Remarkable paintings of the flora and fauna of India, including a work once owned by Jackie Kennedy Onassis depicting a stork eating a snail, are to go on sale in the first auction dedicated to Company School art.
Sotheby’s has announced details of a sale that shines light on overlooked Indian artists today regarded as forgotten masters.
The 18th and 19th century artists were commissioned by officials of the East India Company to paint the animals, plants, architecture and people they were encountering. They wanted people in Britain to see what they were seeing.
For centuries, the paintings tended to be credited 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 from the exhibition are among the 29 lots that make up theentitled In An Indian Garden. They all come from the collection of the US art dealer Carlton Rochell.
Benedict Carter, Sotheby’s head of sales, said the genre of painting was finally getting the recognition it deserved. “They are not really like anything else,” he said. “They are not just studies done for British and other European patrons, they are great Indian paintings in their own right.”
The most famous album of Company School paintings was commissioned by Sir Elijah and Lady Impey, who created a menagerie of animals in their Kolkata garden. In his review of the Wallace Collection show, the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones said the Impeys “were typical of a generation of early imperialists who had not yet learned total contempt for the people around them”.
Several 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 far more a portrait than a study, according to Carter. “There is something about the character of these animals that goes beyond mere anatomical accuracy,” he said. The bat has an estimate of between £300,000 and £500,000.
A Painted Stork Eating a Snail, signed by Shaykh Zayn al-Din, Kolkata, and dated 1781, is also from the Impey album.
Rochell started collecting “these lesser-known masterpieces” more than 20 years ago because he was captured by the east-meets-west aesthetic. “When they were painted, these works were the principal way in which India could be revealed to those in Great Britain, who otherwise could only hear stories about this sumptuous land,” he said.
The writer William Dalrymple, who curated the Wallace Collection show, said Rochell’s collection was remarkable in that it contained “quite simply some of the great masterpieces of Indian painting”.
Exhibitions of the works will be held in New York from 17-20 September, Hong Kong from 7-11 October and London from 22-26 October before the auction on 27 October.