A Company School Study of the Pietra Dura Inlays at the Taj Mahal

Pencil and Watercolour on paper
Agra, India
Circa 1820
41.5 x 66 cm

This remarkable 19th century topographical study of the pietra dura inlays at the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, is a sublime example of the tradition of watercolour painting that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries as the British East India Company expanded its purview in India and the officers became active patrons of the arts. Indian artists sought to satisfy their patrons’ European tastes, scientific interests, and sense of discovery. The artists, some of whom had previously trained in late-Mughal techniques of painting, evolved their styles to create large-scale images of India’s flora, fauna, people, and landscape.

The present watercolour exhibits an illustration of the decorations in pietra dura (an inlay with semi-precious stones) on the cenotaphs in the Taj Mahal, built between 1632 and 1647, for the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during childbirth. The interior of the monument is a wondrous work of the lapidary arts and is replete with inlays of pietra dura; in Mughal India, this artistic carving method was known as parchin kari, literally ‘inlay’ or ‘driven-in’ work and is thought to have been influenced by the presence of Italian craftsmen at the Mughal court.


The study is a representation of floral design borders found on the horizontal platform of the cenotaphs of both Shah Jahan and his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It is arranged in horizontal orientation and displays a complex interweaving of botanical forms. Two band-like borders appear above and below the main design. Within each band, a series of delicate flowers emerge from the same vine as a series of connected receptacles give birth to either single flowers or subsequent receptacles with their attendant flowers. The design of the conceit is balanced between both borders and harmonious as the inlays are arranged symmetrically and in line with the main floral feature.

The main design exhibits larger and more dramatic floral elements: a central vertical flower is composed of several petals embracing a pair of styles and stigmas and then, the stem descends to a bifurcation into two separate trailing stems – one goes off to the right, the other to the left. These begin a balanced and gracious curving geometry that sees further development of tendrils, leaves and, ultimately, culminate in large single flowers at the centre of the encircling stems.

The rich chromatic represented in this drawing represents the use of carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise and malachite in the inlays of the mausolea. It is a testimony to both the delicate achievement of Company School artists as well as the lapidary masters that composed the object of their inspiration.

In the lower centre, an inscription in brown ink reads: Upon the basement of the Kings [sic] Cenotaph Below. Chebutreh (trans. raised platform)


Provenance: Private Collection, UK.

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