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The Artists Of The East India Company

March 20, 2024
by Geoff Quilley


The shadow of the East India Company looms large over Spitalfields. For it was to bring goods from the East India Dock that Commercial St was cut through the neighbourhood in the nineteenth century and, ultimately, it is why we have a large Bengali community here today.

Geoff Quilley, Emeritus Professor of Art History at Sussex University, will giving a lecture on this subject as part of the Spitalfields Series on Tuesday 2nd April at 7pm in the Hanbury Hall.




Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match by John Zoffany 1784-8


The English East India Company was established by royal charter in 1600, giving it a monopoly on trading rights to the seemingly limitless natural resources offered by India and Asia, particularly in lucrative commodities of spices. However, it was not until the eighteenth century that the Company shifted in status from being a wealthy corporation of private maritime traders to the East, to becoming a financial concern of national significance, influencing government policy and being a decisive factor in the national economy. Above all, following the British victories in India during the Seven Years War (1756-63), and the Treaty of Allahabad of 1765, by which the Mughal Emperor granted it the right of diwani, or the collection of land tax in Bihar and Bengal, the Company became a territorial power in India rather than just a maritime commercial organisation, and established its base at Calcutta, the centre of what would rapidly become British India.

This marked the start of the massive expansion of British settlement in India, from the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth centuries, culminating with India coming under formal crown control from 1858, following the Indian Rebellion. Prior to this date, colonial administration was undertaken through the East India Company, which assumed a complex and controversial dual role, as a commercial company answerable to its shareholders and Board of Directors, and also as the arm of British government across the subcontinent.

One of the most remarkable features of the Company’s meteoric rise is that this trading organisation, which would develop into ‘the corporation that changed the world’, as one historian has described it, operated in its early days out of relatively humble premises only a short walk from Spitalfields, in Leadenhall St, where it remained until it was wound up, thus placing the City of London for the first time at the centre of a global, commercial and imperial network. In return, its global enterprise permeated all corners of London and City life: the leading brewery Truman, Hanbury & Buxton, for example, was the supplier to the Company in the nineteenth century.

The increase of British settlement of India from around 1770 with a population of Company employees and associates, who were enabled to make huge fortunes very rapidly, opened up other commercial opportunities, not least to the growing profession of artists in Britain. Artists both saw the chance to exploit the Company in India as a source of patronage, but were also used by the Company and its individual officers as a means of representing its changing public image, and its encounters and relations with Indian rulers and culture.

With the establishment of the Royal Academy in 1768, there was a notable parallel between the growth of the Company and the expansion of British art. Yet making this parallel has significant implications, as it opens up a shift of focus away from the RA’s dominance of British art history, towards the City and its commercial imperatives. It reminds us as well that the precursors of the RA, the Society of Artists, Free Society of Artists, even the Foundling Hospital, were City-based institutions, set up and run by commercially-minded individuals, with a significant philanthropic intent. Artists in these early years often had City connections, through family or patronage, and were also among the first to take up the commercial and artistic opportunities offered by the rise of the East India Company.

Tilly Kettle, for example, left for India in the late 1760s and quickly developed a reputation as a clever and resourceful portrait painter, producing images of Company officials in India and local nawabs that negotiated the tricky and delicate relations between established Mughal rule and Company claims to power, presenting it as one of mutual commercial benefit, and depicting figures such as the Nawab of Arcot as both independent ruler and also as ally of the British, on whose credit he was dependent.

Muhammad Ali Khan, Nawab of Arcot by Tilly Kettle 1772-6


Similarly, Johan Zoffany, who worked in India in the 1780s, developed a novel adaptation of the genre of the conversation-piece, to depict the particular character of Anglo-Indian society, and the social relations between British and Indian culture: so that a painting such as Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match becomes a complex allegory of the colonial encounter in the cultural melting-pot of Lucknow.

Other artists focussed less on the people in British India, and more on the landscape coming increasingly under British control. William Hodges was the first professional European landscape painter in India, and under the patronage of the first Governor-General, Warren Hastings, made several tours in the 1780s through north-east India, making records of the landscape and monuments of Hindu, Muslim and British India. More than simply topographical records of the landscape, his views provide commentaries on the history of the country through its architectural heritage, so that his view of the tomb of the great sixteenth-century Mughal Emperor Akbar is seen both as witness to the passing of a once great empire, and also as a homage to Hastings’ own governance, which was partly modelled on Akbar’s own imperial administration.

A View of the Gate of the Tomb of the Emperor Akbar at Secundra by William Hodges, engraved by John Browne 1786


Hodges’s example was quickly followed by Thomas and William Daniell, who made a career from their travels through India, producing albums of prints after drawings made on the spot with the camera obscura, and published both in India and Britain. These represented the expanding territories coming under British control throughout the 1790s for a domestic audience, and also painted a positive image of Company commercial growth, through images of its factories and warehouses at Canton, the focus of the Company’s ambitions to penetrate the China market.

The European Factories at Canton by Thomas Daniell 1806


The Company’s territorial expansion was achieved through military conquest which was commemorated in sensational, triumphalist imagery, most notably in the ongoing battles with Tipu Sultan of Mysore throughout the 1790s, including sentimental images of Tipu’s sons being taken as hostages by the British.

Lord Cornwallis receiving the Sons of Tipu Sultan as Hostages by Robert Home 1793-4


Tipu was finally defeated at the Battle of Seringapatam in 1798 and the trophies from his looted palace brought back to London, such as his notorious mechanical model, Tipu’s Tiger, which was exhibited in London in the Company’s own India Museum.

Tipu’s Tiger, c.1793


The Company’s maritime interests also opened up opportunities for marine artists, such as Thomas Luny, producing celebratory images of East Indiamen of growing size and tonnage as the Company’s transport of goods and merchandise increased. It also provided opportunities for amateur artists, such as Thomas Forrest, who combined his expertise in navigation with his interest in natural history, to produce accounts of South-East Asian geography with a view to expanding Company bases and shipping routes throughout Indonesia as far south as Papua New Guinea.

View of Dory Harbour on New Guinea by Thomas Forrest 1779


Meanwhile, the rapidly changing and complex character of the Company was represented at home in London through a public profile centred on its commercial headquarters in Leadenhall Street, rebuilt in the 1730s as a modern, efficient, commercial organisation of national significance, and representing its activities allegorically through sculpture and paintings epitomised by Rysbrack’s chimney-piece depicting the Company as the means to British prosperity.

Britannia receiving the Riches of the East by John Michael Rysbrack c.1730


Artists were involved in a variety of ways with the East India Company over the course of more than a century at the height of the development of British art. They represented the cultural encounter with India as British settlement there expanded and portrayed the Company as it would have like to be seen, offering a positive image of overseas colonial commerce that was in direct contrast to the controversial reputation of Company practice – whether through its adverse impact on the Indian population, or its central involvement in the opium trade, or in its constant financial scandals, which required regular bailing out by the British government, like the banks in 2008, as a commercial organisation too big to fail.

We need to ask why the Company is still largely peripheral to the understanding of British art. Given its centrality to the expansion of the British empire, this is surely has to do with the uncomfortable truths presented by our colonial past and the larger dissociation of the history of art from the history of empire. However, the current surge of interest in – and urgent debates around – the links between colonialism and heritage, and the place of empire in British identity, invites a rethinking of the place of the East India Company in British cultural history and its roots in the City of London.

East India House, Leadenhall St, attributed to John Michael Rysbrack, 1711

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Diane Harvey-White permalink
    March 20, 2024

    I thought you might be interested to know that the Open University do an art history module called Art and its Global Histories with a unit specifically on Empire and Art: British India. The images above are all largely in the course content and there is a real focus on the way British art schools imposed their teaching on talented local artists, who then thrived when people like Lockwood Kipling introduced traditional skills into the curriculum. There is a section on the Great Exhibition India pavilion, Lutyens redesign of New Delhi, mogul rulers and topographical art as well as others. I found it a very exciting topic.

  2. Mark permalink
    March 20, 2024

    Remember seeing Tipu Tiger on Blue Peter in the seventies. Sure John Noakes beat it to a pulp.
    Fascinating machine.

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