Posted on : 09/01/2015 12:19pm
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‘Empire follows Art & Not Vice Versa as Englishmen suppose.’ So claimed William Blake in his well-known annotation to Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses on Art of 1778. If an exhibition was calculated to challenge Blake’s counterintuitive statement, it is ‘Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company’, currently at the Wallace Collection, coincidentally at the same moment as the major Blake exhibition on show a couple of miles south, at Tate Britain (and where empire, by contrast, is decidedly understated). The Wallace’s show brings to public attention, largely for the first time, the paintings and drawings of Indian artists working in the violently transformative era, from the 1760s to the 1850s, when the Indian subcontinent was shifting increasingly from Mughal to British imperial control. It has been guest-curated by William Dalrymple, the leading historian of British India, who has brought together a rich array of works on loan from a wide range of public and private collections, much of which has not been on display in the UK before, and certainly not in the environment of an art institution such as the Wallace.
The exhibition’s aims are mainly two-fold: firstly, to recover and reevaluate the art of these ‘forgotten masters’ (no female artists are included), hitherto unjustly dismissed as ‘Company School’ painters, merely jobbing servants of a colonial regime; and secondly, to demonstrate how these artists adapted their techniques, subject matter and painterly practice, inherited from Mughal traditions, to meet the demands of East India Company patrons across a variety of geographical cultural centres and social and professional contexts. Accordingly, artistic innovation is to be understood as a consequence of imperial conquest, and (pace Blake) not the other way round. The exhibition is laid out clearly and logically, with each room more or less devoted to an individual artist or artistic circle, a particular cultural centre such as Lucknow or Delhi, and a specific genre such as natural history painting, or representations of everyday Indian society and culture, through its castes, professions, buildings and so on.
In the first of its aims the exhibition is brilliantly successful: the sheer quality of the work on view, covering a wide range of genres and formats, from botanical drawing to group portraits, is strikingly consistent and frequently breathtaking. The set of drawings of Indian birds and animals, for example, produced in the years around 1780 by Shaikh Zain ud-Din for Sir Elijah and Mary, Lady Impey, are feats of wondrous virtuosity, in their combination of microscopically observed detail together with the evocation of animation and movement. The Impey albums are perhaps the best known of the works on display here, yet the exhibition provides them with a new dimension by contextualising them with other natural history studies such as the similarly virtuoso botanical drawings by the barely known artists Vishnupersaud and Chuni Lall, borrowed from the collections of botanic gardens at Kew and Edinburgh but here displayed as remarkable artworks in their own right. Although laid out on blank backgrounds and without shadow, in the conventional manner of 18th-century specimen drawings, Vishnupersaud’s Himalayan Fan Palm (c. 1825) and Traveller’s Palm (c. 1807) differ significantly from their Western prototype, in being carefully – even wittily – composed to fill the dimensions of the page, lovingly and meticulously observed, and rendered with a refined elegance stemming from a calligraphic technical dexterity.
Yet, by comparison even with these remarkable drawings, Zain ud-Din’s pictures for the Impeys stand out as still more extraordinary, and much more than a set of straightforward representations of Indian flora and fauna for interested British residents, as they have conventionally been characterised. Their scale alone indicates that they are prestigious and ostentatious commissions, on a par with anything commissioned from Western artists in India such as Johan Zoffany or William Hodges. The Sarus Crane, for example, is done on a single sheet of paper almost a metre in height, which the bird fills entirely with its vivid vermilion legs and head, and exquisitely detailed rendering of grey wing feathers, each strand minutely observed and drawn. There is a near-perfect harmonisation here of obsessive attention to detail with overall awareness of the crane’s form, bodily structure, weight and poise, together with grace of design, line and formal composition. It has an almost devotional quality to it, a profound veneration for another living creature. A similar sense of awe comes through in the same artist’s Cheetah, shown in profile on a similarly sized sheet of paper, on which the animal’s measurements are also noted, indicating that the picture is almost life-size, the cheetah’s power and tension barely contained within the framing edges of the page. As a traditional hunting animal for the Mughal aristocracy, Zain ud-Din’s Cheetah is less a natural history drawing and rather an icon of power, both of the natural world and also of Mughal magnificence. Such an image of the animal world of India offers insight into other animal representations in British-Indian culture, notably Tipu Sultan’s contemporaneous adoption of the tiger as the talisman for his rule over Mysore and his ongoing conflict with the British, which would culminate in his defeat at the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799, extending British dominance across southern India.
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