Honouring overlooked artists, The Wallace Collection presents Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, shedding a light on life in Anglo-Indian history. Guest curated by Scottish historian William Dalrymple (b.1965) who has lived in India on and off since 1989, the exhibition provides an opportunity to view sets of paintings from 18th and 19th century India together for the first time. The paintings reflect both the natural world and society the East India Company wished to remember.
Company Style is a term used to describe the type of Indo-European paintings produced in India by native artists for European patrons of the English East India Company. Earlier paintings were more traditional, however, over time Rajput and Mughal elements began to merge with Western ideas, particularly concerning perspective.
The British mostly settled in Calcutta, Madras, Delhi, Lucknow, Patna and Bangalore, which is where the majority of the paintings were executed. Animals were a key theme for the painters, however, they were also commissioned to produce portraits, landscapes and scenes of traditional Indian people.
Rather than display the paintings, the artworks were usually kept in portfolios or albums, which is one of the reasons the artists are not well-known today. The works were usually private commissions rather than something to show off. Unfortunately, the advent of photography brought an end to the Company Style, since a camera could easily and quickly capture the desired scenes. Also, the paintings by Indian artists were becoming increasingly westernised, making them appear as though they were produced by a European artist.
Shaikh Zain ud-Din
Little is known about this artist’s life apart from he was a Muslim artist from the city of Patna in north-east India. Shaikh Zain ud-Din was trained as a Mughal miniature painter but is known today for the paintings he produced for Sir Elijah and Mary, Lady Impey in Calcutta. Employed in the 1770s, Shaikh Zain ud-Din produced many paintings of Lady Mary’s collection of flora and fauna.
Sir Elijah Impey (1732-1809) was a British judge and the first chief of justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal. He and his wife Mary (1749-1818) collected various birds, animals and native plants, which they employed local artists to paint – Shaikh Zain ud-Din amongst them. The paintings of their menagerie were put together to form the Impey Album, which has now been dispersed throughout the world with different art galleries each owning a few paintings.
Lady Mary Impey initially lived in Hammersmith with her husband and four children, however, when Elijah was made chief of justice of Fort William, they left the children with his brother and moved to India. Once settled, Lady Impey began collecting native birds and animals, using the extensive gardens of their estate as a place to house them.
Amongst the animals were a selection of birds, particularly cranes. Shaikh Zain ud-Din was commissioned to produce life-size paintings of these birds, which he achieved in the fairly flat style common in India. Lady Impey also requested he paint some of the birds with native plants, such as Indian Roller on a Sandalwood Branch. The exotic colours combined with the flat style caused a future purchaser to mistake it for the work of a Japanese artist.
As well as birds, Shaikh Zain ud-Din painted other tree-dwelling animals in their natural habitats, including a Malabar Giant Squirrel. Endemic to India, this is one of the largest squirrels in the world, reaching over one and a half feet in height. The squirrel rarely leaves the trees, however, in this particular painting, the animal appears to be much larger than its habitat. This was a common feature of early Company Style. The squirrel usually eats fruit and nuts, such as the type it is reaching for in the painting.
Not all of Shaikh Zain ud-Din’s artwork was “flat”. Perhaps under Lady Impey’s guidance, the artist became much more detailed in his work, using thin paintbrushes to add exquisite details to his work. Lady Impey’s Pangolin is a prime example, where each scale has been precisely drawn, making it almost appear three-dimensional. The shadow added under the feet of the creature also aids this effect.
Attributed to Shaikh Zain ud-Din are a couple of paintings of the Impey household. Once again, the flatness of the Indian style of art can be seen in the furnishings of the house, however, shading has been added to the people in the scene to make them more life-like.
The painting suggests Lady Impey had a role in overseeing the servants of the household. Traditionally, a woman and the staff would not be seen together often, however, in this instance it appears the lady of the house had far more interaction. One suggestion for this is the servants were uneducated in the ways of the Western world and Lady Impey was helping them to learn the “correct” ways of doing things.
Shaikh Zain ud-Din also painted a scene in the nursery. Although Sir and Lady Impey had left their children in England, they had four more whilst in India. Many female servants were used as nursery nurses and helped raise the children.
Shaikh Mohammad Amir of Karriah
Shaikh Mohammad Amir of Karriah was an Indian painter during the British Raj period, flourishing between the 1830s and 40s. Very little is known about him today, however, a few of his surviving paintings show us differences between traditional Indian and Western art.
When the British arrived in India, they brought with them their culture. Rather than adapting to the world around them, they tried to do the opposite and “civilise” the natives. As a result, India was introduced to new rules, new objects, new ideas and new modes of transport, for example, an English gig. A gig, also known as a chaise, is a light, two-wheeled cart that is pulled by a single horse. It was traditionally a more formal and more comfortable version of a village cart.
Shaikh Mohammad Amir painted one of the English gigs that had been brought to India in the early 19th century. Since it has a top, it is likely a tilbury carriage. The driver and passenger sat under the cover from where the horse could be controlled by long reigns. It is not certain why Shaikh Mohammad Amir painted this but it is likely to have been a commission. Nonetheless, he demonstrates the Indian style of painting but of an English object.
Shaikh Mohammad Amir specialised in depicting the houses and staff of his employers, however, he also painted the domestic animals. Horses were one of the main animals the British kept in India because they could be used for transport and for working the land on their estate. In one painting, A Syce (Groom) Holding Two Carriage Horses, the groom is dressed in silk clothing and a hat, which immediately identifies him as Indian. Even without the title, it is clear the horses are not used for farming. They have been prepared to be attached to a gig, like the one above, most likely by the Indian groom.
Another painting, A bay horse standing with a groom, shows a horse that must have been used on the land. With a simple rope around its head instead of strong reigns, it is being led by an Indian groom wearing far more casual clothing than the syce in the previous painting. Although Shaikh Mohammad Amir has tried to add shadow and shading to make the horse and man appear three-dimensional, they appear quite large in comparison to the background.
The difference in size between the subject and background is more obvious in Two dogs in the compound of a Calcutta house. The two dogs, a male Feathered Saluki called General and a female Smooth Saluki called Aiyar, tower over the trees in the distance. Whilst objects in the background usually appear smaller than those in the foreground, the perspective is inaccurate. Perspective was not something usually dealt with in the traditional style of Indian painting. Instead, it was something introduced to them by the Europeans.
Of humans, Shaikh Muhammad Amir tended to only focus on the natives, i.e. the staff of a British household. One painting, however, contains the figure of a young English child. English child seated on a pony and surrounded by three Indian servants reveals the type of jobs the servants were charged with. To take a female child on a horse, one servant was needed to lead the animal, another to make sure the child stayed safely in the saddle and a third to hold a parasol over the child’s head. Interestingly, Shaikh Muhammad Amir gives very little detail of the child’s appearance. Her face is hidden by her bonnet and her clothing covers the shape of her arms and legs. This could be a form of respect for the child and the English family; alternatively, it could be a sign of resentment that the British have overrun the country. Most scholars like to think it is the former.
Yellapah of Vellore
One thing that is generally missing from Company Style paintings is a (self-)portrait of the artist. Yellapah of Vellore is an exception to the unwritten rule who painted a portrait of a Mughal artist, which many believe to be him. Unlike Western artists who sit at a table or stand at an easel, the Mughal artist is sat cross-legged on the floor with his tools spread out around him. A stone slab or small table is positioned in front of the artist on which his paper canvas lies. Either side are two figures, the artist’s assistants, who are ready to help in the creative process in any way they can.
Yellapah was good at depicting people, particularly their clothing, as can be seen in Sepoys of Madras, which shows six Indian men dressed in European-style uniforms. From left to right are men representing the Madras Horse Artillery, the Madras Light Cavalry, the Madras Rifle Corps, the Madras Pioneers, the Madras Native Infantry and the Madras Foot Artillery. Coming from Vellore, Yellapah was probably familiar with the different uniforms after witnessing the Vellore Mutiny in 1806.
Vellore is a city and district in the south of India where some of the British Military were stationed. The army employed Indian soldiers or sepoys who were stationed at the historic fort of Vellore. Initially, it appears the native soldiers enjoyed being a part of the military, however, new rules were introduced after 1800, which began to erase their identity. No longer were sepoys allowed to wear “caste marks”, i.e. religious markings on their forehead. Turbans were also prohibited and they were forced to wear a cow leather cockade, which was usually reserved for Indians who had converted to Christianity. Muslim soldiers were forced to trim their beards, even if they had grown them for religious reasons and everyone had to wear the proper uniforms.
These changes came about when General Sir John Craddock (1759-1839) became the Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army of the British East India company. He proposed the new rules in an ambitious attempt to reform the army’s disciplinary system. Whilst sepoys were happy to wear uniforms, they were outraged at being forced to remove any religious embellishments. Many felt they were being forced to convert to Christianity but those who protested received public lashings and dismissal.
On 9th July 1806, the sepoys took advantage of a wedding to enter the fort of Vellore. The bride was the daughter of Tipu Sultan, the late leader of a south Indian kingdom who was killed by the imperial forces of the British East India Company. The sepoys ripped down the British flag and replaced it with the Royal Tiger Flag of Tipu. The following day, they ransacked the European quarters in the fort before moving on to the houses belonging to the British army. Over 100 British soldiers were killed and the mutiny only ended when the British commander, Colonel Robert Rollo Gillespie arrived from another fort with his army. Although actions were taken to resolve the situation that led to the revolt, another mutiny would occur fifty years later.
As a painter, Yellapah was not involved with the army except to document the different uniforms. As well as this, he painted Indians in traditional clothing, including people from different Hindu denominations, such as Vaishnavism.
Ghulam Ali Khan
Ghulam Ali Khan from Dehli was the last royal Mughal painter at the court of Akbar II (r.1806-37) and Bahadur Shah II (r.1837-58). As well as working in the court, Ghulam Ali Khan was associated with the East India Company and adopted the Company Style for his British Patrons, most notably William Fraser (1784-1835) and James Skinner (1778-1841). Most of his paintings were watercolours on gold paper with black margins.
William Fraser was a British India civil servant who joined his brother, the author James Baillie Fraser (1783-1856), in India during the reign of the last Mughal Emperor. Greatly influenced by the culture, Fraser commissioned local artists to produce paintings for what would become known as the Fraser Album. Amongst these artists was Ghulam Ali Khan who helped to fill the album with paintings of villagers, soldiers, Indian nobles and village scenes.
Work on the Fraser Album came to an end when William Fraser was killed by an assassin in 1835. He was eventually buried at St James’ Church in Delhi, which had been built by his brother’s friend Colonel James Skinner.
James Skinner was an Anglo-Indian mercenary, the son of an officer in the East India Company and, so he claimed, an Indian princess. He joined the Bengal Army belonging to the Company in 1801 and became well-known for his regiment of irregular cavalry, which were nicknamed “Skinner’s Boys”. This eventually developed into a light cavalry, which still exists in today’s Indian Army.
Whilst lying injured on a battlefield, Skinner vowed he would build a church if he lived. So, in 1826, Skinner commissioned Major Robert Smith to build St James’ Church, also known as Skinner’s Church, which had three porticoed porches and a central octagonal dome.
Ghulam Ali Khan painted highly detailed paintings of the exterior and interior of St James’ Church. Before this, he had painted at least 31 buildings and monuments around Dehli, which emphasised his attention to detail. Although the minute details lend themselves towards traditional Indian art, Ghulam Ali Khan successfully achieved a sense of perspective in his paintings, which was something other painters failed to depict. This was probably influenced by British artists or tutors living in India at the time.
At the end of the exhibition, the Wallace Collection features one artist whose artwork is unlike any of the others on display. Precious little is known about him other than he was a Hindu from Bengal, however, his work is now being appreciated as a master of watercolour.
The Governor-General of India Francis Rawdon, Marquess of Hastings (1754-1826) has been identified as the person who commissioned the majority of Sita Ram’s paintings. At the beginning of his term of office, Hastings spent 15 months touring the towns and cities between Calcutta and Delhi. Sita Ram was employed to visually record the sights he saw.
Looking at Sita Ram’s artwork, there is no obvious indication that it was painted by an Indian artist. The watercolour style is similar to European paintings and completely unlike the flat Indian style images shown at the beginning of the exhibition. Whether this was due to a European tutor or if Sita Ram had been influenced by paintings he had seen is unknown. It is unlikely he developed this style alone since it is so different from the types of art available in India at the time.
Since Indian artists were predominantly commissioned for private work that ended up in family albums, the world has not had a chance to learn their names. Although art galleries are beginning to focus on artists of other ethnicities, most of Asia has yet to be brought to the foreground. The Wallace Collection is paving the way forward.
Not only are visitors introduced to unknown artists, but they are also provided with an insight into a piece of history – one in which the British are now looked upon unfavourably. Colonialisation changed a country’s culture, fashions, beliefs and, evidently, art. Whilst this cannot be undone, the lives and work of those affected can still be and deserve to be appreciated.