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India's iconic Company Paintings go up for auction in London

Sotheby's is going to display highlights from the collection in its galleries in New York, Hong Kong, and London, before the actual auction in October

A Bay Racehorse with a Groom, Signed Shaykh Muhammad Amir Of Karraya, Company School, Calcutta, circa 1842 (est. £30,000-50,000).

Auction house Sotheby’s will hold what is arguably the first auction dedicated to Company School paintings, the umbrella term conventionally used to refer to the work of Indian master artists commissioned by East India Company officials in the 18th and 19th centuries. From animal, botanical and human studies to architectural panoramas, these paintings are distinguished for their finely-honed draughtsmanship, inspired use of colour, and close attention to detail. 

A Panoramic View of Alwar, Attributed To Ghulam 'Ali Khan, Company School, Delhi, circa 1820 (est £80,000-120,000)
A Panoramic View of Alwar, Attributed To Ghulam 'Ali Khan, Company School, Delhi, circa 1820 (est £80,000-120,000)

In 2018, historian William Dalrymple curated a selection of these works at The Wallace Collection, one of the key sites of 18th and 19th century art in London. The aim of the show was to shine a light on these mostly anonymous geniuses as well as to assign and attribute names, wherever possible. A similar idea also inspired historian Martyn Rix's recent work on botanical art in the holdings of Botanic Gardens, Kew, published by Roli Books in India.

Also Read | The unsung geniuses of Indian art history

Titled Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting For The East India Company, Dalrymple's project appeared in the form of a book with extensive notes and historical insights. Many of the names from Dalrymple's project—Shaykh Zayn al-Din, Ram Das, Bhawani Das and Ghulam Ali Khan—are represented in the auction.

The works in the Sotheby auction, titled In an Indian Garden, have been offered by the American collector and art dealer Carlton C. Rochell, Jr. who spent the first 18 years at the auction firm, where he founded the Indian and Southeast Asian Art Department in 1988. Before the auction goes live in London on 27 October, highlights from the collection will go on view in Sotheby’s galleries in New York (17-20 September), Hong Kong (7-11 October) and London (22-26 October).

A Great Indian Fruit Bat or Flying Fox, From The Impey Album, Signed by Bhawani Das, Company School, Calcutta, circa 1778-82 (est. £300,000-500,000)
A Great Indian Fruit Bat or Flying Fox, From The Impey Album, Signed by Bhawani Das, Company School, Calcutta, circa 1778-82 (est. £300,000-500,000)

In An Indian Garden features many works from the most renowned series of Company School paintings, including albums commissioned by Sir Elijah and Lady Impey, the Fraser brothers, Viscount Valentia and Major General Claude Martin. The Impey Collection, perhaps the most memorable of the lot, was sold at auction in London in 1810. Several pieces from it were held in international institutions, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. However, “perhaps the person who sparked the fashion for such commissions was merchant, soldier, architect, hot air balloonist and collector Major General Claude Martin,” adds a press release from Sotheby, “and the sale offers a Lesser Adjutant Stork from his collection, which survives as a masterpiece of the genre.”

A Painted Stork Eating a Snail, From The Impey Album, Signed by Shaykh Zayn Al-Din, Company School, Calcutta, Dated 1781 (200,000-300,000)
A Painted Stork Eating a Snail, From The Impey Album, Signed by Shaykh Zayn Al-Din, Company School, Calcutta, Dated 1781 (200,000-300,000)

In An Indian Garden features many works from the most renowned series of Company School paintings, including albums commissioned by Sir Elijah and Lady Impey, the Fraser brothers, Viscount Valentia and Major General Claude Martin. The Impey Collection, perhaps the most memorable of the lot, was sold at auction in London in 1810. Several pieces from it were held in international institutions, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. However, “perhaps the person who sparked the fashion for such commissions was merchant, soldier, architect, hot air balloonist and collector Major General Claude Martin,” adds a press release from Sotheby, “and the sale offers a Lesser Adjutant Stork from his collection, which survives as a masterpiece of the genre.”

A Green Snake, Company School, Madras, dated 25 July 1839 (est. £10,000-15,000)
A Green Snake, Company School, Madras, dated 25 July 1839 (est. £10,000-15,000)

Some of the works, as Sotheby's adds, passed through the hands of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who for many years owned the arresting study of a Stork Eating a Snail, renowned South Asian paintings collector Edwin Binney 3rd, leading scholar and curator Stuart Cary Welch and others.

Also Read | Recovering India's botanical treasures from colonial history

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