I came to know Robert Skelton when I was a student at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London between 1963 and 1966. The Painting School of the RCA in those days was situated on Exhibition Road in South Kensington, next door to the left flank of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). Robert was Assistant Keeper while W.G. Archer was elevated to the position of Keeper Emeritus in the Indian section of the museum. Students of the Painting School had free access to the museum through a back door directly connected to it. I used it often to go to the museum cafeteria. Passing by the Indian section on the way, I began looking at the amazing paintings on display. These tempted me to seek more and I finally ended up visiting Robert in his office in the museum. He was most welcoming and curious about my interest. When we took a round of the Indian section, I pointed to a painting of a hunt in the forest from the Kota school and mumbled that it reminded me of the mysterious trees and foliage painted by Douanier Rousseau (I was to discover later that W.G. Archer had already commented on this visual connect in his booklet on the subject). Increasingly, we got involved in a discussion which ranged from the European view of Indian painting to finding ways of looking at them afresh.
Robert gladly opened the reserve collection to show me more Kota paintings, and gradually led me towards several other schools of Indian painting, culminating in the magnificent Mughal folios of the Akbarnama. And so, my interest in Indian painting increased manifold as I continued to discover treasure after treasure. While I admired a lot of objects on display, including the textiles in the Indian section, my attention was particularly gripped by the large Hamzanama folio (The giant Zamurrad Shah falls into a well and is beaten by gardeners, The Hamzanama, gouache on cotton backed with paper, c. 1562-77, Mughal.). I had seen many a Mughal painting earlier but wasn’t aware of such a large ‘miniature’. Little did I know then that this first exposure was to grow into my closer engagement with these unique folios in the years to come.
Eventually, visiting the Indian section became a habit. I often sought Robert out with all kinds of queries and observations and we would invariably get engaged in long discussions. He was fascinated by my interest in the Sienese paintings in the National Gallery and was quite intrigued when I compared them with aspects of Indian paintings (which were albeit smaller, with an intimacy of touch, and their own thermal sensibility, and of course an absence of cast shadows). We gradually realized that our choice in works of art had begun to correspond. When I spoke of my interest in the murals of Stanley Spencer, he said he too admired them and took me on a picnic with his wife Frances to the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, Hampshire, to see the great murals. For me this was a discovery of a British artist I had begun to feel attracted to, despite my general lack of interest those days in most British painting.
He then began to visit my tiny ‘studio’ or cubicle in the Painting School from time to time and responded to what I was painting. In my final year at the RCA in 1966, when I was required to write a dissertation on a theme of my choice, I decided to write on Kota paintings with Robert as my guide. The only publication on the subject was a booklet by W.G. Archer called Indian Painting in Bundi and Kotah (1959), published by the V&A. That became a source of information and interest. Robert suggested I get in touch with his American friend and scholar, Stuart Cary Welch, adding that he was an ardent admirer of the school and had some Kota paintings in his personal collection. I wrote to Cary Welch and he sent me his catalogue of the exhibition Gods, Thrones and Peacocks (Asia Society, 1965), curated by him and Milo Cleveland Beach, which contained reproductions of several Kota drawings, especially of the great Lion Hunt (c. 1740). My little dissertation gave me the gift of two equally fascinating scholars who eventually turned into good friends and guides. Before leaving England, I gifted Robert one of my 1963 oil paintings which he seemed to be quite fond of. In a letter dated December 20, 1967, he wrote that he had shown my painting to his friend, the artist Howard Hodgkin, who asked “who was the painter and expressed interest in it”. Robert added that “for him to do so is rather encouraging since he is very critical of most contemporary painters.”
Robert’s interests in the study of Indian art, especially pre-Mughal, Mughal and Rajasthani painting, gradually turned into a special expertise. I think his early essay “The Ni’matnama: A Landmark in Malwa Painting” (Marg, 1959) was among the first on the subject. He curated an exhibition titled Rajasthani Temple Hangings of the Krishna Cult in New York in 1973, that was accompanied by the publication of a catalogue which was among the pioneering studies of the Pichhawais of Nathdwara. With other landmark exhibitions and publications, like The Arts of Bengal (1979) and The Indian Heritage: Court Life and Arts under Mughal Rule (1982), Robert came to be recognized as a major scholar on the map of Indian art history. He was, however, among the few scholars of Indian art who maintained a close relationship with contemporary Indian art. Besides our continued correspondence, I kept meeting him on my intermittent trips to England. I remember he visited and saw with a great interest the exhibition on contemporary Indian art, curated by Richard Bartholomew, Akbar Padamsee and Geeta Kapur, during the Festival of India at the Royal Academy in 1982. His association with Indian artists in England brought him closer to younger artists like Tara Sabharwal and Dhruva Mistry, with whom he maintained a cordial relationship for decades.
I came to know him even more closely when we spent almost a month continuously travelling together across India from March 23 till April 18, 1984, as members of a joint committee to examine works of Western origins in Indian collections and prepare a report for the Indian government. The Expert Committee was set up by the Ministry of the Department of Education and Culture, Government of India, to study the condition and preservation of European works of art. The committee included the eminent scholar Mildred Archer besides Robert Skelton, Dr L.P. Sihare, then Director of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA, New Delhi), and me. The NGMA was in charge of travel arrangements and making appointments in coordination with the government. I had no illusions about my expertise in European art or for that matter in European art produced during the British period in India, but the prospect of learning from two expert scholars made me accept this membership.
Beginning with the collection atRashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi, we travelled to Calcutta, Hyderabad, Madras, Pondicherry, Bombay, Goa and Baroda. We saw collections in museums, Asiatic societies, Raj Bhavans, art schools, churches and private residences. We were told that our visit was preceded by an expert from the international auction house of Sotheby’s who had given a highly critical report about the condition of European objects in Indian collections and noted that many withered because of lack of care and climate control in the absence of air conditioning, etc. In response to that, a high official of the Indian government had mooted, in his wisdom, the idea of disposing off these European works to form a Trust Fund to buy back Indian paintings in Western collections.
I developed a close personal rapport with Robert and came to admire his sharp vision and intellect as he examined works of art in great detail and came out with unusually perceptive comments. Mildred (Robert called her “Tim” because of her ‘tiny Tim’ physical stature) was a seasoned scholar of Indian art of the British period, whose exceptional understanding and knowledge of the subject was instructive as well as inspiring. Robert, who was particularly conscious of the brief we had received, took great pains in establishing how the paintings had actually fared in the extremely trying conditions of the Indian climate, often even in the absence of much-needed care.
Two instances struck me as important. He had set for himself the objective of determining if air conditioning was crucial for the preservation and upkeep of European works of art. After examining hundreds of oil paintings, Mildred and Robert observed that they had survived in good condition in Indian weather for two to three centuries wherever they were well looked after, despite the absence of air conditioning. I remember an instance in Goa (House at Loutulim, property of Georgina de Figuredo) where a number of oils of the last century and earlier were found in mint condition despite the heat and excessive humidity of the local weather and absence air conditioning. Robert was most impressed and asked the elderly lady the reason of their being so well-preserved, to which she quipped: “Nothing my dear, it’s just good housekeeping.” She later clarified that she kept all the paintings hanging on the walls instead of leaving them in an unattended store because that enabled her to check if there was any problem. She also changed the locations of these paintings if the room got too humid in monsoon or too hot in summer. In a five-star hotel in Calcutta, Robert used a humido-meter and checked the level of humidity inside and outside the hotel to discover that it was much higher indoor than outdoors.
The second observation was more crucial. Before drafting our report, Robert and Mildred conveyed to me that the works we had seen were all made in India and were about India -- the sites, people both Indian and ‘European’, flora and fauna. Hence it all was part of Indian history. It would be a gross mistake to think of disposing of them. We prepared a detailed report citing all the collections we had examined, with critical remarks on the lack of conservation we had encountered in several places, and advised the government to take suitable actions. Regarding the idea of selling off works, the report stated in clear terms: “The suggestion that works should be sent for auction to create a Trust Fund disregards the fact that a large proportion of the objects that we have seen are not owned by the Central or State governments even when public funds are devoted to their upkeep.” It is too cumbersome to cite further details here, but those interested may consult the Asia Art Archive where a copy of the report is conserved. My esteem for these wise scholars increased manifold after their stern resolve to save a crucial segment of our cultural history. It showed their deep love and concern for India and its culture.
Side stories of our travels include Robert’s increasing involvement in contemporary Indian art. Looking at the glass paintings of K.G. Subramanyan in Santiniketan during our tour, he found in them a union of Kalighat painting and Matisse. He asked Subramanyan if he would consider some for the collection of the V&A and booked them. In Baroda, I was working on a large canvas called “City for Sale” which he also booked for the museum. The painting was finally shipped to London after many a hiccup. Robert continued to observe the rising prices of Indian contemporary art with a degree of curiosity. At one stage, perhaps in the 1990s, when we visited an exhibition of Mughal paintings in the Francesca Galloway art gallery in London, he pointed out that some of the folios of the Akbar period that I had liked were cheaper than certain works of contemporary Indian art! Looking at an auction catalogue of European art, he had once told me about the low prices of the pre-Renaissance paintings I had admired. In later years, Robert became very friendly with Tara Sabharwal who rarely missed an opportunity to visit him at his Croydon home on her trips from New York. Her work too found a place in the V&A collection, as did Bhupen Khakhar’s “Death in the Family” (1978). I have also come to know that Robert acquired a maquette of Dhruva Mistry’s monumental “Sitting Bull” and some ceramic works of Trupti Patel for the V&A collection. More recently, I learnt that artist and writer Varunika Saraf developed a very special personal bond with him. My association with Robert came full circle sometime in the 1990s when he invited to me to speak on paintings from the Hamzanama at the V&A. Needless to say, it brought back old memories of my first encounter with the Hamza folio in that museum.
I continued to correspond with him on my return to India, and have saved letters dating from 1966 till 1994. Letters from Robert, and some of my replies, reveal that he travelled quite often. They also speak of how he found it difficult to join a committee to examine the Indian paintings in the Baroda Museum collection during its centenary. The letters carry discussions about Indian painting in the light of new researches, his agreements or disagreements with other scholars like Pramod Chandra or the younger John Seyller, and about the date of the beginning of the Hamza project. His arguments were always expressed with great objectivity and sound reasoning. If I am not mistaken, he had pointed out in a personal conversation that the text pasted behind the Hamza folios did not always correspond to the theme of the painting overleaf, citing new findings by a young Persian scholar named Zahra Faridany from her research on the Hamza paintings in the Vienna collection. I also found out that he was particularly interested in paintings made in the smaller thikanas of Rajasthan and thought they held a key to what was going on in the studios of the larger royal courts.Theincreasing interest in the significance of schools on the margins, and the recent recognition younger scholars have accorded to the catalytic influence they had on mainstream schools would have delighted Robert. A festschrift for Robert, titled Art of Mughal India: Studies in Honour of Robert Skelton (edited by Rosemary Crill, and published by Mapin and V&A) came out in 2004.
The last time I met Robert in London was on the occasion of an exhibition of Indian paintings curated by Richard Blurton at the British Museum. Robert talked about his own vast collection of slides of Indian paintings, which he had photographed for sharing among younger scholars. I still regret not being able to visit his Croydon house. As he aged and remained homebound, I did not know how to reach out to him. In order to connect with him, I decided to send him the volume on my work “At Home in the World”. His son Oliver confirmed the receipt of the volume but mentioned that Robert hadn’t recalled my name, which saddened me deeply.
Robert died on August 22, 2022. He was, I am told, buried in a lovely woodland site near Norwich. Mildred Archer had died in 2005 and with Robert’s demise, two great friends of India have passed away.
The author thanks Victoria and Albert Museum, London for making the photographs available for the Tribute.