The Indian artists who worked with the west

There are over 1,500 watercolour paintings and drawings on The Watercolour World website attributed to the ‘Company School’ and recording aspects of Indian life. They include studies of plants and animals, pictures of national monuments, and portraits of men and women from all walks of life. Most are exquisitely detailed, combining observational accuracy with a sensitive handling of colour and line. Who made these paintings, and why? This is the question that The Wallace Collection asks in a special exhibition that opened this week.

‘Forgotten Masters: Indian Painters for the East India Company’ is curated by the writer, broadcaster and historian William Dalrymple. It focuses on the exceptional watercolour paintings made by Indian artists for western patrons in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Some of these works were commissioned by people who worked for the East India Company – the British trading body that exerted enormous financial, political and cultural influence in the imperial period. But others were made for the scientists, medical and botanical experts, soldiers, civil servants, missionaries, judges, tourists and families who journeyed east at the same time. Many are now held in albums or collections bearing the patrons’ names, but this exhibition seeks to put the spotlight back onto the artists. They were not, in fact, ‘Company artists’, nor a coherent ‘school’ with one particular style. They were individuals of great skill and originality who deserve to be judged on their own merits.

Trained in a variety of Indian artistic traditions – Mughal, Maratha, Punjabi, Pahari, Tamil, Telegu – the ‘forgotten masters’ of this exhibition interpreted the needs of their western clients and adapted their methods to create beautiful and unique images. Their imperial associations, the lack of information available about them, and the fact that they straddle eastern and western traditions without fitting neatly into either, mean they are underappreciated today. But it is those same qualities, Dalrymple argues, that make their work so interesting and important. These artists represent a late, great creative flowering of traditional Indian painting that responded to outside influences without being overwhelmed by them. By the end of the 19th century the combined impact of photography, western art schools and imperialism had sent that tradition into irretrievable decline.

Below, we introduce some of the most skilled and significant Indian artists to feature in the exhibition. There is much still to learn. Hopefully in time we will be able to uncover more about the many unsung painters whose works feature on this website and beyond under the outdated banner of the ‘Company School’.

Shaikh Zain Ud-Din

Shaikh Zain Ud-Din was a Muslim artist from the city of Patna in north east India. Trained in Mughal miniature painting, he was employed in the 1770s by Sir Elijah and Mary, Lady Impey in Calcutta to create a series of natural history pictures. Lady Mary had a keen interest in the flora and fauna of her new home and worked closely with the artist on the project. She selected specimens from her menagerie and advised on the style and content, while Shaikh Zaid Ud-Din adapted his painting technique to work at a larger scale and within western traditions. He rose to the challenge. This painting, now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, depicts an elegant Sarus Crane. The bird is drawn with crisp, delicate lines onto an otherwise plain sheet of imported Whatman paper. It is alive with detail, from the scaly skin of its legs to the tiny imperfections in its feathers, which are painted in the subtlest of blues and greys.

Bhawani Das, another Patna-born artist, was also employed by the Impeys. He worked on the same series of paintings as Shaikh Zain Ud-Din, although his output was considerably less and it is possible that he joined as an apprentice. If so, he clearly mastered the art quickly. This painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is attributed to the artist and displays clear similarities to other paintings of bats he made at the time. The male fruit bat extends a single leathery wing to reveal its lightweight, bony framework and the animal’s soft, downy underbelly.

Shaikh Muhammad Amir of Karraya

Shaikh Muhammad Amir worked in Calcutta during the 1830s, several decades after Shaikh Zain ud-Din and Bhawani Das. The city was by then a busy colonial metropolis and a hub for Indian artists eager to sell to wealthy foreign customers. Very little is known about the artist, who described himself in his signature as a ‘mussavir’ (professional picture-maker) ‘stationed in Karraya’, the Indian ‘black town’ adjacent to the colonial ‘white town’ where many of his clients were based. British families employed Shaikh Muhammad Amir to record their life in India, including their residences, household staff, horses and pets. One such patron is pictured here in a palanquin with his face completely obscured. In contrast the Indian palanquin bearers turn to face us directly. Could this be a subtle sign of resistance to the increasing colonial presence in Calcutta? Many of the artist’s paintings display the same contrast between the foreigner, recognisable only by his material or her possessions, and the locals, distinguished by their individual humanity. This image is not in the exhibition, but closely resembles a painting of Thomas Holroyd in a palanquin (from the Harvard Art Museums collection) which does feature.

Ghulam Ali Khan enjoyed a long and distinguished career in 19th-century Delhi, where he worked for both East India Company patrons and the Mughal court. While the details of his early life and career are unclear, we can assume that he knew (or at least knew the work of) the uncle and nephew duo Thomas and William Daniell, who travelled India between August 1788 and November 1791. They made a series of topographical sketches that would form the basis of their popular publication, Oriental Scenery (1795–1808), which inspired many Indian painters. Ghulam Ali Khan made this painting in 1817, but it seems to be based directly on a sketch by one of the Daniells discovered recently by Yuthika Sharma in the Royal Institute of British Architects. Adept at both topographical and portrait painting, Ghulam Ali Khan was an influential figure at the centre of a large family atelier whose members made up what is known as the ‘Delhi School’.

When the governor general of Bengal, Lord Moira (later Hastings) travelled from Calcutta to Punjab and back in 1814–1815 on official business, he was apparently accompanied by thousands of people, one of which was the painter Sita Ram. The artist completed 229 watercolour landscapes along the way to illustrate Hastings’ private journal. They are highly unusual for Indian art of the period and clearly influenced by the English picturesque. His brushstrokes are almost impressionistic in places, and in many paintings the artist has taken liberties with the scale and position of landmarks to improve the composition. In this painting, the five-storeyed tower at Gaur known as the Firoz Shah Minar rises out of the landscape in the middle distance. The tall tree in the foreground seems to quiver and sway, while the horizon fades out in an atmospheric blue haze.

We will add more works by these artists, and try to update the attributions of ‘Company School’ works, over time. Please let us know if you are aware of any artists or images that we might be able to feature.

‘Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company’ is at the Wallace Collection, London, from 4 December 2019 to 19 April 2020.