Portrait of a Mahratta, half-length, in a white tunic and a turban oil on canvas 76.5 x 64cm (30 1/8 x 25 3/16in).
PROVENANCE: Said to have hung at the Saracen's Head Inn, Highworth, Oxfordshire (now Arkell's Brewery), prior to its sale by Messrs Dore, Smith and Radway, 23 February, 1881 Acquired shortly afterwards by the present owner's grandfather's brother-in-law and thence by family descent
The sitter in the present portrait is wearing a turban that is tied in the Mahratta style (as opposed to those in the Punjabi style, which are tied much tighter). While the clothing is too plain to be that of a prince, who would also have been adorned with expensive jewellery, the colour and decoration of his turban suggest a high caste, perhaps that of a nobleman or minister. Courtiers wearing similar costume can be seen in the Peshwa of the Mahratta Empire's entourage in Thomas Daniell's 1805 painting based on the drawings that James Wales made in Poona in 1795, A representation of the delivery of the Ratified Treaty of 1790 by Sir Charles Warre Malet Bt. to his Highness Souae Madarow Narrain Peshwa.
The simple and direct composition of the present portrait might be compared to what remain of James Wales's portraits of Mahrattas. Although many of these portraits have perished, those that have survived are of the greatest historical importance, providing a rare authentic record of the Mahratta chiefs and their ministers. In her book on India and British Portraiture 1770-1825, Mildred Archer writes of the stark simplicity of Wales's portraits: 'his favourite method was to make head and shoulder portraits with the figure brightly lit standing out against a sombre background. He then completed the faces with conscientious care and as the portraits of the Marathas show, he was capable of catching character with great skill. Costume on the other hand was treated in a more summary manner. A note in Wales's journal shows that he was worried lest details of dress should detract from the strength of the original composition and he found the pressure from his Indian clients for detailed rendering of their costumes an embarrassing problem. On 10 September 1792, he noted, "The manner in which the portraits of the Marhatta Chiefs are to be painted is first a grand effect of broad light and shadows understood and produced thro' each picture - and afterwards the appendages and minutiae neatly finished without injuring the general effect. As the people of distinction in India are fond of fine or rather rich dresses with watches, snuff boxes, rings, etc. etc. introduced, it is no easy matter for an artist to please them without sacrificing the best principles of his art."'
In identifying the author of the present portrait one is, however, presented with the problem that its degree of sophistication and sensitivity suggests a greater ability than most British artists known to have worked in India at this time were capable of. In particular, the relaxed pose, with the sitter's folded arms and direct gaze, recalls Sir Joshua Reynolds's innovative portrait of Kitty Fisher. Indeed, the confidence with which the sitter is depicted here, and hence the respect he clearly commanded from the artist, is a reflection of how the most cultivated British cognoscenti still held Oriental culture in fascinated awe - at a time before the British Empire took full political hold on the sub-continent, allowing for a more superior, patronising perspective of the native. Although few painters convincingly introduced Indians in portraits at this time, other than as servants who were as much a 'property' as the other props that suggested their sitter's Indian links, a few masterpieces, most notably Reynolds's portrait of the Polynesian visitor to Britain, Omai, reflect the sincerity of an artist free from all preconceived literary notions of the native character.
Anglo-Mahratta relations underwent changes during the course of the late eighteenth century, culminating in an alliance between the British and the Mahratta Empire in order to combat the formidable force of Tipu Sultan of Mysore, whose rule ended with the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War (1789-99).