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Chapter Four: The Early Arrivals - Portrait And History Painters

Tilly Kettle in Madras
When Kettle arrived at Madras, barely four months had passed since Haidar Ali, ruler of Mysore, and his troops had threatened to invade the city. But the Treaty of Madras between Haidar Ali and the British had concluded the first Mysore war, and Kettle was able to set up his studio probably in the residential precinct of Fort St George. Even before leaving England, he had begun a portrait of Lord Pigot, which he brought with him, clearly hoping to find a buyer for his picture of the former Governor. Local British residents, including Peter Mariette, a naval Captain turned merchant, were soon providing Kettle with portrait commissions. These oil paintings, mostly straightforward head-and-shoulders portraits following a similar formula, conformed to the fashionable style of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Kettle usually portrayed his sitters, their serious expressions largely devoid of emotion, against a plain or simple background.

It was probably Kettle’s contact with Muhammad Ali Khan, Nawab of the Carnatic, who ruled from 1763 until his death in 1795 that kept him in Madras for so long. The Nawab had recently moved to Madras from his nearby capital at Arcot into the Chepauk Palace, his grand new mansion overlooking the sea to the south of Fort St George. Here the Nawab entertained lavishly, adopting European manners to cultivate the British with whom he had a long association. He soon became aware of the popular genre of portrait painting and commissioned large oils of himself from Kettle. The first picture included Muhammad Ali’s sons. It was painted as a parting gift from the Nawab to Governor Charles Bourchier, who was to retire from Madras in January 1770. Taken by Bourchier to London, the painting was exhibited at the Society of Artists the following year. The catalogue recorded its title as ‘The Portraits of Mahomed Ali Cawn (Nabob of Arcot, and Subah of the Carnatic, the faithful friend of the English) and of his five sons; whole lengths’. Visitors to the same exhibition would have seen Francis Swain Ward’s landscape paintings depicting monuments in south India.

News of the Nawab’s cordial relationship with the Company in Madras had already reached London before Kettle arrived in mid-1769. In gratitude for the Nawab’s help to the Company, George III and Queen Charlotte had sent him portraits of themselves along with autographed letters. The Nawab subsequently replied: ‘My inability to obtain the Satisfaction of seeing Your Majesty’s Royall Person, which I so much desire, is the Reason that I have Your Majesty’s happy Picture Night and Day before me’. And instead of ‘Attending in Person on Your Majesty to return my grateful Thanks’, the Nawab sent a painting of himself and his children to the King and Queen, which was almost certainly painted by Kettle in 1770.

Kettle’s picture of Muhammad Ali without his sons depicts him in a similar pose to Bouchier’s painting, and wearing identical robes. The picture above all makes a statement, projecting the Nawab’s princely status, wealth, military skills and cultured intellect. Spectators might also have noted the resemblance between the Nawab’s pose and that of a Roman hero. He also appears dignified and dependable. Yet both he and the Company officials in Madras were involved in devious deals of mutual interest. For example, while relying on the British for funds, the Nawab ceded parts of his territory in the Carnatic, especially around Madras, to the Company. Although this picture may have been painted initially for display in the Nawab’s Chepauk Palace, by 1775 it was in London and on show at the Society of Artists the same year. It was purchased later by Lawrence Sulivan’s son, Stephen, and bequeathed to the V&A by a descendent in 1911.

The local people in India, their environment and way of life also captivated many British portrait

Hindu Temple Scene, Madras 1770-71
Hindu Temple Scene, Madras 1770-71
Oriental Club, London

painters. While still in Madras, Kettle made a series of unusual studies of south Indian women, reflecting his interest in their social role in society. Two oil paintings, a temple scene and dancing girls, were painted probably as a pair or part of a series. Each composition resembles that of a classical frieze.

One scene depicts a group of women arriving for worship at the entrance to a Hindu temple (fig. 2), while the other shows two dancing-girls, devidasis, performing on the terrace of a temple, surrounded by local onlookers. Whether the pictures were commissioned by a patron or painted by Kettle for personal interest is not known. In any event the latter picture, shown at the 1772 Society of Artists' exhibition as 'Dancing Girls (Blacks)', would have appeared highly exotic to an English audience at the time. Another picture by Kettle, depicting a Hindu sati scene in a landscape, represented a new type of Oriental genre that embodied pastoral overtones tinged with elements of Romanticism. The catalogue of the 1776 Society of Artists' exhibition where it was displayed provided an explanatory title: 'The Ceremony of a Gentoo [Hindu] Woman taking leave of her Relations, and distributing her Jewels, prior to her ascending to the Funeral Pile of her deceased Husband'. Instead of portraying the reality of the event that held such fascination for foreigners, Kettle idealized and ennobled the scene. He painted the elegant young widow calmly acknowledging the Brahmins prostrating themselves at her feet, while family members observe sympathetically. This was probably the first time that a painting of a sati scene was put on public display and, since European travellers to India had written extensively about this ancient rite, Kettle's picture would have aroused much interest among viewers.

Zoffany in Lucknow
After Shuja ud-Daula's death in 1775, his son, Nawab Asaf ud-Daula, moved the capital back to Lucknow. Unlike his father, the extravagant and pleasure-loving Asaf ud-Daula left the management of the state affairs largely to his ministers. He spent vast sums developing Lucknow, on the banks of the river Gumti, into an exotic city of Islamic and European styles. The lavish courtly environment continued to attract foreigners, including the adventurous polymath from Lyons, Claude Martin, who was appointed superintendent of the Nawab's arsenal. He was a skilled inventor and architect, besides being a philanthropist of considerable note. Among several Englishmen living in Lucknow, John Mordaunt was commander of the Nawab's bodyguard, John Wombell was the East India Company's accountant, while Major William Palmer was stationed there as Warren Hastings' agent. The lively cosmopolitan atmosphere and its potential patrons in the field of art were to attract Zoffany to Lucknow three times over the next few years. By about April 1785, Zoffany was back in Lucknow for a second visit that lasted about eighteen months. His dramatic conversation piece, 'Colonel Antoine Polier with Claude Martin and John Wombell', was probably begun during this visit. The dominant theme is their interest in culture and sophisticated living. It is also represents a self-portrait of the artist shown in the company of people with whom he had much in common. Whether the painting also contains symbolic allusions may always remain a mystery. One curious detail is the pet monkey taking a banana from the servant girl. As was typical of Zoffany's work, there may be a hidden meaning. The monkey or ape was generally regarded as a symbol of man's folly or indulgence, a possible reference to the Nawab's lavish lifestyle, or perhaps their own

Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match at Lucknow  1792
Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match at Lucknow 1792
Courtesy Phillips Antiques, Mumbai

somewhat artificial situation in Lucknow. While in Lucknow, Zoffany painted two versions of the popular pastime – the cock fight. One was commissioned by the Governor General, Warren Hastings, and painted over a period of time, between 1784 and 1786 (fig. 8).

In September 1786, Zoffany visited Delhi and Agra with John Wombell. By December he was back in Calcutta, where he spent about seven or eight months. While in Calcutta, like Willison in Madras, he painted the altarpiece for the new St John’s Church, due to open in 1787. In his picture of ‘The Last Supper’, certain members of the faithful were not happy to discover that they had become models for various apostles, especially Calcutta’s auctioneer, William Tulloh, who found he was Judas. Shortly after his final visit to Lucknow, Zoffany left Calcutta for England in January 1789 with, as he noted, ‘better fortune than health’.

James Wales (1747-95)
Meanwhile, Bombay on the west coast was attracting relatively few artists. James Wales was the only professional painter of note to establish a practice there in the late eighteenth century. Born in Scotland, Wales initially ran a modest portrait practice in Aberdeen. By 1783, hoping for greater opportunities, he had moved with his family to Barnet near London. He was soon exhibiting, first at the Society of Artists and then at the Royal Academy. The following year, James Forbes, a fellow Scot and amateur artist, retired from the Bombay Presidency having served with the Company as a civilian for sixteen years. He bought an estate at Stanmore, near the home of the Wales family. By this time, having occupied his leisure hours in India by drawing and compiling a journal full of detailed notes and observations, Forbes had become the leading authority on aspects of Western India. Notebooks with drawings and accounts of the environment, its natural history, culture, and many other aspects, had returned with him to England. When the two men met, Forbes clearly convinced Wales that there might be more opportunities for him as a painter in Bombay.

In January 1791, Wales easily obtained permission from the Company Directors as both a portrait and landscape artist, since no other painter was then residing in Bombay. Leaving his wife and young daughters behind, Wales set sail and reached Bombay in mid-July 1791. On arrival he explored the environs of the Bombay islands, drawing views of Malabar Hill, Mazagaon, and Sion, besides the Salsette islands immediately to the north. At the same time, he met local British residents who were soon commissioning portraits of themselves and their families. It was, however, the Company civilian, Sir Charles Warre Malet, who became Wales’s most important patron and friend. Since 1786, Malet had been British Resident at the Maratha Court in Poona, a strategic town about five days’ journey from Bombay up in the Western Ghats. From July 1792, Wales visited Poona regularly, staying in a house provided by Malet in the Residency grounds. During his first visit, he met the Maratha Peshwa, Madhu Rao Narayan, and was commissioned by his Court to paint the Peshwa’s portrait with his chief minister, Nana Fadnavis (fig.13).

Madhu Rao Narayan, the Maratha Peshwa, with his Chief Minister, Nana Fadnavis, and attendants
Madhu Rao Narayan, the Maratha Peshwa, with his Chief Minister, Nana Fadnavis, and attendants 1792
The Royal Asiatic Society, London

The Maratha Court at Poona had experienced several turbulent decades, and Malet had been appointed Resident to help create stability. After the death in 1772 of the fourth Peshwa, Madhav Rao I, Poona had become a centre of intrigue. The succession of his brother, Narayan Rao, as Peshwa was opposed by their uncle, Raghunath Rao and ended with Narayan Rao's murder in August the following year. The Peshwa's powerful followers, including Nana Fadnavis, continued to support Narayan Rao's widow, who was pregnant at the time of her husband's death. When her son was born in April 1774, the child was pronounced Peshwa Madhu Rao Narayan. Nana Fadnavis became guardian of the infant and virtual ruler of the Court at Poona. It was Raghunath Rao's subsequent attempt to regain the throne by concluding the Treaty of Surat with the British in 1775 that led to the first Maratha war, 1775-82.