Forgotten Masters highly memorable at The Wallace Collection
by Theresa Thompson, Art Correspondent
Asian Openbill Stork in a Landscape, Lucknow, c. 1780
Courtesy Private Collection (Photo: Margaret Nimkin)
Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, the exhibition at the Wallace Collection on until 19th April, is guest curated by award-winning historian and writer, William Dalrymple. It focuses on the highly gifted Indian artists who were commissioned by officials of the East India Company to depict the fauna, flora, and daily life of India, the country they now found themselves living in and becoming fascinated by.
Showcasing around 100 masterpieces of Indian painting, most on public display for the first time in Britain, the range of work on display offers an unusual and rich picture of life in India in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
Enchanted by the new, by the exotic allure and natural beauty of the land, people, plants and animals encountered, they commissioned gifted local artists – masters in their fields – mostly coming from the miniaturist tradition – to create colourful visual records of their new land and life.
These masterpieces combine Indian and European influences to create rich, hybrid works which reflect the cultural fluidity of this period in India’s history
The spell of the subcontinent may also fall on us as we go round this exhibition. From the glorious natural history paintings that transport us to the tropics – a Malabar giant squirrel, a fruit bat, storks, water lilies, fan palms, silk cotton trees – to the white painted colonial houses baking in the heat, to ‘Company’ officers carried in palanquins, and the cosseted little child who, barely visible under bonnet and layers and shielded by a parasol, sits on a pony attended by three Indian servants, we get glimpses of the lives of the British in India at the time, a life of privilege (and possibly discomfort, maintaining European standards in the sweltering heat).
Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Brahminy Starling with Two Anteraea Moths, Caterpillar and Cocoon in Indian Jujube Tree, Impey Album, Calcutta, 1780.
Gift of Elizabeth and Willard Clark, © Minneapolis Institute of Art home
The focus is often on natural history. For example, Lady Impey’s now famous album of natural history illustrations is one of the albums on display. Lady Mary, the wife of Sir Elijah Impey (1732-1809) – Chief Justice at Calcutta’s Supreme Court – kept a private menagerie, which included a pangolin. The scaly armoured creature features in the exhibition as one of the plates Lady Mary commissioned from renowned Muslim painter Shaikh Zain ud-Din of Patna – later supported by gifted Hindu painters, Bhawani Das and Ram Das. Between them, over a period of seven years they created more than 300 studies for the Impey Album, which is today recognised as among the greatest glories of Indian painting.
The artworks portray a remarkable fusion of styles, for the artists who were mostly trained in the late Mughal style that prevailed under the Nawabs of Bengal adapted their style to suit the expectations of their wealthy British patrons. Using botanical prints as the model, and working with English watercolours on Whatman watercolour paper, they drew upon their miniaturist training to produce incredibly detailed observations of nature, painted onto classical white backgrounds. The results are stunning.
Family of Ghulam Ali Khan, Six Recruits, Fraser Album, c.1815
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery [Smithsonian Institution]
Everyday life, customs, dress, and types of work were also popular subjects. I particularly enjoyed seeing the group portraits of workers and soldiers, for example, the Six Recruits from the Fraser Album (c.1815) standing nonchalantly, variously clad and armed, with various expressions of pride and reserve on their faces.
Although many of the artists whose paintings are on show are unnamed, the show itself is billed as the first in Britain dedicated to the Indian artists who were commissioned by British patrons associated with the East India Company.
William Dalrymple said, “Forgotten Masters showcases the work of a series of extraordinary Indian artists, each with their own style and tastes and agency, whose brilliance has frequently been overlooked until now. These masterpieces combine Indian and European influences to create rich, hybrid works which reflect the cultural fluidity of this period in India’s history.”
Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company
Showing until: 18 April 2020