Artists: Notes on Art Making

Published in in Roopa Lekha, Vol 52, 1981, pp.

In 1966, when Mrs.Mildred Archer accompanied me to Lucknow, and paid a visit to La Martiniere , the residence of Colonel Claud Martin, and now a public school, and saw the collection of paintings in the State museum, I had not the faintest idea what she was up to. On returning to Delhi she saw the collection of paintings in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Then followed a trip to Calcutta, where she saw the collection of paintings in the Victoria Memorial and the Bengal Governer’s Raj Bhavan. When she told me that she was assembling material for a book on paintings by British artists, who came to India, I was sceptic about the quality of their works. Well-known British artists like Joshua Reynolds or Gainsborough had no reason to leave their native land for they were earning enough money to live in comfort. I had a feeling that the British artists who came to India were mediocres who could not make both ends meet in their own country. When I opened the book India and British Portraiture 1977-1825, I was surprised and amazed at the quality of some paintings.

In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, British rule in eastern India and coastal South India was firmly established. The lure of the Romantic east and prospects of getting rich quick attracted a number of painters, some of them of high merit to India. Included among them were thirty professional portrait painters and over twenty miniaturists.

In 1772 Warren Hastings was appointed the first Governor- General of India. He was a scholarly person, a man of culture and also a patron of artists. His portrait were painted by some of the outstanding artists like Zoffany, Seton and Kettle. Zoffany painted a splendid painting of Warren Hastings and his wife, with a Bengali maid-servant in attendance standing under a Banyan tree. His example was followed by Sir Elijah Impey, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and his wife. Other clients among the British were army officers including outstanding men like Lord Lake of Bharatpore fame, Arthur Wellesly, better known as the Duke of Wellington, General Stibbert and many others.

There is a category of paintings which illustrate wars and sieges of forts. The best painter of historical events was Robert Home who was in India from January 1791 to September 1834. He died in this country at the age of eighty two. ‘His flair for simplifying subjects and welding them into robust compelling wholes enabled him to treat with success historic occasions’, observes Mrs.Archer. He accompanied the British army led by Governor- General Cornwallis to Mysore. He vividly painted dying Colonel Moorhouse with the Pettah Gate of Bangalore in the background. Another painting by Home shows Lord Cornwallis receiving the sons of Tipu Sultan as hostages.

Apart from the British officers, some of the Moslem Nawabs also patronized the British artists.The spendthrift Nawab of Arcot, Muhammad Ali Khan was a hot favourite. There are a number of portraits by George Willison. There were a number of artists with Asaf-Ud-Daula, Nawab of Oudh. In his harem, he had 500 of the greatest beauties of Hindustan immured in high walls. His amusements were hunting, dinners and watching dances and cock-fights. Zoffany recorded in a most interesting painting the Nawab’s favourite pastime of cock-fights. Exchange of abuse was regarded as fun by the Nawab. In Zoffany’s painting the Nawab is shown standing in the middle exchanging derisive abuse with Colonel Mordaunt, another loafer like him, who drifted to his court to profit from his generosity. In the foreground two cocks are fighting. On one side is a group of stolid Company officials and on the other a group of dancing girls gives life to the painting.

Among the Indians, apart from Nawabs, the wives or mistresses of the English officials and traders, called Bibis also attracted the attention of the English artists. Voyages in sailing ships in the eighteenth century were hazardous and took months. Hence very few Englishmen took their womenfolk to India. On account of shortage of women, Englishmen had recourse to Indian women. Mostly low-caste women were available to them. They were given the appellation of Bibis.

William Hickey, the diarist, was in Calcutta from 1782 to 1790. He lost his English wife, Charlotte on Christmas Day, 1783. He controlled his passions for some months, but ultimately succumbed to natural desire.

‘Having from my earliest youth been of an amorous disposition I began to feel the effects of a long continence,’ he writes. ‘I, therefore, one night sent for a native woman, but the moment I lay myself down upon the bed all desire ceased, being succeeded by disgust. I could think of nothing but her I had for ever lost, the bitter recollection rendered me so miserable that I sent off my Hindostanee companion untouched. The same circumstance occurred to me three successive times. Nature, however, at last proved too powerful to be surmounted, and I subsequently ceased to feel the horror that at first prevailed at the thoughts of a connection with a black women, some of whom are indeed very lovely, nor is it correct to call them black, those that come from the Upper Provinces being very fair.’

His next experience was even more disconcerting. ’My friend, Bon Pott, now consigned to me from Moorshedabad, a very pretty little native girl, whom he recommended for my own private use. Her name was Kiraun. After cohabiting with her a twelve month she produced me a young gentleman whom I certainly imagined to be of my own begetting, though somewhat surprised at the darkness of my son and heir’s complexion; still, that surprise did not amount to any suspicion of the fidelity of my companion Young Mahogany was therefore received and acknowledged as my offspring, until returning from the country one day quite unexpectedly, and entering Madam Kiraun’s apartments by a private door of which I had a key, I found her closely locked in the arms of a handsome lad, one of my kitmudgars with the infant by her side, all three being in a deep sleep, from which I awakened the two elders. After a few questions I clearly ascertained that this young man had partaken of Kiraun’s personal flavours jointly with me from the first month of her residing in my house, and that my friend Mahogany was fully entitled to the deep tinge of skin he came into the world with, being the produced of their continued armour. I consequently got rid of my lady, of her favourite, and the child, although she soon afterwards from falling into distress became a monthly pensioner of mine, and continued so during the many years I remained in Bengal.’

After some time Hickey was able to make a more satisfactory arrangement. I had often admired a lovely hindostanee girl who sometimes visited Carter at my house, who was very lively and clever. Upon Carter’s leaving Bengal I invited her to become an inmate with me, whichshe consented to do , and from that time to the day of her death Jemdanee, which was her name, lived with me, respected and admired by all my friends by her extraordinary sprightliness and good-humour. Unlike the women in general in Asia she never secluded herself from the sight of strangers; on the contrary, she delighted in joining my male parties, cordially joining in the mirth which prevailed, though she never touched wine or spirits of any kind. He also comments on her being ‘as gentle and affectionately attached a girl as ever man was blessed with’. The same view was expressed by one of Hickey’s friends, Ben Mee. ‘My love and good wishes to the gentle and every way amiable Fatty.’

Mrs Archer reproduces a portrait of Jemdanee, bibi of William Hickey, which she discovered in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Jemdanee has a round Bengali face, has jet-black hair and looks calm and satisfied, reclining against a bolster. A clump of palm trees on her left provides the atmosphere of Bengal.

Another Indian woman, whose portrait is reproduced is the bibi of John Wombell, painted at Lucknow by Charles Smith now in a private collection. The bibi has calm beauty, and reclining against a red bolster she looks dignified. A young moslem woman, loaded with ornaments, holding the stem of a hooka was painted by Francesco Renoldi.

The most beautiful of the bibis was Amber Kaur, bibi of Sir Charles Wavre Malet, who was resident at the Peshwas’s court in Poona from 1787 to 1797. Her portrait by James Wales is in the Victoria Memorial, Calcutta. Wearing rich jewellery, with her head covered by a dopatta, Amber Kaur looks beautiful.

What was the price paid to the artists for their work? George Willison’s normal charge for a bust portrait in oils was about €30/€60 for a half-length, and €120 for a full length. In case of the Nawab and members of his family, the charges were doubled.

John Zoffany charged Warren Hastings Rs.15,000/- for the picture of the cock-fighting in which Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daula is also shown. For the painting of Warren Hastings, his wife and servant girl, he charged him Rs.3000/-. For a full length portrait of Mrs. Hastings he charged Rs.2500/-. William Devis charged Rs.2000/- for a full length portrait of Warren Hastings.

From the above, it could be concluded that these artists were well-paid, particularly when we consider that the purchasing power of rupee then what about ten times, as compared with what it is now.

Mrs Archer has published in her book, 346 paintings in public and private collection in India, England, Scotland, Ireland, the U.S.A and East Germany. This in itself is a remarkable achievement. This book provides us a glimpse of the history of India from 1770 to 1825 in a visual manner. In the portraits we see the builders of the British Empire, confident and aggressive. With great attention to detail, Mrs. Archer has unearthed facts about the British Portrait painters which were not commonly known. Text is clear and objective. Details are given about the size of paintings, their owners and the places where they could be seen. Mrs Archer is to be warmly congratulated on this superb task, so meticulously performed, with such patience and industry. This book is a land-mark in the art-historical studies of paintings by the British in India.

Published in in Roopa Lekha, Vol 52, 1981, pp.
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