Paintings in the British Raj

By the late 18th century, the British emerged as the dominant power in India, encouraging middle-class young Englishmen to join the East India Company as civilians and soldiers. The newcomers were fascinated by the variegated landscape of the country, its magnificent monuments and the diversity of its people. They wanted to acquire pictures of their new environment, but not all of them could afford to buy the works of noted British artists engaged in portraying the scenic splendour of India and its exotic people. As a result, British residents and travellers started commissioning native artists to create paintings of their chosen subjects. They were keen to collect them as mementos and souvenirs for their friends and relatives in England. For the British, almost every aspect of life in India was worth sketching. Their favourite subjects, however, were historic monuments with their novel architecture, people of different classes in colourful costumes, festivals and rituals, crafts and occupations, different modes of transport, and nautch girls.

Indian artists on their part welcomed the opportunity to work for their new British patrons, especially because the traditional patronage of Indian rulers and their courts was rapidly declining. To suit the tastes of British clients, native artists modified their techniques and style and adopted some features of Western art.

At the same time, they took care to preserve traditional elements. Since their own skills were more than adequate, native artists did not need formal training from the British. However, they gave up using gouache in favour of European paper and changed colour patterns to replace the brilliant hues of miniature painting with muted tones and sepia wash which appealed to the British.

At the same time, the British began to realise that their favourite Indian subjects could be depicted far more accurately by native artists who were familiar with them. This special kind of painting a product of the British connection came to be known as Company paintings. It dominated the art scene in India between 1775 and 1900. These paintings are a valuable record of the social and cultural scene in India during this period as well as a number of historical buildings, many of which cease to exist.

Of all the Company school painters, the most outstanding and versatile belonged to Delhi where the indigenous tradition was much older and stronger than elsewhere in the country. Painting, like other craft, was a family profession. Delhi artists had inherited the exquisite skills from their forefathers who adorned the Mughal courts and created miniature paintings. The European visitors were often amazed by the technical skill of Mughal artists. They wondered how the artists could copy European prints with such a degree of precision. Story has it that Sir Thomas Roe had failed to distinguish the copies from the original English miniature he had presented to emperor Jahangir.

After the British captured Delhi in 1803. local artists used European techniques to etch pictures of historic monuments in the city in a bid to attract foreign clients. Mazhar AH Khan is the most well-known name in this respect. Sir Thomas Metcalfe, British resident (1827-38), commissioned local Delhi artists, including Mazhar Ali, to make a comprehensive set of paintings of the magnificent monuments of Delhi. This set is now well-known through the writings of his daughter Lady Clive Bayley edited by M.M. Kaye in a book titled Golden Calm (1980). Another type of painting popular with the British consisted of portraits of famous people in Delhi and women entertainers or nautch girls.

The finest collection of this class is the Fraser Album discovered in 1979 with family papers in Scotland. William Fraser, the East India Company’s representative in Delhi, noted for his semi-Indian lifestyle and several native wives, generously engaged Delhi artists to work for him. With more than 90 coloured pictures, the album portrays a wide range of Indian characters and the pattern of life in the city. These pictures are unique both in quality and subject matter. They are also noteworthy for their sensitive realism and graphic detail.

Another notable British patron was Col James Skinner well-known for his lavish entertainment of English visitors and glamorous nautch parties. He often presented his guests with pictures of nautch girls, along with their musicians.

The Company School of painting was in no way a deviation or decline of the classical art. It was only a new norm in a different style which retained the elegance, poetic vision and sensibility inherent in traditional Indian painting. Mildred Archer, the renowned British authority on Indian art considers Company painting as the last original contribution by Indian artists before the modern deluge. It was, in fact, the precursor of the westernisation of painting introduced by art schools set up in India by the British towards the end of the 19th century. The fast-changing modes of visual art and the advent of the camera led to a sharp decline in the British patronage of local artists. Company paintings went out of fashion and vanished from the scene.

The biggest collection of Company paintings in the world numbering over 6,000 are held by the British Library, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. London. A vast majority of these paintings remains unpublished.