Portrait of a reformer
Shrabani Basu on how a rare bust of Raja Rammohun Roy, sculpted in England a year before he died, was found
Fine deal: The ivory miniature bust
It was one of the regular days in art dealer David Wilson's schedule. He was visiting a collector outside London to look at an important artwork. Suddenly the client took an exotic ivory bust out of his cabinet to show him. He wanted Wilson to identify the person and tell him who made it and when.
As Wilson held the four-inch miniature bust in his hand, he felt all the excitement of a historian on the verge of a discovery. "The exquisite beauty of the ivory bust and its detail immediately led me to think that it was a very significant work of art," Wilson told The Telegraph.
That was the start of a six-month long investigation that would finally lead to the discovery that the work was an extremely rare bust of Raja Rammohun Roy, sculpted in 1832 in England, a year before he died.
Though Wilson was fairly sure he recognised the sitter as Roy in his "exotic Mughal clothing and topi", and had a good idea of the artist who made it, he had to be cautious in his remarks to the owner till he had factual evidence.
Wilson felt it must be the work of the 19th century ivory carver Benjamin Cheverton who copied miniatures from full scale sculptures by major artists. With the aid of a reducing machine — a "three-dimensional pantograph" — Cheverton was able to produce reduced facsimiles in ivory of busts carved in marble or other materials. However, many of Cheverton's busts were unsigned which posed a challenge.
"The quality of the detail made me fairly certain it was carved by Cheverton. What I needed to do was to identify who made the original bust," said Wilson.
Wilson quickly identified the bust as that of Raja Rammohun Roy, which he thought was "very, very exciting". He was familiar with his life-size portrait by Henry Perronet Briggs painted in 1832 that hangs today in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. Like the Briggs portrait, which was painted from actual sittings, Wilson felt that the bust too had been carved from actual sittings given by Roy to the sculptor.
David Wilson with his discovery
Six months of painstaking research in archives, libraries and museums followed. Wilson — an expert in 18th-19th century portrait busts — trawled through indexes of the works of sculptors, trying to establish who had carved the ivory bust and the original. Wilson felt that the original might have been the work of George Clarke, a 19th century artist whose portrait busts were known for their life-like quality.
"Having studied many Cheverton busts, and looked closely at the way they were finished, the way the backs were carved and the way they were fixed to their bases, I could be certain that this ivory bust of Rammohun Roy was made by him," Wilson said. He then went on to pore through Cheverton's unpublished accounts. Finally, buried deep in the neatly written lists of sales and receipts, he found the missing link.
"Cheverton's studio accounts showed that he had indeed made the ivory bust and also demonstrated that he had sold it to the sculptor who made the original bust — George Clarke. That was something of a 'eureka!' moment for me," Wilson said.
"I was elated at the discovery," the dealer said. "This is an extremely rare and valuable piece as the original bust by Clarke is missing. This is the closest likeness to the Raja we can see."
Clarke was one of the most highly regarded British sculptors of the day, said Wilson, and he was the only sculptor Roy actually sat for. The Indian reformer usually disliked sitting for portraits and only agreed to sit for Clarke when his friend, writer-jurist Basil Montagu, convinced him to do so. The sculptor then commissioned Cheverton to do the replica and purchased it in 1832.
"Rammohun Roy had his features immortalised by one of the greatest artists of the day, and therefore Cheverton's exact replica in ivory of Clarke's missing bust is very significant in the iconography of Rammohun Roy. It is the best and most accurate three-dimensional likeness of Rammohun Roy in existence, and it is probably the most exotic, interesting and important of all ivory busts made by Cheverton," Wilson stressed.
Roy travelled to England in 1830 as an emissary of Mughal Emperor Akbar II. In 1833 he visited Bristol where he died of meningitis on September 27. In 1843, his friend Dwarakanath Tagore built a Hindu-temple style mausoleum for him at Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol. A life-size statue sculpted by Niranjan Pradhan stands in the heart of Bristol city. Every year, his death anniversary is observed with songs and prayers at the cemetery. The crowning moment of this year's ceremony was the unveiling of the newly discovered miniature bust.
For Wilson, the process of identifying the bust was also a journey into the life of the sitter. He thought it was unfortunate that little was known in contemporary Britain about people like Roy. "One of the factors about our education in Britain, so far as it concerns India and Britain's imperial past, is that it is (or was) largely focused on figures such as Gandhi and Nehru, and there is little discussion of figures from an earlier time, including Rammohun Roy," Wilson said.
"He was a man for all times, relevant even today," he added. Wilson said he was "fascinated" to learn how highly regarded Roy was in London in the early 1830s. "Even though, with his Mughal dress and his brown skin, he must then have appeared unique and an extraordinary and exotic being, his strength of character and presence are demonstrated by the great admiration, affection and respect he engendered in almost all those British people who were fortunate enough to meet him."
So what is the future of the bust? The owners — an English family which bought the bust at a sale — have indicated that if they decided to sell, they would want to know that it was going to an institution or private collector who was enthusiastic about Indian history and had a great respect for Raja Rammohun Roy.
"Given that the man depicted here is Raja Rammohun Roy, one of the most important figures in the history of India in the last 300 years, one might reasonably say it is priceless," said Wilson.