The British Empire Library

Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company

Edited by William Dalrymple

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
At first glance this is a dazzlingly beautiful catalogue for the exhibition presently at the Wallace Collection in London. The focus is on forgotten paintings by Indian artists working for the British in the last years of the 18th century and in the first half of the 19th century. The exhibition has been curated by the renowned author William Dalrymple and the catalogue includes mostly impressive essays on the subject by the leading scholars in the field. Dalrymple, rightly in my opinion, tries to get away from the old term for such paintings ‘Company School’ and instead focuses on the artists themselves, each of whom was of the highest calibre. The Wallace Collection has been fortunate to assemble and borrow eighteen superb paintings done for the Scottish brothers William and James Fraser in the years around 1815/1816. For many years these paintings were completely unknown to studies until their rediscovery in the late 1970s and their subsequent sale by the Fraser family at Sothebys in two sales in 1979. Since then the folios have been widely dispersed in both public and private collections across the world but they are rightly lauded as the most remarkable commission of Company paintings in existence. New evidence has only come to light this year supporting the belief that the artist of the Fraser folios was closely associated with the Imperial Court painter Ghulam Ali Khan and the exhibition also includes brilliant and colourful works by him, again drawn from various sources.

Murshidabad in Bengal and Patna in Bihar had each been famous for their Mughal-trained painters working for the Muslim Courts in the 18th Century. With the decline of these Courts many of these remarkable painters migrated to Calcutta to work for British patrons. Influenced by European painters and available prints they adapted their style to suit their new patrons yet retaining an essentially Indian sensibility in their work. In the late 1770s the Chief Justice Sir Elijah Impey and his wife, both passionate about Indian painting, employed three brilliant painters to create exotic images of Indian birds and animals that are among the most spectacular and colourful paintings of such known to studies. Shaikh Zain ud-Din is perhaps the best known of the three masters for his meticulous detail and the positioning of birds each perched on a branch of a flowering or sometimes fruiting tree. Both his work and that of Bhawani Das and Ram Das retain an essential Mughal finesse and a deep understanding of their subjects. One of the most intriguing and original essays in the catalogue is by Malini Roy. She focuses on another much less known Bengali artist - Haludar. He was employed by the Scottish surgeon Dr Francis Buchanan-Hamilton in the early years of the 19th century to paint animals which he rendered with extraordinary accuracy but at the same time creating works of art of the highest order.

Despite the impressive production of the catalogue, the excellent illustrations of the magnificent exhibits and some really informative and interesting essays - Rosie Llewellyn-Jones’s essay on the Master Artists of Lucknow and Jerry Losty’s essay on the enigmatic but gifted painter Sita Ram are both splendid - there are too many obvious errors in the catalogue that leave one underwhelmed. The forward by the Director of the Wallace collection makes a false start by stating that this is the first exhibition of its kind held in the UK. Hartnoll and Eyre and then Eyre and Hobhouse held numerous exhibitions of such paintings and of equal quality throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. More worrying is that successive essayists have taken as fact that the patron of the so called ‘Lucknow Menagerie’ paintings of birds and reptiles was the remarkable polymath Claude Martin. In fact the evidence of any connection to Martin for this group of paintings is extremely thin - yet it forms a significant part of William Dalrymple’s discourse. Similarly he suggests that a glorious folio of an hibiscus in the Chester Beaty collection is by Mihr Chand and also tries to connect it to Martin - without any proper evidence! Lucian Harris includes an illustration of a marriage scene as by the great Calcutta artist Shaikh Muhammad Amir of Karaya (fig 32) and yet this attribution is extremely doubtful and some have suggested that it is a fake.

This is very much an exhibition that reflects Dalrymple’s personal preferences - but there are just too many Botanical and Natural History paintings and yet the fascinating festival scenes by the great Patna painters like Sewak Ram and Bhavani Baksh are completely ignored. There is nothing in the exhibition by Nevasi Lai despite the wealth of such paintings down the road at the Wellcome Collection and the intriguing Lucknow interiors and harem scenes hardly get a mention. Despite these shortcomings and there are others - the sheer quality of the exhibits and some excellent scholarship makes this catalogue worth buying and the exhibition itself is certainly a spectacular feast for one’s eyes.

British Empire Book
William Dalrymple
First Published
Philip Wilson Publishers
Review Originally Published
Spring 2020 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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