Forgotten Masters brings together artworks of supremely talented Indian artists who worked for the employees of the East India Company in late 18th century until mid-19th century.
In the early 19th century the East India Company, also known as British East India Company or simply the Company was at the height of its rule in India. Many Indian princes could no more afford to employ large numbers of staff. As a result, many local artists formerly employed by those local rulers had to search for new patrons.
This period marked an increased interest in botany and zoology in Europe. Many British and European employees of the Company were keen collectors of all things exotic, which they encountered at their foreign posts. They wanted to have illustrated records of exotic flora and fauna that they could take back home. This created a demand for local Indian artists. The exhibition brings together hundreds of works by those ‘forgotten masters’. The original audience of those paintings was often limited to friends and family of the patrons, many are today in private collections and are displayed in public for the first time.
Unfortunately, but not at all surprisingly, much more is known about the people who commissioned the art, than the artists themselves. For example, the Frenchman Claude Martin was one of the first people who commissioned a series of natural history illustrations in India, his collection included over 1,800 drawings of birds, plants and reptiles. Lord and Lady Impey commissioned a series of works which are now known as the Impey Album. The Impey Album was created between 1777-1783 and it contains works by Shaikh Zain Ud-Din, Bhawani Das and Ram Das, as well as works of their students and followers. Of those three Shaikh Zain Ud-Din was considered the most talented. Trained in the Mughal style of painting these artists adapted their style to suit European tastes. Their style is sometimes referred to as the Company style. The images of plants and animals on plain white backgrounds resemble natural history illustrations produced by European artists in the same period. Looking at the colourful watercolors by the Indian masters the impression is not that of a cold scientific objectivity, but of astonishing attention to detail paired with masterful composition. An image of a male fruit bat (1777-82) attributed to Bhawani Das or an artist of his circle stuns the viewer with its almost human expression. The colourful birds from the works of Shaikh Zain Ud-Din look as if they could stretch their wings and fly away.
Browsing through the displays we notice some of the colonial attitudes toward the locals, especially in the context of freelance artists who had to adapt their styles to fit in with the patrons’ expectations. The images of local people emphasized the inferior status they held in the eyes of their British patrons. The prolific painter Yelappa of Vellore was commissioned to produce illustrations depicting locals in traditional dress, for example Pujaris (early 19th c) and Indian soldiers, such as Sepoys of Madras (c.1830). These works give an impression of a natural history classifications, figures are displayed in rows, almost like specimens. Works of this type represent old-fashioned attitudes held by many Europeans in this period, where the exotic ‘others’ were seen almost as ethnographic specimens, or curiosities. Interestingly, a work by Shaikh Muhammad Amir of Karraya titled English Child in a Bonnet on a Horseback (c. 1830-1850), seems rather subversive. The English child’s face is completely obscured by her blue bonnet, while the three Indian grooms accompanying the horse are represented with individualised facial features.
The titles of the works presented in the exhibition were most likely not given by the artists themselves, hence titles of paintings depicting horses and their grooms often do not mention the persons at all, but can be very specific when it comes to describing animals. For example, in Flea-bitten Horse (c.1845) by Shaikh Muhammad Amir of Karraya, only the horse seems worthy a mention, not his groom.
The majority of works on display depict Indian flora and fauna. There are also scenes from lives of East India Company employees and the locals, as well as local architecture. The individual paintings come from albums named after their patrons, for example the Impey Album or the Fraser Album. Scottish travel writer and artist James Baillie Fraser commissioned several artists, including Hulas Lal and Ghulam Ali Khan to paint Delhi landscapes, monuments and portraits of local characters, which he planned to use as aides-memoires for his planned aquatint series.
Forgotten Masters was curated by William Darlymple. The exhibition is a unique opportunity to see fantastic pieces of art, many displayed in public for the first time. The artworks on display are well-spaced so the viewers can admire the details from close distance. I recommend the audiobook, which complements the display with additional background information and interesting trivia.
Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company at the Wallace Collection, London 4 December 2019- 19 April 2020
UPDATE: The exhibition has reopened and will last until 13 September 2020
Exhibition website https://www.wallacecollection.org/forgotten-masters-indian-painting-east-india-company/