A fruit bat, displayed

January 18, 2020 0 Comments

This is one of those important, but well-concealed exhibitions that attracts large numbers of visitors mainly by word of mouth.  When I was there, in the cramped basement of the Wallace Collection last weekend, I was surprised to be sharing the space with many others.  Most of them seemed as smitten as I was by what they saw.

Shaikh Zain ul-Din, A cheetah

The show’s title is Hidden masters: Indian painting for the East India Company.  For once it’s not hyperbole.  As the audio guide reminded us more than once, these are works rarely, if at all, seen in public in this country.  Not that they’d all arrived from distant parts.  Many, I noticed, were from public collections in London, including the British Library and Kew Gardens.  But, as often happens, because they’re paintings on paper they’ve been hidden away in cabinets and drawers, with only a few specialists able to appreciate their quality, and they’ve seldom been reproduced or digitised, except in elite academic circles.

So the Wallace Collection – not famous, I suspect, for breaking new ground – and the show’s curator, the author and authority on Indian history, William Dalrymple, deserve our thanks for letting us see paintings of superb quality at first hand.

Sheikh Mohammah Amir, English gig

The origin of these ‘Company paintings’ raises interesting questions about imperialism and its effects.  The best of them were commissioned in the late eighteenth by members of the East India Company (and their wives) from Indian artists trained in native Mughal (and other) schools of painting.  The artists had previously enjoyed the patronage of the maharajahs and other native potentates.  But as these native rulers were gradually displaced and erased by the East India Company – a grim process described by William Dalrymple in his recent book The anarchy – the artists had to sell their services to the new masters, the English traders, looters, mercenaries and chancers, and the officials and professionals who followed in their wake.

John Wombwell

One of the early pictures in the exhibition, from around 1790, shows John Wombwell, originally from a south Yorkshire family, who became the Company’s accountant at Lucknow.  He appears in Indian dress and turban, sitting on a floor cushion in front of a huqqa, and attended by a barefoot servant, exactly as if he were a native maharajah.  It’s a vivid example of the way some of the early East India Company men acculturated themselves to what they found in India (around a third of them married Indian women).  In art, a similar process took place, but in the other direction.

Vishnupersaud, Arum tortuosum

Some of the very best Indian artists worked for Lady Mary Impey, the wife of the Chief Justice of Bengal.  She had set up a menagerie in Calcutta – menageries were a cultural feature of the Mughal courts as well as of eighteenth-century England – and between 1777 and 1782 she asked local artists to make faithful pictures in paint of the animals, birds and plants in her collection.  At least one of the painters, Shaikh Zain ul-Din, was a master of his craft.  The results of their work were remarkable.  Traditional Mughal styles of painting, with their bright colours, miniature details and plain backgrounds, were fused with the European tradition of creating detailed pictures of specimens from the natural world.  The commissioners had the finest (and largest) Whatman papers imported from Britain, and European watercolour paints were available to the artists in addition to their traditional colours.  The pictures were stored in large folders or portfolios, like the one carried by an assistant in a self-portrait by Yellapah.

Bhawani Das, A Great Indian Fruit Bat

All kinds of birds (storks, cranes, flamingos, cockatoos and many others), animals (cheetahs, pangolins and monkeys) and plants stand before you, in vivid colour.  The curators are right to stress the immediacy of the colours, and the minuteness of detail in the brushwork.  But just as striking is how bold and confident – and modern – are the compositions.  My favourite is the picture of the Great Indian Fruit Bat, attributed to Bhawani Das.  The bat displays itself, quite still, one huge wing outspread, the other concertina’d, with an impassive, frontal face and small, hook-like claws.  (When they hang in trees these are large, unmissable animals, as I saw when we were in north India.)  This amazing image has you pinned flat before it in admiration and wonder.

Illuminations and fireworks, Constantia

This perfect moment of two fused traditions didn’t last long.  As the second part of the exhibition shows, later Indian artists moved away, in the nineteenth century, from their native, stylised ways of describing landscape and embraced – or were ‘encouraged’ to embrace – standard European modes of landscape painting, abandoning precision in favour of atmospheric vagueness.  In a real sense this is now ‘colonial art’.  The results are usually less interesting.  But the exhibition comes to an end with an explosion: a picture by Sita Ram of a fireworks celebration at Constantia, near Lucknow in 1814.  This large work combines extreme delicacy of detail – for example, in the ascending lantern, the scaffolding around the tall ‘Lat’ monument, and the assembled crowd – with a Turner-like, almost transcendent ‘rainbow’ of colours.

Yellapah of Vellore, Self-portrait
Shaikh Zain ul-Din, Roller bird

Leave a Reply