04 September 2011

Home Away From Home

India is a country that looms large in my mind. Its culture, its cuisine, its messy, glorious, violent history; the mindboggling decadence of its princely rulers; the abjectness of its impoverished; the rigidity of its caste system; its flamboyant deities: All these things, for some reason, rivet me no end. One cannot be bored by India; one can only be astounded.

Recently news that one of my favorite books, William Dalrymple’s riveting White Mughals, will be made into a movie—as well as the discovery of Penelope Treadwell's Johann Zoffany: Artist and Adventurer (Paul Holberton Publishing), a 2010 study of the 18th-century painter, who spent some artistic quality time in the court of Oudh—got me thinking about Indian style, especially those fertile moments in design, when subcontinental motifs and foreign influences collide and coalesce. (NB: How the producers intend to shrink Dalrymple's sprawling tale of history, romance, and social anthropology into a two-hour tale is beyond my comprehension; it really should be a miniseries along the lines of "The Jewel in the Crown.") 
A self-portrait of artist and designer Robert Home (1752-1834), court painter to the King of Oudh. This image, posted in Wikipedia's Robert Home article, has been in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery since 1943.

This melding of styles is not always an easy one but it is always entertaining and frequently inspiring. Take, for instance, the inexplicably underexamined work of Robert Home (1752-1834), an intrepid Yorkshire expat who studied with German-born British painter Angelica Kauffmann and ultimately found fame and fortune on the Indian subcontinent, where he relocated around 1790. One sitter, in fact, described him as “the best artist in Asia.”

A native of the city of Hull, Home (pronounced "Hume") spent a highly productive chunk of his senior years in Lucknow, working for 13 years as the court painter to Ghazi-ud-din Haider (1769-1827), the seventh nawab wazir and first king of Oudh, before dying in Cawnpore. (The name of the kingdom is pronounced "uh-VUD.") This sophisticated monarch of Persian lineage and Muslim faith was limned by Home in a marvelous portrait that was identified last year. The circa-1819 image shown below was included in a 2011 exhibition of Lucknow portraiture at the Musée Guimet in Paris and is now offered for sale by the London gallery Philip Mould. Another of Home's portraits of his royal patron, a rather large example, is the collection of Queen Elizabeth II (Her Majesty also owns two additional Home works); another hangs in the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata. A description of the last-cited painting, published in 1907, is as follows: "[The King] is dressed in a canary-yellow chapkan; and strings of pearls and other precious stones encircle his neck and bluish-yellow turban." When he wasn't busy painting the ruler, his wives, and their children, Home put likenesses of British official to canvas, including the Marquess of Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington), of whom he painted more than a dozen portraits. 

Ghazi-ud-din Haider, King of Oudh, circa 1819, in a portrait by Robert Hume. The work is presently being offered for sale by Philip Mould, a gallery in London.

Home didn’t merely record august personages in brilliant oils. As an album of his drawings held in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum bears eyepopping witness, he also took up design with breathtaking abandon. Given the architecture, furniture, jewels, clothing, and decorative objects he proposed to the monarch—how many of these fantasies were actually produced seems to be unknown—one could easily call him the Thomas Hope of India. Like his English contemporary, Home seems to have been a master of swaggering Regency extravagances flashy with gilding and not a little exotic pomp. It is a pity that the Yorkshireman and the Prince Regent, later George IV, never met, because the former’s objects for the British royal’s Oudhian counterpart would have looked right at home in the delirious chinoiserie interiors of Brighton Pavilion.

An extraordinary crocodile barge designed for the King of Oudh by Robert Home. The image, which is contained in an album of Home designs held in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was published in "Made for Maharajahs: A Design Diary of Princely India"  (Vendome Press, 2006). © V&A Images/ Victoria and Albert Museum.

Whether driven by the otherworldliness of the subcontinental kingdom where he resided or a natural sense of fantasy hybridized with fashionable British taste, Home was a man who trafficked in extravagances. Among his works for Oudh's ruler (the seventh nawab wazir acceded to the throne in 1814, took the title of king in 1819, and reigned until his death in 1827) was a lengthy barge in the form of a grinning crocodile. On its scaly back sat a howdah-like pavilion so the monarch of Oudh and one or more of his numerous wives—among them was an Anglo-Armenian and an Anglo-Indian—could relax in the shade as rowers propelled them along the lazy waters of the Gombti River. Which, it must be added, was crossed by an iron bridge shipped from England on the King's orders.

The fish-shape Royal Boat of Oudh, a torpedo-like pleasure vessel with decorative fins, as seen circa 1858-1860. The image, by Anglo-Italian photographer Felice Beato (1832-1909), is from Bernard Shapero Fine Books, via Wikipedia's article about the photographer.

Another royal Oudh boat in the same water-creature vein—which was recorded in a photograph snapped by Felice Beato in the middle of the 19th century—assumes the shape of a fish, right down to its dorsal and tail fins. A range of jalousied windows stretches along one side of the fish, and presumably the opposite as well, giving its passengers a measure of privacy, which surely must have been welcomed given the vessel’s bizarre appearance. The stately progress of this boat along the Gomti—a giant, glistening fish skimming the waters like a god come to life—surely caused the jaws of the King’s subjects to drop. Whether it was designed by Home, however, is unknown. It seems a bit lumpen in its execution but the vessel's mad looks could well have been inspired by Home's work for the first King of Oudh. Or perhaps it was Home's work after all. Scholar Mildred Archer has written that the artist's proposals had a "certain zaniness," notably "silver carriages shaped like shells supported by peacocks and extraordinary boats in the form of a swan, fish or alligator." Perhaps this fish vessel is the very one described by a 19th-century eyewitness. He wrote of a fish-shaped pleasure boat "made of cedar, for the harem ladies, covered with scales of silver, each the size of a rupee though not so thick. The interior was more luxuriously fitted ... [and] there were jalousies through which the fair and dusky occupants, without being seen, could themselves look upon a city as naughty as Nineveh." One English resident of Lucknow in the 1850s recalled a royal boat shaped like a dolphin and brilliantly enameled.

An 1895 image of Bara Chattar Manzil, a palace complex erected by the first King of Oudh, which was built alongside the Gomti River between 1819 and 1837. Among its pleasures was an English-style picture gallery furnished with chairs designed by Robert Home. Image by G. W. Lawrie and Company, from the website Old Indian Photos.

Capable of striking awe into the observer too was the enormous palace complex commissioned by the king during Home’s tenure in Lucknow and in whose creation Home had a part. (The complex was such an ambitious project, however, that it was not completed until 1837, under the reign of the king's son and successor.) The picture gallery of the dome-topped Bara Chattar Manzil (Umbrella Palaces) was an essay in classical British taste and furnished with chairs made to Home's designs. The eminent British cleric Bishop Heber, who visited Lucknow for ten days in 1824—he declared it "the most polished and splendid court at present in India" and sat for his portrait by Home during his trip—left to posterity a detailed description of a formal breakfast in the room:

"... [It is] a long and handsome, but rather narrow, gallery, with good portraits of [the king's] father and [Governor-General of India] Lord Hastings over the two chimney-pieces, and some very splendid glass lustres hanging from the ceiling. The furniture was altogether English, and there was a long table in the middle of the room, set out with breakfast, and some fine French and English china. [The King] sate [sic] down in a gilt arm-chair in the center of one side, motioning to us to be seated on either hand. ... The King began by putting a large hot roll on the Resident's plate, and another on mine, then sent similar rolls to the young Nawâb his grandson, who sate on the other side of me, to the Prime Minister, and one or two others. Coffee, tea, butter, eggs, and fish were then carried round by the servants, and things proceeded much as at a public breakfast in England. The King had some mess of his own in a beautiful covered French cup, but the other Musselmans eat as the Europeans did."

Visitors to the palace during the reign of the King's son (his mother was a palace chambermaid) commented on the European-style atmosphere, ticking off a dining room "that differed from an English dining-room in no essential particular," a chef who hailed from France, and a coachman from Ireland. (The second King of Oudh, who openly declared his passion for anything European, also married an Englishwoman, the daughter of a rich Lucknow merchant.) It seems arguable that Home, with his expansive creativity, oversaw more than just the gallery's seat furnishings, though more research needs be conducted on this subject. (I plan on following this thread in the near future, hopefully with an update.)

Bara Chattar Manzil, the former palace of the King of Oudh, as it is today. Image from the website of the Central Drug Research Institute.

The splendid palace complex, which is located on a bank of the Gomti River, caused some Western visitors to wince, particularly individuals claiming refined taste. The 1883 Encyclopaedia Britannica approached it with barely concealed condescension, calling the structure " a huge and irregular pile of buildings, crowned by gilt umbrellas, [that] glitters gaudily in the sunlight." An English visitor of the time had a similar opinion, reporting that it was "an immense mass of buildings with no architectural pretension." Partly transformed into a soldiers' club and library after the deposition of the royal family in the 1850s, Bara Chattar Manzil is now the headquarters of the Central Drug Research Institute.

The arms of the Kings of Oudh, which incorporate twin fishes centered between two tigers passant. The female figures appear to be winged mermaids, which also figured in Oudhian iconography. Image from the website Royal Ark.

Twin fishes were emblazoned on the Oudh coat of arms, so Home was careful to incorporate them into many of his designs. In his circa-1819 portrait of the king, however, Ghazi-ud-din Haider apparently sits in one of Home’s giltwood chairs, and no fishes are visible; instead, the scroll-arm chair seems to be ornamented with fruit-like finials. A fish-theme Oudh chair attributed to Home is in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Pictured below, it incorporates a double-fish backsplat and arms supported by scrolling elements that also possess a piscine silhouette. Given its stately yet madcap details, is it any reason I'm longing to see more of Home's creations, whatever they may be?

A carved-wood armchair with gilded brass and gilded gesso mounts, likely designed by Robert Home for the first king of Oudh, circa 1820. Later owned by the 5th Earl Amherst of Arracan, it is now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. © V&A Images/ Victoria and Albert Museum. The chair is also featured in the 2001 book "Furniture from British India and Ceylon" (Peabody Essex Museum in association with V&A Publications).