Updated: September 12, 2021 8:05:28 am
IN 18th Century India, while the royal courts continued to support artists, new patronage for art came from the Europeans, several of who tasked artists to paint the land and its people. Their interests were varied and included among others its birds, as is evident from an exhibition in Delhi that brings together 125 paintings of birds from the various Company-commissioned albums.
Titled ‘Birds of India, Company Paintings c. 1800 to 1835’, the display at DAG, The Claridges Hotel, is curated from the gallery collection and comprises a variety of birds, including game birds, coastal waders, woodland, and forest birds. The exhibition is on till October 6.
Says curator Dr Giles Tillotson, Senior VP Exhibitions and Publications at DAG, “The main challenge was to identify the birds as their naming is an ever-evolving science. These paintings were produced at an early stage of European understanding of Indian ornithology. A lot of these birds had traditional names and many in Urdu inscriptions. Several were still unknown to, what we would then call, western science. The person who owned the album tried to identify the birds, but a lot of them are wrong as he was probably using a reference book which in itself was full of mistakes because science progressed.”
Viewers at the gallery spot the still common birds — the Brown Wood Owl, Common Sandpiper, Indian Myna, House Crow, and Common Kingfisher.
Ninety nine paintings in the exhibition come from the Cunninghame Graham album. While names of the artists and the original collector are not recorded, the album, says Tillotson, belonged to the Scottish family of Cunninghame: “We can reasonably deduce that the collection was assembled in Bengal — probably in Calcutta – between 1800 and 1804.”
Works from different albums also feature in the exhibition. An album of birds from Northeast India, for instance, belongs to c. 1810. “With vivid (in some cases slightly exaggerated) colouring and bold designs, these are among the finest works on natural history produced in India,” writes Tillotson in a book based on the exhibition.
Few watercolours come from the Faber album, c.1830, while four folios belong to an album of Patna paintings, dated around 1835. Commissioned by Captain Edward Inge of the 4th Light Dragoons, these identify the artist as Chuni Lal. In one of his notes, Inge describes him as “the most excellent Painter… the best artist at Patna… well worth the 12 Rupees one dozen that he charged”.
Comparing his work to the Graham album, Tillotson notes, “Chuni Lal’s folios show how Company artists were no longer painting the natural world from life, finding it simpler to repeat the marketable formulas already established. On the other hand, this last group has the merit of including some common garden favourites that are inexplicably overlooked in the earlier sets, such as the Hoopoe.”
The curator notes how encouragement from European patrons also allowed artists to experiment during the period. While General Claude Martin from the East India Company, Tillotson shares, imported European paper on which local artists “prepared botanical studies and other natural history works, including depictions of birds”, Dr William Roxburgh, superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden from 1793, asked artists to produce botanical studies.
In Calcutta, Lady Impey (wife of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Bengal, Sir Elijah Impey), also commissioned artists to portray a variety of animals, birds and plants.
“Typically, they portrayed each bird perched on a branch of a flowering shrub or fruit tree, or standing against a blank ground, by contrast with artists in Lucknow who frequently included a strip of idealised distant landscape,” writes Tillotson in the book.
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