Asian Openbill Stork in a Landscape, unknown artist, Lucknow, circa 1780, watercolour on paper, 63.5 x 47 cm. Courtesy Private Collection

Asian Art Newspaper explores the Company School painting exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London, featuring Indian paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries

Company School paintings are usually seen as part of more general exhibitions on India, not as the main subject matter in their own right. However, the Wallace Collection has taken a bold step in organising this broad and wide-reaching exhibition of works by Indian master painters commissioned by East India Company (EIC) officials in the late 18th and 19th centuries. It is a first for the UK and an unprecedented opportunity to see a large group of these vivid and highly original paintings shown together. The exhibition focuses on the skill and creativity found in these paintings, often by unnamed artists, who brought the colourful and engaging world of 18th and 19th century Indian life alive, which is now recorded for posterity.

Comprising works from a wide variety of Indian traditions, the exhibition moves the emphasis from the EIC commissioners onto the skills of the Indian painters, belatedly honouring historically overlooked artists including Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Bhawani Das, Shaikh Mohammad Amir of Karriah, Sita Ram and Ghulam Ali Khan. A highlight of the show is the display of some 30 works from the well-known Impey Album, notably works by the Bengali artists Sheikh Zain ud-Din, Bhawani Das and Ram Das. Reflecting both the beauty of the natural world and the social reality of the time, this ‘fusion’ art, where Indian miniature painting style meets European tastes, offers a chance to explore the cultural exchange between British and Indian artistic styles during this period.

East India Company Expansion in India

As the EIC expanded its influence and control in India beyond trade to include diplomacy and administration, the company needed greater and greater numbers of officers and administrators to control their interests. It is during this expansion that the British in India mainly became patrons of the arts, creating a demand for works of art that come to be called ‘Company School’ – or simply Company painting – in the 18th and 19th centuries. These paintings highlight the conversation between traditional Indian, Islamic, and Western schools and feature works by Lucknavi, Mughal, Marathi, Punjabi, Pahari, Tamil and Telugu artists.

At the time, there was also a growing demand for Indian memorabilia in the European markets, portraying the exotic and picturesque. This wide genre includes trades and professions, social groups, flora and fauna, famous views and buildings, the military and its ranks, as well as social groups, durbar scenes, depictions of local rulers, festivals, and other portraits and domestic scenes. The subject matter is extensive. This demand became the creation of a visual record in the absence of photography – using watercolours on paper to capture the facts (and fantasy) of India. Nurturing the desire to capture the ‘picturesque’ and the ‘exotic’ aspect of the land, besides recording the variety in the Indian way of life which the visitors and residents encountered.

As Dr Xavier Bray, Director of the Wallace Collection, states in his introduction to the catalogue, ‘The artists were commissioned by an equally diverse cross section of East India Company officials, ranging from botanists and surgeons, to members of the East India Company civil service, diplomats, governors and judges, and their wives, as well as by more itinerant British artist and intellectual passing through India for pleasure and instruction. What they all had in common was a scholarly interest in, and enthusiasm for, India’s rich culture, history and ecological biodiversity’.

Company School Painting in the 19th Century

In the early phases of this school of painting, artists depended on a few key patrons, but by the beginning of the 19th century enterprising Indian artists had begun to create sets of standard popular subjects that could be sold to the growing number of tourists passing through the major cities and attractions. Such sets might depict a range of monuments, festivals, castes, occupations, or costumes of the subcontinent. The Company style arose in a number of different cities around the same time. However, work from each region is distinguishable by style, which grew out of, and was heavily influenced by, earlier local traditions. Calcutta was among the important early production centres, as the site of one of the oldest British trade houses.

The Impey Album of Company School Painting

The Impey album is an important contribution to this genre and some 30 leaves from the album are on display in this exhibition. The leaves originally formed part of a great collection of natural history studies commissioned at Calcutta by Mary, Lady Impey, wife of the Chief Justice Sir Elijah Impey. Andrew Topsfield in his catalogue entry explains ‘The Series of 326 natural history studies made for Sir Elijah and Mary, Lady Impey at Calcutta between 1777 and 1783 was a great undertaking, both of amateur scientific ambition and inspired artistic vision. Lady Impey too, as a collaborative patron played an important part in the creative process, helping to select suitable subjects and discussing their treatment or setting with her artists. Her own extensive menagerie of birds and animals formed their principal subjects’.

The Impeys shared the keen scholarly curiosity about India which prevailed among the circle of the Governor-General Warren Hastings, and they also assembled an extensive aviary and menagerie at their Calcutta home. As William Dalrymple points out in the catalogue, ‘Impey and his wife began to collect a menagerie of rate Indian animals, and at some stage in the mid 1770s, the Impeys decided to bring a group of Indian artists – Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Bhawani Das and Ram Das – to paint their private zoo. Using English watercolours on English Whatman watercolour paper, and taking English botanical still lifes as their models, they created an extraordinary fusion of English and Mughal artistic impulses, similar but subtly different from the paintings produced around the same time by Claude Martin’s atelier in Lucknow’.

The Impeys can be considered the city’s most enthusiastic patrons, alongside the Marquess Wellesley (1760-1842), who served as governor-general from 1798 to 1805. Both parties had collected large menageries and hired artists to paint each of the birds and animals in them. A Company-established botanical garden in Calcutta then undertook a similar project for the samples of plant life it had collected. Other influential painting centres were in Varanasi, a major Hindu pilgrimage site that drew many tourists (known as Benares), and Madras, where Lord and Lady Clive were stationed from 1798 to 1804.

Lucknow as a Centre for Company School Paintings

Lucknow also became a great centre for Company School paintings. Claude Martin (1735-1800), a buccaneer-turned businessman, who had originally fought for the French, but when Pondichéry fell, had joined the British and rose to the rank of Major General in the EIC Bengal Army, rising to become in charge of the Lucknow Arsenal. Sir Elijah Impey was also known to have been a guest of Martin at Lucknow, but it is unclear whether Martin influenced the Impeys in their commissioning of paintings. Martin was not just a military man, he was an architect/builder, founder of a bank, a philanthropist interested in education, as well as an amateur scientist and hot air balloonist. In 1785, he also introduced a ‘Montgolfier’ (hot air balloon) to the Nawab of Lucknow. He became an important patron of the arts, and commissioned hundreds of works from local artists, especially focusing on the flora and fauna of India. Many of this collection are lost, but some 600 are now in the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the UK.

Through these paintings, the exhibition explores the four main centres of what has traditionally been called Company School painting: Calcutta and Lucknow, where provincial Mughal painters from Murshidabad, Patna and Faizabad were employed; Madras and Tanjore, where artists from the South Indian traditions received patronage; and Delhi, where Imperial Mughal artists created some of the finest works of this period. Their paintings represent one of the great and forgotten moments of Indian art during a period of great cultural exchange between the artists and their EIC and Western patrons.

Company paintings all display an amalgam of naturalistic representation and the lingering nostalgia for the intimacy and stylisation of medieval Indian miniatures. It is this intermingling that makes the Company school unique even though the paintings neither had the accuracy of the photograph nor the freedom of the miniatures. The artists of this school modified their technique to cater to the British taste for academic realism, which required the incorporation of Western academic principles of art such as a close representation of visual reality, perspective, volume and shading. The artists also changed their medium and now began to paint with watercolour (instead of gouache) and also used pencil or sepia wash on European paper.

Combing Mughal and European Traditions

In responding to their patrons’ European tastes, scientific interests, and sense of discovery, Indian artists (some previously had trained in late-Mughal techniques of painting), evolved their styles to create large-scale images of India’s flora, fauna, people, and landscape. While formal natural studies comprise a major genre of Company painting, other idioms, such as the picturesque, which offered romanticised views of landscape and architecture, also flourished. Zain al-Din, who is considered the foremost artist to have worked on Impey’s album, is believed to have painted from life, which accounts for the naturalism of his work. Although he was trained in Mughal techniques, the absence of landscape and even ground colour derives from European natural history paintings, indicating that Zain al-Din was also familiar with European prints. The result combines the best qualities of Mughal and European traditions: the famed obsession of Mughal attention to fine detail is fused with a scientific European rationalism to produce architectural paintings that both observe and feel the qualities of architectonics of buildings.

Alongside the paintings, visitors will also encounter a Mughal dagger, now part of the Wallace Collection. The museum has a selection of Mughal pieces in their well-known princely collection of arms and armour. The dagger has a direct connection to the exhibition, as it belonged to one of the most prominent EIC patrons – Claude Martin, the man who had become a senior EIC official and a great patron of Indian artists. As mentioned earlier, Martin had settled and had become part of the establishment in the city, commissioning great Lucknavi artists such as Bahadur Singh and Mihr Chand, who fused their Mughal training with European conventions and materials, to create a new, highly innovative way of depicting the natural world.

This evocative exhibition brings the work of Indian artists to the forefront and allows the visitor to marvel and glimpse a now distant world that has vividly been brought back to life. As William Dalrymple, the exhibition curator, comments: ‘Forgotten Masters showcases the work of extraordinary Indian artists, each with their own style and tastes and agency, whose brilliance has been frequently 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’.

Until 19 April, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, The Wallace Collection, London, A catalogue accompanies the exhibition