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European Patrons and Indian Artists in Eighteenth Century Awadh
On Christmas Day 1773 Antoine-Louis Polier dictated a short letter to ‘a painter in Faizabad’. The letter, in Persian, is among the correspondence of Polier (1741-1795), the Swiss born architect and engineer who spent his working life in India. The as yet unnamed painter had recently completed a portrait of the powerful Nawab Wazir of Awadh, Shuja-ud-daula, deputy to the Mughal Emperor. He had sent the picture to Polier who was with the Nawab on an extensive tour of upper India. It was evidently a fine piece of work because it had been ‘held back’ by the Nawab’s aide-de-camp, Jean-Baptiste Gentil. The artist is told by Polier to produce a similar portrait and this time to hold on to it: ‘You shall be generously rewarded when I reach Faizabad if you do my work with due care and attention.’
By May the following year Polier is complaining that he has heard nothing from the painter: ‘for a long time I have no knowledge about the progress of your work: what you are doing and what you have done so far’. He therefore summons the painter, who we now learn is Mihr Chand (fl.1759-86) to the Nawab’s camp and tells him to bring his painting equipment and ‘instruments’. It is clear that the artist is employed by Polier, and not only employed, but under strict instructions about what to paint. ‘I had asked you earlier to prepare five to six portraits of the Nawab. If these are ready it is fine; if not, then prepare a specimen sketch with black ink and bring it along with you.’ Two weeks later, after Mihr Chand has been preparing for an arduous journey in the heat, he receives another letter telling him not to bother. His presence is no longer required at camp but he is told to ‘add two to three more portraits to the five or six I had written to you about and keep my order ready. I will inspect them at an appropriate time.’ The following day, 23 May 1774, Mihr Chand receives another letter, this time in answer to a petition (arzi) he has sent in desperation to Polier. The commissioned paintings have been finished, but not paid for and the artist is facing financial hardship. His ‘patron’ has little sympathy for the artist’s plight. ‘I fail to understand why you are sitting idle. Prepare some more similar portraits if you have finished the ones you were engaged with so far. Making portraits is your work, and it is meaningless to sit idle…you will receive the money and not be in distress any more.’
This exchange of letters is quoted at length, because it is almost the only one we have between patron and artist, and because it also demonstrates the business-like nature of transactions between the two. Mihr Chand, a subtle and highly talented painter, could not afford to wait for artistic inspiration if he wanted to get paid. He had to supply portrait after portrait of the Nawab to order, virtually copying his previous work over and over again. And Polier, an astute business man, was certainly not going to wait until the artistic muse descended on his employee.
If we regard the patronage by Europeans of Indian artists as a straightforward employment opportunity for the latter, it does present a less romantic picture, but one probably nearer the truth. The artists had something to sell, and Europeans in particular were willing to buy, just as they bought up fine cloth, indigo, sugar, tobacco, tea and jewels, which they could sell on at a profit or keep. It is telling that Polier, who was to accumulate a very substantial collection of album paintings, sold the majority before leaving India or on his return to Europe. He is quite matter of fact in stating ‘whatever goods the Europeans send to me for sale, I, as a matter of principle, charge 50 per cent of the profit as my share.’
Europeans like Polier, Gentil, Claude Martin, Charles Marsack and Richard Johnson were particularly attracted to Awadh and its rich rulers, because it gave them almost unlimited opportunities to make money. The East India Company’s financial and political hold over Awadh meant that while some of its employees were seconded to work for the Nawabs, often making private fortunes, they were protected by the Company if things went wrong. The men named above were all patrons and collectors of Indian art and we are fortunate that some of their treasures survive, mainly it has to be said, in the West. Captain Marsack’s collection, which was housed at Caversham Park on his return is yet to be researched. Martin’s enormous collection was auctioned in Calcutta on his death in 1800, although some pages from a fine album of birds commissioned from unknown Indian artists arrived in England. We know from the auction inventory of his Lucknow houses that he imported European paper for his artists and there is a tantalising reference to a box of ‘Reeves colours,’ blocks of pigment which meant artists no longer had to prepare their own colours, a change as revolutionary as the discovery that visiting European artists were using oils, a previously unknown medium in India.
It was these Europeans who were to inspire Indian artists like Mihr Chand, Mir Kalan Khan and Nevasi Lal, who themselves had emigrated to Awadh, no less attracted to the rich nawabi Court. By the summer of 1786, Ozias Humphry found himself tripping over fellow artists in Lucknow including Johann Zoffany, Charles Smith and Thomas Longcroft. But it was Tilly Kettle who first realised the potential for European artists in India. Arriving in Madras in 1769, he spent two years working there before receiving a letter of invitation from Shuja-ud-daula who had been told that Mr Kettle ‘is a master of his art’. Kettle painted the Nawab and his sons several times during his visit to Faizabad in 1772-73 and as far as we know, was well paid.
Awadhi painting had become somewhat stereotyped, using a limited range of settings – the terrace portrait or the formal scene with its subject shown in profile, planted among stylised flowers. Now the Nawab in Kettle’s portraits, was shown full length and full on, facing the viewer, indeed looking down on him, overturning the received image. Mihr Chand, who had been doggedly painting away must have been astonished by this new interpretation and quickly seized the opportunity to copy Kettle’s portraits for himself. The two artists must surely have met during that winter in Faizabad, each learning from the other.
A large amount of copying of European portraits began, and in some cases we only have the copies, not the originals. (See ‘Colonel Antoine-Louis Polier Watching a Nautch’, after a lost painting by Zoffany.) Kettle’s use of perspective, with receding floor tiles was widely copied by Indian artists, sometimes rather inappropriately. The European artists could not be patronised in the same way as the local painters. Anyone who tried to tell the opinionated Humphry or Zoffany what to paint would have got short shrift. They were after something bigger – commissions from the Nawab Asaf-ud-daula, who had succeeded his father, Shuja-ud-daula in 1775. The new Nawab transferred his capital from Faizabad to Lucknow thus beginning the extraordinary elevation of a small medieval town into a glittering city that even today is a byword for extravagant architecture and exquisite culture. To their surprise some of the Europeans found themselves being treated rather as Mihr Chand had been treated by Polier. Ozias Humphry in particular, although he had been assured that three or four months in Lucknow would bring him a fortune of £10,000, received nothing like that amount and spent years trying to extract payment from the Nawab for work done.
There is little existing evidence of direct patronage of Indian artists by the Nawabs. Instructions would have been verbal, and the artists’ polite written invoices have long disappeared. So too have the great nawabi collections, dispersed and destroyed, many lost in the sacking of the Lucknow palaces in March 1858. A description of Asaf-ud-daula’s port-folios tells us that: ‘His Excellency’s collection of Indian pictures is considerable…although widely different in manner from European matters, neither taste nor elegance are wanting to their compositions; and in the article of neat and delicate finishing, they are inimitable.’
We have to cherish what remains from the period (approximately 1760 to 1856) of the artistic explosion in Awadh. The patronage of men like Polier, the creative atmosphere that encouraged Indian and European painters to the city, the fine discrimination of the Nawabs in building their collections and the paintings themselves that survive – these are poignant and valuable reminders of an extraordinary era in Indian painting.
Alam, Muzaffar and Alavi, Seema. A European Experience of the Mughal Orient: The I’jaz-i-Arsalani (Persian Letters, 1773-1779) of Antoine-Louis Henri Polier. OUP Delhi, 2001.
Asiatic Annual Register. London, 1800.
Hobhouse, Niall. The Lucknow Menagerie: National History Drawings from the Collection of Claude Martin (1735-1800). London: Hobhouse Ltd, 2001.
Markel, Stephen (ed.). India’s Fabled City: The Courtly Art of Lucknow. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2010.