Victorian and Albert Museum, India Observed, India as viewed by British Artists1760-1860, 1982, no. 22;
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, In the Public Eye, 1991, no. 95, fig.1
Mildred Archer, India and British Portraiture, 1770-1825, 1979, p. 204, plate 126;
Nigel Chancellor, 'A Picture of Health: The Dilemma of Gender and Status in the Iconography of Empire', Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 35, 2001, pp. 769-782
This important portrait showing three Royal women from the Court of Mysore in Southern India was painted by Thomas Hickey in circa. 1805. Not only is it one of the finest portraits of an Indian subject by a Western artist during the period of British rule, but it also shows a remarkable understanding of the sitters and of classical Indian symbolism.
Hickey was unusual amongst the British artists who went to India to find work in that he can almost be said to have adopted India as his own country. His initial attempt to reach Calcutta failed as his vessel was captured in August 1780 by the French and Spanish fleets. Hickey made the best of his predicament by settling for a few years in Lisbon, where he found plenty of demand for his work as a portrait painter. His namesake, William Hickey noted that he ‘had painted most of the English ladies and gentlemen and was then engaged upon the portraits of several Portuguese of rank’. Notable amongst his sitters was the Bengal Court Servant, John George Livius, who was painted in 1782 on his way back from India. Hickey finally reached Calcutta in 1784.
His neatly painted, small scale portraits of British officers soon proved popular, but particularly notable was Hickey’s extraordinary ability to paint native sitters with particular sympathy and understanding. In Laurence Sullivan and his ayah of c. 1785 (Henderson Collection), the beautiful young Ayah is painted with particular subtlety, and the Indian Lady of 1787 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) probably depicts Jemdanee, the bibi of his friend, William Hickey, who is shown to be a woman of rare beauty. Most of Hickey’s final years in India were spent in Madras and the first important work which he did there was to paint a series of portraits of Indian princes and courtiers, including Krishnaraja Wadiyar III, the young Raja of Mysore and the wiley Purniya, his Brahmin chief minister. In 1804 Hickey submitted a memorandum suggesting that he should be made ‘historical portrait painter to the Hon. East India Company’, apparently in response to a wish by the company that information he provided by the various Presidencies to assist with ‘a general History of the British affairs in the East Indies’.
It is in this context that Hickey painted this masterpiece. When it was first acquired in 1930 the sitters were described as ‘India Princesses’ and the picture was said to have been painted by Zoffany, undoubtedly the most celebrated of the Western artists who settled in India to ply their trade. In her important book on India and British Portraiture published in 1979, Dr Mildred Archer correctly reattributed the portrait to Hickey and suggested that the rich jewellery and the composition of this intimate portrait meant that they were ‘either temple dancing-girls or experienced courtesans’.
In 1999 the portrait was lent to a loan exhibition at the FitzWilliam Museum in Cambridge where it was seen by Dr Nigel Chancellor who published in 2001 some interesting and thought-provoking theories about the portrait which makes it clear that it has considerably greater significance than had first appeared.
Dr Chancellor pointed out that the assumption that three such ladies with such sumptuous jewellery and such apparent self confidence had to be courtesans was a common, conventional European assessment. Portraits of well born ladies were understandably rare as most would be married and thus confined to purdah, and there would certainly have been a resistance to showing such women as wives from a polygamous society. However the lack of a temple and the failure of the artist to depict the sitter’s lower limbs and feet made the idea that they were ‘temple dancing girls’ highly unlikely – Tilly Kettle’s well known picture of An Indian Dancing Girl with a Hookah was an altogether different subject. The opulent jewellery on closer inspection led away from the idea that the ladies were courtesans. The heavy gold sleeve bangles were, as Dr Chancellor points out, one of the defining emblems for women of the Arasu royal clan, and the splendid head-dresses with their distinctive triangular patta on the foreheads established the women as pattaranis or queens who have been crowned as wives of a Raja. The woman on the right of the group is shown with prominent crescent moons on one side of the central band of her head-dress, a reference to the mythical origins of the Mysore Wadiyars (the ancient Hindu dynasty recently restored to power by the British). Dr Chancellor concludes that the portrait probably includes two Mysorean queens, the lady on the left being Rani Devajammani, the Raja’s senior wife, and the lady on the right Devajammani of Lakshmivilas Sannidhana, the junior queen who was close in age to the young Raja. The more relaxed lady in the centre resembles Hickey’s portrait of the young Raja mentioned earlier and is probably one of the Raja’s royal sisters.
The existence of such a rare portrait is explained by the arrival in India at the beginning of the century of the first vaccines against smallpox. Lord William Bentinck, governor of Madras, was anxious to promote its benefits and Mark Wilkes, Resident at the Court of Mysore, was instructed to do all he could to persuade people of its benefits. He was supported by the Raja’s minister, Purnaiya (whom Hickey had painted) and most importantly, by Rami Lakshmi Ammani, queen of the old Wadiyar ruler of Mysore and grandmother of the Raja’s senior queen. As her husband had died of smallpox she was particularly keen to support vaccination. All this coincided with the betrothal of the young Devajammani, a girl without the dreaded disease, to the young Raja. Her willingness to have the new vaccine was announced in Madras in July 1806. In Hickey’s portrait not only is she shown in a white sari with a beautiful unblemished complexion, but she is holding her sari to present her left arm and the sleeve of her bodice indication where the vaccine would be performed, something which a European doctor could do without compromising the modesty of an Indian woman.
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