Birds of Bengal at Sweden auction

The paintings by Zayn al-Din were commissioned by Mary Impey, an English natural historian and patron of the arts in Bengal

By Debraj Mitra in Calcutta
  • Published 28.05.19, 4:50 PM
  • Updated 28.05.19, 4:50 PM
  • 4 mins read
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Falsa Tree with King’s Nightingale was painted on a 53.5cm x 75cm canvas by Zayn al-Din in 1782 . Picture courtesy: Stockholm Auction House

Two watercolour and pencil-on-paper artworks painted in Calcutta in the late 18th century by one of the most famous exponents of the Company School of Art will go under the hammer at the world’s oldest auction house in Sweden on June 12.

The paintings by Zayn al-Din were commissioned by Mary Impey (March 2, 1749 -February 20, 1818), an English natural historian and patron of the arts in Bengal. She was the wife of Elijah Impey, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court at Calcutta (1774-82), who had infamously sent Maharaja Nandakumar — a highly-placed officer in the nawabi administration — to the gallows on charges of perjury.

Falsa Tree with King’s Nightingale, dated 1782, and Parrot in a Parkar Tree, dated 1779, have been in the possession of a Swedish family for long.

“We are immensely proud to present these rare artworks. We are not sure how they reached Sweden. They have been in the same Swedish family for a long time and this is the first time that they reach the market,” Victoria Svederberg Bojsen, a specialist in classic and modern art at the Stockholms Auktionsverk (Stockholm Auction House), founded in 1674, told Metro over phone from Stockholm.

“The estimate price is Euro 51,000 (Rs 40 lakh) to 61,500 (Rs 48 lakh). However, we believe they will reach an even higher price. Our hope is naturally that they will now be returned to India where they originated,” she said.

Birds are the subjects of both the paintings. Falsa Tree with King’s Nightingale is a 53.5cm x 75cm canvas.

The inscriptions on both pictures read: In the Collection of Lady Impey of Calcutta. Painted by Zayn al-Din Native of Patna 1782.

“Both paintings include a description of the subject in Persian — Darakht ban falsa, Shah Bulbul in the first and Madna Tota, Darkaht Pakar in the other. The artist’s name is also written in Persian,” said Nandini Chatterjee, associate professor of history at the University of Exeter in the UK.

The painting (right), titled Parrot in a Parkar Tree, is signed and dated 1779. The inscriptions on both artworks read: “In the Collection of Lady Impey of Calcutta. Painted by Zayn al-Din Native of Patna 1782”.
The painting (right), titled Parrot in a Parkar Tree, is signed and dated 1779. The inscriptions on both artworks read: “In the Collection of Lady Impey of Calcutta. Painted by Zayn al-Din Native of Patna 1782”. Picture courtesy: Stockholm Auction House

Metro had sent the images to Chatterjee, who is part of a research on two sets of natural history drawings produced between the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Calcutta. The drawings are held at the Victoria Memorial Hall and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery in Exeter.

The Impeys moved to India in 1773 after Elijah Impey was made the chief justice of Bengal. They set up a menagerie at their house in Calcutta’s Middleton Row. When they shifted to Fort William two years later, they started a collection of native birds and animals on the extensive gardens of the estate.

Mary Impey commissioned several local artists to paint the fauna and flora they had collected. Her three principal artists were Sheikh Zayn al-Din, and brothers Bhawani Das and Ram Das. All three had come from Patna.

Together, Zayn al-Din and the Das brothers painted more than 300 artworks, half of them of birds. The collection, often known as the Impey Album, is an important example of Company style painting.

“With the decline of the Mughal courts, the artists sought the patronage of Europeans. These artists had to change their traditional techniques to suit their new masters. These revisions included a more accurate representation of the subject and a change in perspectives,” said Jayanta Sengupta, the curator of the Victoria Memorial.

Little is known of Zayn al-Din, the artist whose works will be auctioned in Sweden next month. He is known for his extraordinarily detailed paintings for the Impey Album. His drawings of mountain rats, hanging bats, parrots and storks serve as interesting zoological studies and are now preserved at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

“The artworks from the Impey Album rarely reach the international market and the few that have been sold previously at Christies, Sothebys and Bonhams have fetched between $80,000 (Rs 55.5 lakh) and $140 000 (Rs 97.7 lakh),” Bojsen said.

The real study of the Indian subcontinent’s natural history is said to have started with the Mughals. Baburnama — the memoirs of the first Mughal ruler — has beautiful illustrations of birds and animals. Shah Jahan also took a keen interest in the flora and fauna.

With the fall of the Mughals, the artists sought the patronage of Europeans. Calcutta became a thriving centre of the (East India) Company school of painting.

“India was an unknown land for Europeans and along with its indigenous archaeology and history, they also wanted to explore its abundant flora and fauna. Imperial documentation differs from its Mughal predecessor in scale and systematic approach,” Sengupta said.

“Mary Impey was part of a circuit of Europeans who commissioned paintings of Indian natural history. Apart from the pictorial documentation of flora and fauna, the extensive notes kept by her about their habitat and behaviour were of great use to later biologists,” he said.

The collection went to England with the Impeys in 1783 and were sold at a London auction in 1810. Several pieces are in various museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

“The style of inscription, and the handwriting is identical to other paintings all around the world. I do not believe Zayn al-Din’s name is in his own handwriting. It was probably written by a British collector, maybe Lady Impey herself. Many such British Orientalists (and perhaps some of their spouses) knew Persian,” Chatterjee said.

Some of Zayn al-Din’s works are at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum too. “But those have his name written in English and Bengali, perhaps by a collector who was interested more in the vernacular language, than Persian, which was the Mughal language of administration and courtly culture,” Chatterjee said.