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    Of Portraits and Rulers – How British Artists Created a Niche Market for Themselves

    FeaturesOf Portraits and Rulers – How British Artists Created...
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    Of Portraits and Rulers – How British Artists Created a Niche Market for Themselves

    These paintings were not mere decorations. They testified remarkable victories, the succession of authorities, or simply as goodwill gestures towards friendship.

    By Arpita Pandey

    Ever since the beginning of civilization, humans have been motivated to record their deeds through painting pictures. These paintings have become an integral part of the knowledge system in addition to inspiring awe and wonder.

    From the 1770s onwards, India had seen an influx of British artists that faded by the first two decades of the nineteenth century. They gained prominence during this period as their paintings left behind a tale of gradual transition.

    Tracing back history requires a thorough study of the archive of British achievements as our fate was interwoven with the colonial masters. On the one hand, we do not know the whereabouts of many invaluable paintings, while on the other, few are unrestricted to public audiences.

    Following the decisive Battle of Plassey (1757) – when the East India Company obtained the Dewani of Bengal (1765) – the Company officials were already busy with their new administrative roles, including planning to execute their power from the seat of Calcutta.

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    Meanwhile, generation after generation, British children were listening to the wild tales from the colonies, resolving to acquire the fortune-turning wealth of India one day.

    New country, heroic adventure, and boundless riches made it a paradise for artists who looked for a fresh start and were determined to test their talents. In the blooming City of Palaces, the newcomers faced various challenges to bag commissions for their paintings amid a fair share of competition.

    These paintings were not mere decorations. They testified remarkable victories, the succession of authorities, or simply as goodwill gestures towards friendship.

    For instance, before the detailed account of how the Siege of Seringapatam (1792) led to the surrender of two young hostages and the death of Tipu Sultan reached England, George Carter’s painting of the event based on the ‘hearsay’ reached Calcutta.

    Dramatic representation of artistic imagination highlights the influence and appeal of the victory over the British nationals.

    Arthur William Davis and Robert Home – present during the handover of the princes – also painted on the same subject. Later on, Davis made several copies of his original painting on a larger scale to incorporate at least fifty portraits within the frame.

    With portraits in trend, the Governor General or the Chief Justice had to sit before the artists. When Sir John Shore, Lord Amherst, or Sir Henry Russel took up their responsibilities in their new positions, Arthur William Davis and George Chinnery found patronage to compose their portraits.

    Public meetings were held in Calcutta to mark the succession of eminent personalities. It was fashionable to present a self-portrait. Sir Henry Russell commissioned Home (1805) for the same and gifted one to his friend William Hickey.

    Likewise, Tilly Kettle had made two portraits of Warren Hastings that he presented to his friend Richard Sulivan and John Stewart, Judge Advocate-General in Calcutta.

    When the artists reached Calcutta, they found a growing cosmopolitan urban settlement and vigorously planned infrastructure, road construction and general sanitation. After the months-long voyage, the heat and humidity of the tropical weather and diseases like malaria, cholera and black fever were waiting for them.

    Arranging accommodation and a commission was hard enough for artists who managed to land; some did not even possess a recommendation. One way to reach out to the potential patron was a newspaper advertisement where painting skills and charges for their sizes were disclosed.

    Newspapers like the Calcutta-Gazette (C.G.) were also suitable for publishing auction details and subscriptions for paintings and their prints. For instance, after docking in Calcutta, Thomas Daniell wasted no time announcing that he would “publish a set of twelve views of Calcutta at the price of twelve gold mohurs” to the subscribers (Foster 1930, p-21).

    On the first week of January 1792, the C.G. published Thomas Daniell’s proposals for ‘disposing’ of his paintings by lottery. Interestingly, Daniell developed nearly 150 oil paintings from the sketches during his short trip to Sundarbans, southwards from Calcutta.

    However, the final paintings depended heavily on the primary sketches that were not limited to self-study always. Sketches done by other artists facilitated the completion of an oil painting many a time.

    This prevalent practice of sharing sketches among the artists motivated curious changes. To fulfil a commission, Thomas Lawrence followed George Chinnery’s sketches of Mr. John Adam but, decided to finish the portrait without glasses for a more pleasing outcome later on.

    Unfinished sketches were sent to London for the completion of a commission. Artists carried back their sketches and original paintings to be engraved, reproduced or copied further.

    To seize both the British and Indian markets, artists sent their paintings to the Royal Academy of London for exhibition. Nevertheless, the subject matter of these paintings was not limited to portraits in oil or the succession of the British empire through wars.

    Along with the daring seafarers, the portraits travelled from the port of Calcutta to other colonial headquarters. One of such portraits of Governor General Marquis Wellesley by Robert Home was returned to Calcutta (1831) from the Prince of Wales Island ‘in a damaged state’.

    The restoration of such damaged paintings was not an easy task. Sometimes, the only way left was to make a fresh copy like Thomas Hickey did for one of Sir Eyre Coote’s portraits. Therefore, sitting in Madras, Hickey had no option but to procure John Zoffany’s portrait of Coot from Calcutta on ‘loan’.

    The untimely demise of an artist put his paintings at the mercy of a friend who might arrange an auction for them. Unfortunately, unable to find any buyer, portraits were cut out from a large painting and sold separately sometimes.

    Arpita Pandey is a content writer and visual artist.

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