The style of painting was first introduced in India during the early 18th century when the East India Company commissioned Indian artists to paint a range of artworks as part of the documentation and for decoration purposes.
The British seizing the southern part of Asia and expanding their territories lead the Indian aesthetics to experience a shift. This proven creative alteration would sustain for the coming centuries. The increase in demand for paintings as part of documentation and ornamentation was due to the company employees migrating from England to India. The Indian painters were well known for their minute rendering and crisp rendering.
The East India Company was mesmerised by the exotic flora and fauna as well as indigenous art and architecture and had the urge to secure this beauty with the accomplished hands of these talented painters. The East India Company commissioned several Indian to assist and draw the vicinities that the British considered significant. Due to the absence of cameras and an inclination to preserve memories, even high-ranking officials were interested in the paintings, taking them back to their country for their folks as decorations. The first company school paintings began in Madras and then, later on, spread to other parts of India like Calcutta, Patna, Murshidabad, Banaras, Lucknow, Agra, Delhi, and Punjab. These paintings sustained until the advent of cameras and photographs.
Development of Company Paintings
Company school, also known as Patna painting, was developed in India in the second half of the 18th century in response to the tastes of the British serving with the East India Company. The style emerged in Murshidabad, West Bengal, then spread to other centres of British trade: Benares (Varanasi), Delhi Lucknow, and Patna.
These paintings used watercolours on paper and mica. The most common scenes were Indian daily life, local rulers, and sets of festivals and ceremonies, in line with the “cult of the picturesque” then current in British artistic circles. Most successful were the studies of natural life, but the style was generally of a hybrid and undistinguished quality. The advent of company school paintings led to the common man’s life becoming the topic of paintings. Until the company paintings came into being, the rajas and nawabs patronised local artists to paint on the splendour of courts, royal portraits, historical scenes, or illustrations of the poetic and the divine.
A few prominent people who promoted these paintings included Colonel James Skinner of Skinner’s Horse fame, Mary Impey, wife of Elijah Impey, who commissioned over three hundred for the Impey Album, and Marquess Wellesley, brother of the first Duke of Wellington, who had over 2,500. The French-born Major-General Claude Martin (1735–1800), based in Lucknow, commissioned 658 paintings of birds, including Black Stork in a Landscape, which is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
A few notable artists included Mazhar Ali Khan, who worked on Thomas Metcalfe’s Delhi Book. He was also part of a dynasty of miniature artists, the patriarch of whom, Ghulam Ali Khan, had worked for William Fraser on a similar commission known as the Fraser Album, with over 90 paintings and drawings, mostly painted from 1815 to 1819. It came to light in Fraser’s papers only in 1979; they are now dispersed. He also painted portraits of the last Mughal emperors and their courts.
The Delhi Book or Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi is an album including 120 paintings in Company style, commissioned in 1844 by Sir Thomas Metcalfe, the Company’s Agent at the Mughal court after the murder of Fraser in 1835. Most are by Mazhar Ali Khan and show the final years of the Delhi court and local monuments.
The company school paintings were not a Pan-India movement. The style developed in some cities only which had any of the following qualities:
- Those cities which had monuments and an inflow of foreign officials or tourists
- The cities had expatriates from England.
The Company Style did not develop in regions such as Rajasthan, Punjab Hills, and Hyderabad, which were home to the local traditions. At the same time, the influence of British colonialism on Indian art can’t be neglected. The traditional Indian arts suffered a huge blow, which is visible in the deterioration of the painting styles. In the early nineteenth century, this school of paintings was at its peak, and its production was at a considerable level. By the third and fourth decades of the 19th century, many artists had shops to sell their work and workshops to produce it.
However, later, the style was subject to competition with other styles. The invention of photography was a direct blow to the style. It survived into the 20th century due to Ishwari Prasad of Patna being the last notable exponent. In the late 19th century, the British established several Schools of Art where a more Westernised version of the style was taught.
- MAP Academy. (n.d.). Company Painting | Encyclopedia of Art | Modern and Contemporary. [online] Available at: https://mapacademy.io/article/company-painting/#:~:text=Notable%20artists%20of%20the%20Company [Accessed 7 Dec. 2022].
- www.gktoday.in. (n.d.). Company School of Paintings – GKToday. [online] Available at: https://www.gktoday.in/topic/company-school-of-paintings/.
- SADACC (2020). Company School Paintings. [online] The South Asia Collection. Available at: https://thesouthasiacollection.co.uk/object-in-focus/company-school-paintings-early-19th-century/ [Accessed 7 Dec. 2022].