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Not so Forgotten Masters

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company at the Wallace Collection is a poetic voyage into late 18th- and early 19th-century India, with dazzling artworks commissioned by the East India Company but never credited to the artists. Ghulam Ali Khan, Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Bhawani Das, Vishnupersaud, Chuni Lall, Sita Ram, Yellapah of Vellore are some of the names of these talented artists, who, with the decline of the Mughal Empire and the rise of the East India Company, found new patrons and adapted their style.

Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Indian Roller on Sandalwood Branch (1779), on loan from Minneapolis Institute of Art

Yet the names of these true masters of their field have been brushed away, with their work always anonymised as ‘Company Painting’ or ‘Company School’. Nobody could imagine a Titian or a da Vinci reduced to being described as the 'commission' of Philip of Spain or Francis I. So why did the works of Ghulam Ali Khan and his brothers undergo such treatment?

Circle of Ghulam Ali Khan, Six Recruits (1814), Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The British imperialists wanted a visual record of the flora, fauna and daily scenes of India, but in the European style. They had no choice but to commission local artists, giving birth to the breathtaking artwork now on display at the Wallace: a fusion between British and Indian artistic styles and sensibility.

The Indian artists combined traditional techniques and Mughal influences with European watercolours and specially-imported English Watman paper for their work. They depicted Indian flora and fauna in the conventional style of European natural history illustrations, with blank backgrounds and no shadows. Experts in the miniature art which flourished in India under the Mughal Empire, their skills are seen in the details, rendered by painting with very thin brushes, sometimes with only a single hair; the Mughal influences are evident in the colouring and use of perspective. Asked to work on a larger scale than they were accustomed, these forgotten masters composed their work to fill the dimensions of the page. Even the assemblage of watercolour pictures in albums is an Indian tradition.

Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Cheetah (c. 1780), on loan from Stuart Cary Welch Collection

Their work is truly hybrid and the results are astonishing. As you enter the world of the Forgotten Masters you’re dazzled, your eyes widen before the stunning quality of the works, so vivid and original. The paintings are so microscopically detailed, so exact, so expressive, that you think you’re looking at a photograph. The delicateness of the execution gives the impression of real fur, feathers or butterfly wings. You can almost hear the tweeting of the birds or the brustling of the leaves, and imagine yourself wandering in a tropical garden among the life-sized botanical illustrations.

Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Brahminy Starling with Two Anteraea Moths, Caterpillar and Cocoon on an Indian Jujube Tree (1777), on loan from Minneapolis Institute of Art

Diversity is the best word to describe this exhibition. The artistic traditions are diverse, such as the background of the painters (from court artists to leather workers) and their patrons, numerous East India Company officials and their wives. What do they have in common? Their fusion, hybridity, which in turn created exceptional artworks.

Unknown Artist, Portrait of an Artist from James Skinner's Tashrih al-aqvam (1825), on loan from the British Library

Witnesses of the last phase of Indian artistic genius before this tradition was ended by photography and western colonial art schools, these paintings combine elements of the East and the West. Yet, instead of being admired by both nations, these works were buried. Why?

Because Britain suppressed its controversial colonial past. The curators of this exhibition discovered thousands of unrecorded paintings in the collections of Kew Gardens, some of which are now on display at the Wallace. And why are the paintings overlooked in India? Because the artworks, a fusion of European and Indian styles, were commissioned by a colonial body, the East India Company. The very name 'Company School' that has often been used to describe these artworks is awkward, as the opening panel declares, because it emphasises the colonial patronage of these paintings.

So is Forgotten Masters a cause for celebration or for dismay, on the grounds that the artists have been airbrushed from history? All things are relative, but this is a fundamentally important exhibition, showcasing the works of painters who were forced to acclimatise to a new ideology and the demands of a new political elite. At times one is mesmerised by the quality of the painting and by the tongue-in-cheek attitude of the artists themselves. Witness, for example, Yellapah of Velllore's depiction of a British army officer in his palanquin, in which the bearers smirk at their passenger's discomfort and a pair of legs is positioned cleverly and ironically beneath the European. The label hints at these elements of anti-colonial satire, but this is more explicit, and more rewarding, than the curators ever admit.

Yellapah of Vellore, A Station Palanquin with an Army officer (perhaps Lieutenant Colonel George Mackenzie Steuart) (c. 1828), on loan from the British Library

Never exhibited before in the UK, with many of the works uncatalogued and lying in storage, brushed away and misunderstood, and viewed unfavourably in India, the paintings of Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Vishnupersaud and their fellows have today been placed in their rightful spotlight at the Wallace Collection. The exhibition is presented simply but effectively, with each room devoted to a particular artist or a regional variation. If only the panels and labels had been proofed more carefully and not printed and positioned in haste. The lack of any soundscape is equally frustrating (a missed opportunity) but is more than made up for by the superb catalogue edited by William Dalrymple, one of the best we have ever seen and which we have continued to consult long after our visit.

Forgotten Masters is marvellously mesmerising: don’t miss the final weeks of its run!

Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company

The Wallace Collection

29 July until 13 September 2020

Karen Eeckman for Cradles & Labels

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