Sunday, November 28

‘Forgotten Masters’: Auction Sheds Light on India’s Ignored Artists | Art

Remarkable paintings of the flora and fauna of India, including a work once owned by Jackie Kennedy Onassis depicting a stork eating a snail, will go on sale at the Company’s first dedicated auction of the School of art.

Sotheby’s has announced the details of a sale that sheds light on Indian artists who are today overlooked and considered forgotten masters.

Officials from the East India Company commissioned 18th- and 19th-century artists to paint the animals, plants, architecture, and people they encountered. They wanted people in Britain to see what they were seeing.

At Cobra De Capello, circa 1800
At Cobra De Capello, around 1800. Photograph: Company School / Sotheby’s

For centuries, paintings tended to be attributed to the people who commissioned them rather than the artists, but that has been changing. A Forgotten Masters exhibition last year at the Wallace Collection in London was important in helping to change the narrative.

Seven of the paintings in the exhibition are among the 29 lots that make up the auction, titled In an Indian Garden. All come from the collection of the American art dealer Carlton Rochell.

Benedict Carter, Sotheby’s Sales Manager, said the genre of painting was finally getting the recognition it deserved. “They don’t really look like anything else,” he said. “These are not just studies done for British clients and other European patrons, they are great Indian paintings in their own right.”

The Company School’s most famous album of paintings was commissioned by Sir Elijah and Lady Impey, who created a collection of animals in their garden in Calcutta (now Kolkata). In his review of the Wallace Collection exhibit, Jonathan Jones of The Guardian said that the Impeys “were typical of a generation of early imperialists who had not yet learned to totally despise the people around them.”

Various works from the Impey album are now in major collections such as the V&A in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

One of the most dramatic works in the auction, also from the Impey album, is A Great Indian Fruit Bat signed by Bhawani Das, which is much more of a portrait than a study, according to Carter. “There is something about the character of these animals that goes beyond mere anatomical precision,” he said. The bat has an estimate of between £ 300,000 and £ 500,000.

A large fruit bat from India, by Bhawani Das
A large fruit bat from India, by Bhawani Das. Photograph: Company School / Sotheby’s

A painted stork eating a snail, signed by Shaykh Zayn al-Din, Calcutta, and dated 1781, is also from the Impey album.

Rochell began collecting “these lesser known masterpieces” more than 20 years ago because he was captured by the aesthetics between East and West. “When they were painted, these works were the main way that India could be revealed to those in Britain, who might otherwise only hear stories about this sumptuous land,” he said.

Writer William Dalrymple, curator of the Wallace Collection exhibit, said Rochell’s collection was remarkable because it contained “just some of the great masterpieces of Indian painting.”

Exhibitions of the works will be held in New York from September 17 to 20, Hong Kong from October 7 to 11 and London from October 22 to 26 before the auction on October 27.

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