Company Painting: Art and the Cavalry
Editor’s Note: This is the second instalment of a two-part series on Company Paintings. (Read part I here!) These guides are brought to you by our partner, MAP Academy, a wonderful online platform aimed at building knowledge of South Asian art. Each month, we will carry an essay from their Encyclopedia of Art—a fabulous resource for anyone who wants to learn about our shared history and culture. The MAP Academy is a non-profit online educational platform committed to building equitable resources for the study of art histories from South Asia. This article originally appeared on the MAP Academy website, with due image credits for photos used in this republished piece.
A category of artists who emerged out of an interaction between Indian and European culture and scientific exploration after the British East India Company gained administrative control over Bengal in 1757, were known as Company painters. Company rule resulted in the loss of courtly patronage for artists in India, which led to artists and craftsmen from the courtly centres in Bengal migrating to cities such as Patna and Murshidabad, which had viable commercial markets.
The East India Company and its officials, such as William Fraser and James Skinner, often operated as middlemen, putting visiting naturalists and ethnographers in touch with local artists who could be commissioned to visually document the subjects of the survey.
The Company school had several centres across the subcontinent, populated by artists who had been trained in local traditional Indian painting styles and then adopted conventions of Western art, such as perspective, chiaroscuro and the picturesque.
Indian painters thus played a major role in creating these early ethnographic and scientific records of the natural and cultural features of India, including flora, fauna, geology, costumes, architecture and street scenes. Notable artists of the Company painting school included Sewak Ram of Patna and Ghulam Ali Khan of Delhi.
Ghulam Ali Khan’s tryst with Mughals and the Company
Painting in the years 1817–52 while primarily based in what is now New Delhi, Ghulam Ali Khan is best known for his work in the Company School. His career traces a period of transformation of painting in North India, as Khan adapted his style for patrons varying from Mughal emperors in his early years to the officers of the East India Company from the mid-point of his career.
From 1817 onwards, Khan was a painter in the courts of the Mughal emperors Akbar II and Bahadur Shah II, following which he worked intermittently for the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, until 1852. As the Mughal court’s political influence and financial resources dwindled, he maintained simultaneous employment at the regional courts of Alwar and Jhajjar, while also working on commissions by officers of the East India Company such as William and James Fraser and James Skinner. By the 1830s, William Fraser was his principal patron, for whom he worked on the Fraser Album.
Khan came from a family of court painters. His uncle Ghulam Murtaza Khan was a painter in the court of Akbar II and was known to render his figures with controlled naturalism. Faiz Ali Khan, his brother, worked on architectural views for Thomas Metcalfe, and another relative, Mazhar Ali Khan, was the principal architectural painter commissioned by Metcalfe for the Delhi Book.
Khan’s work travelled between different conventions and modes — portraiture, architecture, topography, genre scenes and manuscript illustration. His 1817 painting of the diwan-e-khas (Hall of Special Audience) of the Red Fort established a trend towards topographical and architectural subjects in the Mughal idiom.
He was the first Mughal artist to move out of the conventions of miniature painting and towards a picturesque mode. This is evident in his architectural views, such as the exterior of the Red Fort painted in 1822. At the court of Maharao Raja Binne Singh of Alwar, he made paintings for the illustrated manuscript of Gulistan by Sa’di.
While working on the Fraser Album, he developed a unique Indo-European pictorial vocabulary. In his work for Skinner, his unique style is rendered in great detail and proportion with a series of large watercolour and gouache paintings that depict Skinner’s military regiment, life on his estate and sweeping views of his grounds.
Khan’s multifaceted career elucidates the shifting tides of painting with the transformation of political life in the subcontinent as well as the newly emergent aesthetic that was mediated by it.
Meet Ghulam Ali Khan’s patron: James Skinner
A soldier and leading patron of Delhi artists in the nineteenth century, James Skinner is known for his authorship of several books, notably the ‘Kitab-i tashrih al-aqvam’ (“History of the origin and distinguishing marks of the different castes of India”), as well as raising the cavalry regiment known as Skinner’s Horse.
Skinner was born to a Scottish father and a Rajput mother in Calcutta (now Kolkata). His mixed ethnicity prevented him from becoming a confirmed officer under the British crown, and he began his career as a mercenary in the Maratha cavalry, later joining the Irregular Cavalry Corps, which served the British Army when needed.
When William Fraser was appointed the Commissioner of Delhi, Skinner was given the responsibility of establishing his cavalry on the outskirts of Hansi, Haryana. Around the same period, in the early 1820s, Skinner began absorbing the painters working for Fraser into his own circle.
Skinner was fluent in Persian and wrote two books — ‘Kitab-i tashrih al-aqvam’ (1825), which contained 120 paintings and is currently in the collection of the British Library (See one of the pages below), and ‘Tazkirat al-Umara’ (“Biographies of the Nobles”) (1830), which featured thirty-eight paintings. While the former is a taxonomic and ethnographic record of castes in India, accompanied by individual and descriptive portraits of the subjects, the latter presents the history of royal families of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan.
From 1825 to 1828, he commissioned Ghulam Ali Khan to paint a number of images, notably three watercolours: one portraying his cavalry regiment at Hansi in 1827–28 and the other two depicting his newly built St James Church in Delhi in 1836. These paintings served the purpose of both documentation as well as positioning Skinner as a land-owning noble and an elite military officer in Delhi society. (You can see an example below) "Colonel James Skinner holding a Regimental Durbar" by Gulam Ali Khan.
Skinner was made lieutenant-colonel (1828), and later, a colonel within the British army. He died in 1841 in Hansi.
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