In Good Company - Born out of Empire, 'Company paintings' are a superb hybrid of West and East, says William Dalrymple

About 2 o'clock, wrote Lady Nugent in 1812, "we sat down to tiffin. Afterwards Mr Wilson showed me some specimens of ivory work, etc, and several people attended with drawings for sale. I bought a number of different sorts, done by natives, to add to my collection." The purchase came at a difficult moment for the Nugents. After a distinguished military career in the Americas and the Caribbean, Sir George Nugent had given up a seat in Parliament to accept what should have been his crowning glory: appointment as Commander-in-Chief in India.

Sadly, soon after his arrival in Calcutta, he and his wife Maria both clashed with the new Governor General, Lord Moira, and Nugent was promptly, and humiliatingly, replaced as Commander-in-Chief. Nugent was relegated to Commander of the East India Company's Bengal Army. Insulted by the demotion, he instead chose to return to England the following October. The paintings offered at Bonhams' Islamic and Indian Art sale in London in March are records of this unhappy sojourn in the East.

From the beginning, India had not really worked out for the Nugents. Used to the easy hierarchies of colonial America and the straightforwardly brutal master-slave relationships of Caribbean plantations, the hybridity and cultural complexity of India came as a shock. A revealing moment came on a tour up country, when the Nugents were introduced to William Fraser, the Indophile Assistant Resident at the Delhi court. The formidable Lady Maria Nugent, was horrified by the degree to which Fraser and his friend Edward Gardner had 'gone native':

"They both wear immense whiskers, and neither will eat beef or pork, being as much Hindoos as Christians," George Nugent, in the uniform of the Pembroke Cavalry, 1798 she wrote in her journal. "In our conversations together, I endeavour to insinuate everything that I think will have any weight with them. I talk of the religion they were brought up in, and of their friends, who would be astonished and shocked at their whiskers, beards, &c. &c. All this we generally debated between us," concluded Lady Nugent, "and I still hope they will think of it." There is no evidence they gave her suggestions the slightest consideration.

Above: George Nugent, in the uniform of the Pembroke Cavalry, 1798

For William Fraser had become something of a White Mughal. He had begun to prune his moustaches in the Mughal manner and fathered "as many children as the King of Persia" from his harem of "six or seven legitimate [Indian] wives." Soon after his arrival in Delhi, William had sought "learned natives... of whom there are a few, and
in poverty, but those I have met with are real treasures." He had become a close friend of Ghalib, then the greatest of Indian poets, a pupil of Delhi's greatest Islamic scholar, Sheikh Abdul Aziz. He habitually wore Mughal clothes. As the French traveller and botanist Victor Jacquemont put it: "[Fraser is] half-asiatick in his habits, but in other respects a Scotch Highlander, and an excellent man with great originality of thought, a metaphysician to boot." Later, he was to become one of the greatest patrons of the hybrid part-Late Mughal, part-European style of painting, of which Lady Nugent's Patna paintings were also fine examples. The completed volume of paintings commissioned by William Fraser, now known as the Fraser Album, are today regarded as some of the finest of all Indian artworks, with single pages passing hands for around a quarter of a million pounds.

These paintings, often of astonishing brilliance, and possessing a startlingly hybrid originality, represent the last phase of Indian artistic genius before the onset of the twin assaults – photography and the influence of Western Colonial art schools – ended an indigenous tradition of painting going back 2,000 years.

The artists who produced these works were drawn from a wide variety of Indian artistic traditions – Mughal, Maratha, Tamil and Telugu – and an equally wide range of castes and communities, ranging from titled imperial office-holders like the grand Mughal artist Ghulam Ali Khan, whose family worked on the Fraser Album, to much more humble artists like Sewak Ram of Patna, who painted Lady Nugent's drawings. These artists were commissioned by an equally diverse cross-section of East India Company officials and their wives. What they had in common was a scholarly interest in India's rich culture, history, architecture, society and biodiversity.

Since the art historian Mildred Archer began writing on the subject in the 1950s, these paintings have been known as 'Company School', an English translation of an Urdu term (Kampani qalam) that she found being used for such works in Patna. The term is useful and is probably unavoidable, but it is also problematic, for it emphasises Colonial patronage of these works over the artistic endeavours of the brilliant Indian artists who actually painted them; and it has led to the genre being left in something of a post-Colonial limbo, largely disowned by Indians and forgotten and ignored by the descendants of their former Colonial masters.

Above: A large gathering at a riverside ghat Murshidabad or Patna, late 18th/early 19th century watercolour on paper. Estimate: £6,000 - 8,000 ($8,000 - 10,000)

As the brilliant art collected by Lady Nugent demonstrates, the very diverse works that have come to be grouped as 'Company School paintings' include art of great brilliance. But, astonishingly, while there have been several shows of Company painting in India and the United States, until the recent Forgotten Masters show at the Wallace Collection there had never been an equivalent exhibition in the United Kingdom, despite this country possessing unrivalled masterpieces both in museums and in private collections. The reason for this is not aesthetic so much as political.

Through the 1950s and '60s, the art of Empire came to be regarded in Britain with something between deep ambivalence and profound distaste: paintings with Indian, African or Caribbean imperial themes came to be regarded, at best, as fuddy-duddy or, at worst, as mawkishly jingoistic. Most were simply taken off the walls and sent into storage. A few were packed off to languish in the provinces: The Remnants of an Army, Lady Butler's famous image of Dr Brydon – the sole survivor of the disastrous 1842 Retreat from Kabul – one of the iconic paintings of the Empire, was quietly taken to languish in a regimental museum in Somerset.

Above: Maria, Lady Nugent carried in a palanquin, 1812. Estimate: £8,000 - 12,000 ($10,000 - 16,000)

Today, barely any major British gallery still shows a significant collection of art connected in any way with the former British Empire: which was, for better or worse, the most important thing the British ever did, a historical movement that, arguably more than any other, transformed the destiny of the modern world. The greatest collection of paintings of the British in India is found not in London but in the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta. Disowned by subsequent history, the art
commissioned by the Company has effectively been orphaned and ignored, in both India and the West.

But once 'Company Painting' is understood as the fruitful result of the catalytic patronage of great Indian artists by admiring British patrons it is possible to appreciate these unusually beautiful paintings as an Indian art – indeed one of the most interesting and fecund phases of Indian painting. Caught in the crosswinds of East and West, these forgotten masterpieces were merely the last phase of India's artistic interaction with the wider world. Now, for the first time, they are beginning to get the attention they deserve.

Above: The famous sheep-eating fakir, Jurah Geer Berah Geer Calcutta, c. 1800 (detail). Estimate: £10,000 - 15,000 ($13,000 - 20,000)

Sewak Ram, who painted some of the images bought by Lady Nugent – notably the funeral on the ghats and The Hook Swingers – was unquestionably one of the most talented of 'Company' painters. He migrated to Patna in 1790, probably from Murshidabad and began producing vibrant images of different caste occupations, ceremonies and festivals. One set, now in the India Office Library, was purchased by Lord Minto, and a second set, acquired by Lord Amherst, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The most fascinating of Lady Nugent's images is, however, by an anonymous artist. British patrons of Indian art like Lady Nugent were not just interested in portraiture, buildings and history, they were also fascinated by the eccentricities and oddities of the India they found themselves in. Where today one would pull out a mobile phone to snap, Lady Nugent summoned a talented Indian artist to paint the scenes she saw.

Above: The Hook Swingers (charak puja) Murshidabad, late 18th/early 19th century. Estimate: £8,000 - 12,000 ($10,000 - 16,000)

'Jura Geer Berah Geer the Sheep Eater', who became something of a celebrity in late 18th-century northern India, was probably a Hindu ascetic, one of the Aughar Aghori, who followed the Tantric path – something also suggested by his wild appearance and red dhoti. One Company official noted in 1795 that the Sheep Eater lived in Soron, near Khasganj in modern Uttar Pradesh, a town famous in Hindu mytholgy as the place where Vishnu's boar avatar, Varaha, slew then disembowelled the demon Hiranyaksha. Jerry Losty speculates that the Sheep Eater modelled his evisceration of sheep on Varaha's evisceration of the demon; certainly some sort of Tantric rite seems to be at work, which Rind's inscription outlines: the Sheep Eater takes the sheep in his teeth, rips out its intestines, then drinks its blood. After this, he tears the ribs out, the throat, devours the hind-quarters, and finally "eats the Caustic Plant called Madar as a Salad".

The Sheep Eater, seen by Lady Nugent merely as a weird and alarming curiosity, was almost certainly following what he believed to be a profundly esoteric religious path. The misunderstanding is symbolic of the increasing gap of understanding that was developing at this period between the British Company colonisers and the unhappily colonised Indians. Tragically, only 40 years later, that gulf of understanding and sympathy would manifest in the Great Uprising of 1857, the largest anti- colonial revolt to take place anywhere in the world in
the entire 19th century.

William Dalrymple is the curator of Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, which is at the Wallace Collection until the end of April.


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