; Loodianah on the Sutlej (1846) are further engravings from the account in the Illustrated London News.
Vigne’s feet became itchy yet again, and in 1852 he visited Mexico, Nicaragua, the West Indies, and the US.
Although his cricketing achievements didn’t match those of his father, he still managed at least eleven appearances in ‘first class’ (international standard) matches before 1845. Given the length of time he spent far away from the nearest cricket pitch, that also seems quite an achievement.
Godfrey Vigne died in 1863, and I hope continues to go “roving in new and fabled lands” with his watercolours always to hand.