Peter Howson travelled to India in 1999 with a party that included the animal painter Nicola Hicks who was also represented by The Flowers Gallery. Howson was feeling particularly unsettled at the time and relished the prospect of the trip: 'This time I was desperate to get away, to be away all the time.' (quoted in Robert Heller, Peter Howson, 2003) The intention was to paint tigers at the Bandhavgarh reserve. Unfortunately the expedition was beset with difficulty from the outset; fog meant that they landed in Bombay and had to travel overland to New Delhi. Hicks, who had been suffering from cough prior to departure, soon developed pneumonia. Howson, who admits 'I always think about myself' seemed to be the only one taking her condition seriously '...everyone else seemd to be more interested in their work.' (ibid) Through a mixture of bribery and persuasion he managed to get her to a hotel where she was seen by a Doctor and recovered sufficiently to travel home.
These were hardly ideal conditions for Howson to paint, yet he absorbed enough of the environment to paint a number of works following his return, of which the present is undoubtedly the most important. An apocalyptic, surreal vision, on a monumental scale is played out as a group of Tigers are surrounded and hunted down by men with clubs and guns. Although the animals are fighting to protect themselves, the vast approaching army to the left of the composition means they will inevitably be overwhelmed. Evoking a sense of the gladiatorial contest, a group of people sit around a table, calmly observing the carnage. This group, who take tea while being waited on and entertained by tabla players, are predominantly white with one man wearing a pith helmet. These elements combine to evoke a strong sense of Britain's colonial past and oppression. The hellish furnace, with its chimney belching out smoke, suggests the inexorable rise of industry and, with the wizzened leafless trees, its devastation of the landscape.
In a broader sense, the work can be seen as a metaphor for the artist's personal battles against addiction. He described the year 2000 as 'probabaly one of the worst years of my life, actually...I was taking an enormous amount of drugs at the time, and of all types.' (ibid) It is a testament to his extraordinary ability that, at such a dark time in his life, he was still able to produce works of such power.