Having plundered so much of South Asia, it is perhaps not surprising that until now, there has been no exhibition in Britain of the paintings commissioned by the East India Company. The East India Company was founded in 1600 and had a monopoly on British Trade with the East importing cotton, silk, indigo, saltpetre and spices. To protect its interests, the Company set up several outposts in India and after heavy defeats at Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764), the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam was forced to surrender Bengal and Bihar to the English. Shortly after this, Narayan Singh, a Mughal official, asked: ‘What honour is left to us when we have to take orders from a handful of traders who have not yet learned to wash their bottoms?’ The East India Company effectively became rulers of large areas of India, creating laws and levying taxes under the new Governor of Bengal, Robert Clive.
Described by Thomas Macauley as the ‘greatest corporation in the world’, the East India Company received a massive revenue from the East with a personal fortune for Clive. On his return to England, Clive bought Claremont Landscape Park near Esher [see also the magnificent collection of over 300 items from India and the Far East at the Clive Museum at Powis Castle in Wales] but following continued parliamentary questions regarding corruption charges, Clive committed suicide in 1774 at the age of 49. However, the East India Company continued effectively to be in charge of India until 1858, when after the Indian Mutiny of the previous year, the British Raj was established.
With so many masterpieces in museums and private collections in this country, the Wallace Collection has decided its time to celebrate these neglected artists. Forgotten Masterpieces at The Wallace Collection has been curated by the writer and historian William Dalrymple and includes paintings from a wide variety of Indian artists including Ghulam Ali Khan, Shaikh Zain ud-Din, Vishnupersaud, Bhawani Das, Shaikh Mohammad Amir of Karriah and Sita Ram.
Many of the works were commissioned by James Baillie Fraser who had arrived in Delhi from Calcutta in 1810s and was inspired by ‘the mosques and tombs and ruins’ of the old Mughal capital. The paintings record the transition period from the Mughals to the British as well as scenes from the natural world.
Jonathon Jones in The Guardian awards the Exhibition five stars acknowledging that it is ‘the insight into the being of nature that makes these artists so arresting. They go beyond all anthropomorphism in their appetite for wondrous life.’
Alastair Sooke in The Telegraph enjoys the ‘delightful menagerie of charismatic creatures’ while Time Out gives the show four out of five considering that the ‘best work is botanical and zoological. The swirling yam by Chuni Lall, the spiralling squash by Rungiah, the hungry stork by Shaikh Zain ud-Din, the cheeky bat with a boner by an artist from the circle of Bhawani Das. The composition of textile designers, the microscopic detail of miniaturists, it’s all here.’
The Exhibition runs until 19th April, 2020. For more information on opening times, tickets and how to get to The Wallace Collection, click here