Two great Persian illustrated manuscripts once owned by the last Nawab of Bengal and by the East India Company Resident of Lucknow, for sale at Bonhams in London

8 Apr 2014, Islamic and Indian Art
Islamic and Indian Art

Bonhams sale of Indian and Islamic art on April 8th in London features two rare and beautiful illustrated manuscripts covering many aspects of courtly life and epic deeds – one with 110 exquisite images and one with 65.

The first, The Book of Kings, is estimated at £40,000 to £60,000, and the second, The Book of Akbar, is estimated to sell for £30,000 to £50,000.

The Book of Kings, the great Persian epic poem by Firdausi, originally composed in the 11th Century, is lavishly illustrated with one hundred and ten miniatures, copied by the scribe Nizam-ad-Din, formerly in the library of the last Nawab of Bengal, North India, probably Kashmir, dated 3rd Jumada al-Thani AH 1244/ 11th November AD 1828.

Faridun Jah was the last Nawab of Bengal. He was born at Murshidabad in 1830 and succeeded to the throne on the death of his father in October 1838. The East India Company reduced his honors from a 19-gun to a 13-gun salute for his alleged complicity in the murder of two servants in 1854. Following a long period of financial embarrassment, he was forced to renounce all his rights in return for the liquidation of his debts and a generous annual pension of £10,000. He left for England in 1869, living in Maidenhead, and remained there until his return to India in 1881, though not before abdicating in favor of his eldest son in 1880. He died of cholera at Murshidabad in 1884

The second illustrated manuscript, the Book of Akbar, (Books I, II and III) is lavishly illustrated with sixty-five miniatures. It is almost certain that it comes from the collection of Nathaniel Middleton (1750-1807), East India Company Resident at Lucknow, 1776-1782. Created in North India, probably Murshidabad, late 18th Century, the Persian manuscript on cream-coloured paper, features 508 leaves.

Shaykh Abul-Fazl, the book's author, surnamed 'Allami, was the son of Shaykh Mubarak of Nagur. He was born in Agra in 1551 and was introduced to the Emperor Akbar in 1573 by his elder brother the celebrated poet Faizi, and soon became his friend, trusted adviser and chronicler of Akbar's reign.

The Akbarnama, the Book of Akbar, is the official chronicle of the third Mughal Emperor Akbar (reg. 1556–1605). The manuscript was commissioned by Akbar from his court historian Abu'l Fazl and according to Linda Leach, 'includes a vivid and detailed account of his life and times. The author wrote the work between 1590 and 1596 and it is thought to have been illustrated between 1592 and 1594 by at least forty-nine artists from Akbar's atelier'.

Middleton arrived in India shortly before 1769 and, after service at Cossimbazar and Murshidabad, was appointed in 1773 by the Governor-General, Warren Hastings, as his representative at the court of Shuja-ud-Daulah, Nawab of Oudh. Asaf-ud-Daula had succeeded to the throne in 1775: in 1777 Middleton, now Resident, persuaded him to accept Hastings' plan to make over the Nawab's troops to Company service, thus in effect allowing the British occupation of Oudh. His deputy as Resident at Lucknow was Richard Johnson (1753-1807), who formed what became the Johnson Album, later the cornerstone of the India Office Library collection. Middleton himself was an avid collector of Persian manuscripts, Indian paintings and natural history drawings by Indian artists. A portrait by Tilly Kettle of 1773 depicts him seated with an illustrated manuscript.


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