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Mughal Miniature, © Bodleian Library

British Collections of Indian Art

Mughal and Rajput Miniatures

One of the earliest collections was by Archbishop Laud, whose collection of ragamala paintings, made around 1640, is now in the Bodleian Library. John Cleland (the author of Fanny Hill) built a collection of portraits of Indian rulers, taken to England in 1736, and now also in the Bodleian Library. Richard Johnson (1753 - 1807) who was the Assistant to Governor General William Hastings, built a large collection of Indian paintings, including Deccani miniatures, and ragamala paintings. Abul Hasan's spectacular painting of 'Squirrels in a Plane Tree' is part of this collection, now at the India Office Library in London.

Thomas Alexander Cobbe, who was ADC to Lord Moira in 1813, and Agent to the Governor General in Murshidabad (1831 - 1836) built a collection of paintings, now housed in his Family House Museum in Newbridge, Dublin. John Baillie (1772 - 1836), the British Political Agent in Bundelkhand, and later Resident in Lucknow built a collection of miniatures, now kept at the Edinburgh University Library.

Collections of sculptures were rarer, partly because some of the images were still being used for worship, and partly because they were more difficult to transport. The largest collection was Colonel Stuart's ('Hindoo Stuart') collection of Pala sculpture. His cemetery in Park Street, Calcutta includes an archway that is a temple entrance frame, with images of the river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna at the base.

Company School

The Company School of painting developed in the late 18th century, as Indian painters once in the employ of Mughal and regional courts, were patronized by British administrators. The painters gradually adapted to British tastes, often by imitating European paintings from their patron's collection. The early centres were at Tanjore and Trichy, started by Colin Mackenzie and others. Later, Murshidabad was an important centre of this style.

One of the earliest patrons of Indian artists was William Fullerton, a surgeon at Calcutta and Mayor during Siraj-ud-Daula's siege of 1757. He employed the painter Dip Chand, whose portrait miniatures of Fullerton show the adaptation to European tastes.

William Fraser, assistant to Sir David Ochterlony, the Resident at Delhi, commissioned Ghulam Ali Khan, a painter in the Mughal atelier, to paint a series of images. The result was the Fraser Album, now recognised as one of the greatest masterpieces of Indian art. Between 1842 and 1844, Sir Thomas Metcalfe, successor to Ochterlony, commissioned Ghulam Ali's son, Mazhar Ali Khan, to paint a series of images of the monuments, ruins, and palaces of Delhi. He later had the images bound into an album and wrote a long, descriptive text to accompany them, which he sent to his daughter Emily. This album, called the Delhie Book, is now in the British Museum.

There was also an interest in collecting paintings of the natural history of India. The earliest was by Sir Elijah Impey, Chief Justice at Calcutta, who had a menagerie in his house in Middleton Street. Here he employed the painters Zayn-al-Din, Ram Das, and Bhawani Das, who meticulously painted each addition to the menagerie. Lord Wellesley had an even larger menagerie in his country house in Barrackpore. Copies of paintings made here were sent to England, 2600 of which are now at the India Office Library. Paintings made at the Botanical Gardens in Shibpur, made by the painters Vishnu Prasad, Gorachand, and Rangia are now at the Kew Herbarium and at the Wellesley Collection in the India Office Library.

Bangalore, 2006


Photos and Text © Amit Guha