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Forgotten Masters review – the natural history geniuses robbed by the British empire | Art and design

The bat looks at you with bright black eyes, shining with intelligence. The artist has turned this natural study into a portrait, giving what was surely a dead specimen a personality and inner life that would be captivating in a human subject, let alone a fruit bat. It is an artistic masterpiece that raises scientific illustration to strange heights of poetry.

The picture was painted by either the Hindu painter Bhawani Das, or one of his close circle, somewhere between 1777 and 1782. Yet for centuries images like this have been simply styled “company art” and credited not to their Indian creators, but the East India Company officials who commissioned them. The Wallace Collection’s exhibition of these images of wonder, co-curated by historian William Dalrymple, rights an injustice and restores the true authorship of some of the greatest natural history artworks of all time.

As recently as 2013, the Natural History Museum published an illustrated volume called The Art of India, whose depictions of monkeys and snakes are captioned just according to the collections they come from – with the artist, the individual creator, rarely named. How did this bizarre disdain for some of the finest observers of nature who ever lived become normal? The answer lies in the long and snaky history of the British empire.

Malabar Squirrel, by  Shaikh Zain Ud-Din



Malabar Squirrel, by Shaikh Zain ud-Din. Photograph: Private Collection

Out of the undergrowth scuttles a pangolin covered with hard scaly armour, painted with such soft, subtle colours that its white claws look like vegetable roots. It was portrayed in 1779 by Shaikh Zain ud-Din. He and Bhawani Das made their entrancing pictures for an album of natural history illustrations commissioned by Lady Mary Impey. British power over India was growing not through direct state control, but the commercial ambitions of the East India Company. For all their corruption, greed and arrogance, some East India Company officials were genuinely interested in the place they were milking. This was the Enlightenment, when James Cook was bringing a kangaroo specimen (or what was left after it was eaten) back to Britain for the animal artist George Stubbs to paint. In that same spirit of scientific curiosity Lady Impey and her husband, Chief Justice Sir Elijah Impey, commissioned local artists to create their ravishing nature album. They were typical of a generation of early imperialists who had not yet learned total contempt for the people around them.

At the start of the show we see one of the artists the East India Company employed as he saw himself. Yellapah of Vellore portrays himself sitting on the floor at a low desk, looking up from his work on a finely detailed illustration, with his thin, delicate brush in his right hand. It’s not so very different from a portrait of a scribe at the Ottoman court that was painted by Gentile Bellini in the 15th century. For the artists the company elite hired to depict fruit bats and cobra lilies were heirs to an artistic tradition of precise, almost microscopic observation that ultimately went back to medieval Iraq and Iran. This miniaturist art was brought to India by the Mughal empire, and it was their training that enabled these artists to adapt brilliantly to the requirements of science-obsessed English aristocrats. Even the idea of assembling watercolour pictures in albums is a Mughal convention – although it got a new look from the modern paper the British insisted on.

Brahminy Starling with Two Anteraea Moths, Caterpillar and Cocoon in Indian Jujube Tree, by Shaikh Zain ud-Din, 1780



Brahminy Starling with Two Anteraea Moths, Caterpillar and Cocoon in Indian Jujube Tree, by Shaikh Zain ud-Din, 1780, from the Impey album. Photograph: Charles Walbridge/Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The results are sensational. I suppose it wouldn’t really matter, more than 200 years on, if we remembered or didn’t remember artists whose works were ordinary or minor. But genius deserves a name. Shaikh Zain ud-Din is at least the equal of his English contemporary Stubbs. His depiction of a cheetah for the Impey album is a tender gold cloud of fur with spots that seem to float in its lithe mist. You can almost see its heart beat. This intimate encounter with a swift ghost of the forest makes Stubbs’s painting of the first cheetah brought to Britain look cold and hard.

It’s that insight into the being of nature that makes these artists so arresting. They go beyond all anthropomorphism in their appetite for wondrous life. A painter whose name has not yet been found portrays a river fish from Bengal as a pewter-coloured, leaf-shaped ovoid with its eyes and mouth twisted around its flattened form. It’s not like us, but it is as interesting as us.

Portrait of John Wombwell smoking a hookah.



Portrait of John Wombwell smoking a hookah. Photograph: Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris

The East India Company also commissioned India’s artists to depict soldiers and beggars, markets and rituals. In these social records, the tensions of history are hard to ignore – are they sympathetic studies or imperial objectifications of “India”? But Yellapah of Vellore turns his brush on the people who hired him, portraying a pasty-faced red-jacketed British officer lazing, a bit glumly, in the comfy box of a palanquin as he’s carried by six “natives”.

There are dazzling depictions of architecture, including a sublime portrait of the Taj Mahal. Here you see two artistic cultures collide as European perspective mixes with an Indian appetite for all-over surface detail that creates almost surreal effects. Strangest of all is a painting by a still-nameless artist of a village called Rania. The villagers vividly populate a scene of rounded, organic buildings and knobbly, serpentine trees. Nothing is straight, nothing is rigid. It could be an early painting by Miró, a desert scene by O’Keeffe.

This exhibition unveils an entire new artistic world that’s been forgotten and misunderstood for centuries. It promises great things for the Wallace Collection’s new approach as a gallery that, in a reverse of its former rules, can now lend, and therefore borrow, masterpieces. How great to start by rescuing India’s neglected artists from being forgotten.


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