The Company School of Painting, or pictures made by artists during the British Raj, refers to the genre of pictures that were specifically commissioned by or made for the John Company officials and other European residents. Pran Nevile gives a vivid account of the socio-cultural practices of the period, replete with rich and rare visuals brought together for the first time in his latest book. Exclusive excerpts:
THE most notable artists who captured the Indian panorama in their paintings were William Hodges who travelled to India between 1780-83 producing hisSelect Views of Indiain 1787 and the uncle and nephew team of Thomas and William Daniell who toured the country extensively, making sketches and watercolours, which they took back to England and produced their famous six-volume series of aquatints,Oriental Scenery.
Their pictures offer the most resonant examples of the British vision of sublime and picturesque India. Their work was greatly appreciated and this inspired several landscape artists to visit India including William Simpson and Edward Lear who brought out many scenic views of India including its ancient monuments and other historic edifices. Other artists like A.E. Davis and Emily Eden applied their talents to be portrayal of the diverse people of India with their colourful costumes and strange customs and manners.
Indian artists, on their part, welcomed the opportunity to work for their new British patrons, especially because the traditional patronage of Indian rulers and their courts was rapidly declining. While adopting some features of Western art they took care to preserve traditional elements. Since their own skills were more than adequate, they did not need formal training from the British.
However, they gave up using gouache in favour of European paper and changed colour patterns to replace the brilliant hues of miniature painting with mute tones and sepia wash which appealed to the British. They altered the shading pattern of solid forms but preserved the old finesse of craft skill and pleasing final image. At the same time, the British began to realise that their favourite Indian subjects could be depicted far more accurately by local artists who were familiar with them. This special kind of painting â€” a product of the British connection â€” came to be known as â€˜Company School Paintingâ€™. It represents the fusion of Indian and British styles which mirrors the artistic fashion of the period.
It was a costly affair to get portraits done as seen from the following advertisement that appeared in a local newspaper in April 1798. â€œMr Morris having taken a house in Wheeler Place directly behind the Governorâ€™s house, begs leave to inform such ladies and gentlemen who may be inclined to favour him with their sittings, that he is ready to paint them at the following prices:
The British professional artists appeared on the Indian scene in the last quarter of the 18th century. Most of them found portrait painting more lucrative than landscape or subjects of a more arduous and sublime description. Their first destination was Calcutta where they found patrons among the emerging British ruling elite of the John C ompany. The portraits were regarded as records of their wealth and social status to be handed over to their succeeding generations.
The portrait price varied depending upon the reputation of the artist and the status of the patron. Mr Morris, not so famous, charged 80 gold mohurs or Rs 1500 for a full-length portrait while Zoffany charged Rs 2500 for Mrs Hastings portrait. The portraits of high dignitaries were also commissioned to be hung in public buildings like the town hall and government offices.
The finest collection of Company style portraits is the Fraser Album discovered in 1979 with family papers in Scotland. With over a hundred water colours the Album portrays a wide range of Indian characters and the pattern of life in Delhi. These fine portraits are noteworthy for their sensitive realism and graphic detail capturing the last detail of hair and wrinkle and also the subjectâ€™s mood and expression â€” a rare combination of humanity and realism transcending the common depiction of human figures. These marvellous paintings of great aesthetic merit were commissioned by James Fraser (1783-1856), a gifted amateur artist and his brother William Fraser (1784-1835) then stationed in Delhi as an assistant to the British Resident.
Among the Company style portrait painters, the most skilful and versatile belonged to Delhi where the indigenous tradition was much older and stronger then elsewhere in the country. Painting, like other crafts, was a family profession and Delhi artists had inherited the exquisite skills from their forefathers who had created marvels of Mughal painting. When the British captured Delhi in 1803, the Delhi tradition of portraiture was still alive and merged well with European realism. The local artists easily adapted their style and techniques to suit the tastes of the new British patrons.
Some European amateur artists made sketches of Indian people of different professions but these were for their own pleasure and possession. The first European professional artist to devote himself to this neglected field was Balthazar Solvyns at Calcutta. He made a comprehensive study of the Indian communities and their occupations and produced 250 colour etchings (1799). He made drawings from real life of men and women of every possible caste or calling, from the high caste Brahmin to the sweeper woman. There was such a demand for Solvynsâ€™ pictures of Indian characters that John Gantz who had a lithographic press in Madras was induced to publish in 1827 The Indian Microcosm, a set of twenty prints portraying some native trades and occupations â€” barbers, butchers, carpenters, shoemakers and other bazaar characters. Solvynsâ€™ work was not only of great historic value but it had also a tremendous influence on the fortunes of Indian painters who were then seeking patronage of the emerging English masters. They looked for subjects which would appeal to their British clients and they found Solvynsâ€™ sketches as the best guide.
Religious festivities were and continue to be a delightful diversion in the life of Indians. Foreign visitors were impressed by the hectic gaiety of the people at village fairs and festivals, singing and dancing with their drums.
The Hindu festival of spring, Holi, was easily the most popular for its colourful hilarity, fun and laughter. It had special attraction for the Sahibs. An ancient festival, Holi in early times was celebrated in honour of Kama, the God of Love, and to express the passionate feeling inspired by spring. It was later observed during the Mughal days and called Id-I-Gulabi. The British accounts of Holi describe it as a carnival of the Hindus, a sort of Hindu saturnalia, a time of universal merriment and joy and licence of all kinds.
Among other events which aroused the interest of British viewers were the glittering processions led by the Indian rulers and princes and the extravaganza of their grand durbars. The British dignitaries and the ruling elite including the Governor General and Commander-in-Chief were often honoured with grand banquets at their palaces and even outside at bright colourful camps. Indian artists were usually commissioned to commemorate these functions showing British officers and sometimes their memsahib as well mixing with Indian nobility. Among Indian rulers, the Lucknow nawabs were most eager to adopt British social conventions.
The British professional artists were struck by the charm and beauty of Indian women. But as they were inaccessible being in purdah, they were not able to make true to life portraits of them. The nautch girls and courtesans, on the other hand, had no inhibitions and freely gave sitting for their portraits.
As the nautch girlsâ€™ performance was a popular amusement the Sahibs commissioned Indian artists to make their pictures in different poses. We come across interesting accounts about the nautch girls of Delhi known for their striking beauty and grace as well as their singing and dancing talent. A number of British officials in Delhi in the early 19th century were flamboyant characters who were fascinated with the Indian lifestyle and held lavish nautch parties at their mansions. They took a great interest in Indian paintings and even retained local artists.
One such notable character was Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825) nicknamed â€˜Loony Akhtarâ€™. In one of the paintings by a Delhi artist, he is shown in Indian dress smoking a hookah and watching a nautch in his mansion. Another such person was William Fraser who patronised not only the visual artists but also the famous nautch girls of Delhi, who were invited to perform at his house.