Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company by William Dalrymple (ed) - review by Peter Parker

Peter Parker

Artists for Hire

Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company


Bloomsbury/Philip Wilson Publishers 192pp £35 order from our bookshop

The term ‘Company painting’ has been widely used to describe works commissioned from Indian artists by members of the East India Company from the 1770s until 1857. There are all kinds of problems with this label, most notably that it gives priority to the patrons rather than the artists. Not only is this self-evidently unjust, but it has also, in the era of postcolonial studies, caused such unease that, according to William Dalrymple, the paintings in question have not received the attention they deserve. One of the aims of Forgotten Masters, a superb exhibition at the Wallace Collection, is to redress the balance and draw attention to those who actually painted these beautiful works of art.

Such paintings are sometimes described as belonging to the ‘Company School’, but in one of the excellent contributions to the exhibition catalogue, H J Noltie suggests that this designation is just as inappropriate. Certainly no ‘school’ could possibly encompass the works selected here, which range from accurate and highly detailed zoological and botanical studies made by such artists as Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Bhawani Das, Manu Lall and Vishnupersaud to the distinctly impressionistic topographical paintings of Sita Ram. What these artists did have in common was that they created a hybrid art in which Mughal and regional styles and techniques were adapted to record India’s flora, fauna, architecture, people and scenery for the benefit of European viewers. Painters were encouraged to work on a bigger scale than was customary for Indian artists, and patrons imported large sheets of Whatman watercolour paper to this end. While many images of plants and animals produced on paper of this size float in the centre of the page, some spread to fill the entire sheet. The anonymous producer of one particular 1775 painting, for example, has drawn the tip of an aroid leaf folded over in order to fit it onto the page, a detail that adds to the picture’s immediacy.

The British patronage of ‘native’ artists was the result of a genuine engagement with the subcontinent and its people during this period. Many Company employees studied Indian art, languages and customs and adopted Indian habits and dress, as depicted in a charming 1790 portrait by an unknown Lucknow artist of John Wombwell, a chartered accountant from Yorkshire, sitting cross-legged on a carpet in a splendid Mughal robe and a turban, smoking a hookah. The Europeans who commissioned these paintings wanted a visual record of the extraordinary country they found themselves in. The sheer quantity of material that was shipped to the Company’s headquarters in London is staggering: Noltie had to make his selection of botanical drawings in the knowledge that the four principal British collections of this work alone contain some 9,700 items. Even today, ‘new’ works are coming to light, and the exhibition has also drawn on the six hundred drawings of plants commissioned by Claude Martin, a French East India Company servant based in Lucknow from 1776, that have only just been discovered, uncatalogued, at Kew.

Unlike much that was extracted from India, these paintings were not plunder, and those who created them were properly remunerated and often received due credit for their work. When annotating the paintings of birds and animals she commissioned, Lady Impey, wife of the chief justice of the Supreme Court in Calcutta, left a space for the artists’ names to be inscribed in Persian. Similarly, the outstanding studies of animals commissioned between 1795 and 1818 by the surgeon Francis Buchanan bear the inscription ‘Haludar Pinxt’, which means that this Bengali artist became known in Europe during his lifetime. Indeed, his image of an Indian Sambar deer, sent to the Company’s library in Leadenhall Street in 1808, was cited at the time in French and German scientific journals precisely because it had been ‘painted on the spot’ and provided the first accurate record of the animal’s appearance. It was also, like many of these paintings, a work of art in its own right, a perfect example of the fruitful confluence of European science and Indian sensibility.

Other artists featured in the exhibition and catalogue include Yellapah of Vellore, whose album of south Indian scenes and characters includes a lively self-portrait. Yellapah paid close attention to clothes and fabrics, which means that, among other things, his paintings provide ‘a unique and possibly unmatched record of south Indian costume in the mid nineteenth century’. Similarly, in Delhi, Ghulam Ali Khan and his circle painted groups of soldiers (some belonging to the famous cavalry regiment known as Skinner’s Horse) that not only show in meticulous detail the wide variety of uniforms they wore – from mere dhotis to white breeches, yellow frock coats and elaborately frogged hussar jackets – but are also clearly portraits of real people. Also included are works by Shaikh Muhammad Amir, who was active in Calcutta in the 1830s and 1840s and excelled at painting characterful portraits of individual dogs and horses.

Ghulam Ali Khan was also in demand as a topographical painter; there is some evidence that he and other Delhi painters knew the work of Thomas and William Daniell, who are among the most famous British painters of Indian scenes. A clearer and arguably less happy example of the influence of Western art on Indian artists is discernible in the paintings of Sita Ram. He joined Lord Hastings’s seventeen-month round trip from Calcutta to the Punjab in 1814–15, and his visual record of the tour may be familiar to some because it was published alongside an edited version of Hastings’s expedition journal in 2015. Ram adopted the Western notion of the picturesque and, in documenting the various places through which Hastings travelled, he blithely ‘improved’ the scenery he encountered, rearranging landscapes and the buildings within them for aesthetic effect.

The book accompanying the exhibition is far more than just a catalogue. Not only are the paintings in the exhibition very well reproduced, with informative captions, but many others not on display are included too. The addition of six scholarly but highly readable essays by leading experts in the field make this the best and most handsome book on the subject currently available.

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