Old Master Paintings & Works on Paper Day Auction

Old Master Paintings & Works on Paper Day Auction

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 220. The manufacture of paper at Patna, India .

The Property of a Lady

Arthur William Devis

The manufacture of paper at Patna, India

Lot Closed

July 4, 10:58 AM GMT


40,000 - 60,000 GBP

Lot Details


The Property of a Lady

Arthur Willliam Devis

London 1762–1822

The manufacture of paper at Patna, India 

oil on canvas

unframed: 45 x 61.5 cm.; 17¾ x 24¼ in.

framed: 53.6 x 69.9 cm.; 21⅛ x 27½ in.  

Acquired by John Biddulph (1768-1846) of Ledbury, the artist’s principal patron, December 1802;

Thence by descent in the Biddulph family;

By whom sold anonymously (‘The Property of a Deceased Estate’), London, Sotheby’s, 21 March 1979, lot 40;

With Eyre & Hobhouse, London;

With Charles Greig, London;

From whom acquired by the father of the present owner.  

W. Foster, ‘British Artists in India 1760-1820’, in The Walpole Society, vol. XIX, Oxford 1931, p. 27;

S.H. Pavière, ‘Biographical Notes on the Devis Family of Painters’, in The Walpole Society, vol. XXV, Oxford 1937, p. 141;

S.H. Pavière, The Devis Family of Painters, Leigh-on-Sea 1950, p. 130, no. 88;

M. Archer, India and British Portraiture 1770-1825, New York and London 1979, pp. 255–56, reproduced pl. 178;

N. Alexander, ‘The Economy of Human Life’. Arthur William Devis and the Agriculture, Arts and Manufactures of Bengal’, in The Connoisseur, vol. 202, no. 812, October 1979, pp. 120–23, reproduced in colour p. 120;

P. Pal and V. Dehejia, From Merchants to Emperors. British Artists and India 1757–1930, Ithaca and London 1986, p. 137;

S. Whittle, Arthur William Devis, 1762–1822, exh. cat., Harris Art Gallery, Preston 2000, p. 59, cat. no. 37. 

London, Royal Academy, 1796, no. 276;

London, Eyre & Hobhouse, Arthur William Devis, An Exhibition of oil paintings 'Arts and Manufacturers of Bengal', 25 September – 19 October 1979, no. 1;

Preston, Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Arthur William Devis, 1762–1822, 2000, no. 37.

Painted circa 1792, this is one of twenty-six oil studies Devis produced for a proposed publication of thirty views illustrating the Arts, Manufactures and Agriculture of Bengal, based on studies Devis made during his extensive travels around northern India. Originally intended to be engraved in colour and published, the project never reached fruition due to financial difficulties. However, the paintings that Devis produced for this intended project represent his most original contribution to the art of British India. The scheme was one of the most ambitious projects of the artist’s career and the pictures are notable for their genuine respect and the graceful dignity which Devis imparts upon his subjects in these studies of local scenes. 

Devis arrived in India in 1785, when in his early twenties, having survived the shipwreck of the East India packet boat Antelope, on which he had been commissioned by the Company as official draftsman during a voyage through the South Pacific, much as William Hodges had with Captain Cook ten years earlier. His ship having been wrecked on Oroolong (Ulong), in the Pelew Islands, Devis spent some time there sketching Abba Thulle, the ibedul or paramount chief of what is modern day Palau, as well as a number of his wives and other islanders, before he and the rest of the crew were able to make it to Canton, from where Devis travelled on to Bengal. 

In Calcutta he quickly established himself as one of the leading European painters in India, painting portraits of a number of the most eminent figures among the British community, including Warren Hastings, the Governor-General. Devis would also paint Hasting’s successor, Lord Cornwallis, and despite the presence of several distinguished rivals in Bengal at the time, including Johan Zoffany, Thomas Hickey and Francesco Renaldi, he maintained a prominent position at the forefront of fashionable patronage. Many even though his work superior to that of his main rivals, as his fellow artist and superintendent of the Free School Society in Calcutta, William Baillie, commented: ‘Devis paints most delightfully, I think, especially small figures in which I like his handling and colouring even better than Zoffany’s.’1

More so than most European artists working in India, with the possible exception of Renaldi, Devis’s work demonstrates a clear interest in the native population of the Subcontinent – a sensibility that some historians have credited to his experiences in the Pellew Islands. Whilst principally based in Calcutta, he made frequent trips out into the surrounding country to sketch Indian villagers at work. In the autumn of 1786 he travelled as far as Patna, on the south bank of the Ganges in the modern state of Bihar, where he made studies of local people engaged in their traditional industries; including paper and saltpetre making, as well as the weaving of stripped cotton carpets, known as satringis, for which Patna was famous. It is upon studies made on this trip that the present painting was based, whilst others in the Arts and Manufactures series required new sketches, taken as he travelled around the country in order to fulfil portrait commissions. 

Devis principal sponsor for the Arts and Manufactures project was probably Sir William Jones (1746-1794), whose portrait Devis painted around 1793, accompanied by a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha, the patron of learning.2 Jones founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal, for which he seconded Devis as a member, which promoted scholarly research into Indian culture. Unfortunately, Jones died the following year in 1794 and the engraved series never materialised. However, the paintings Devis produced in preparation for it were exhibited in Madras to much acclaim and a number were later shown at the Royal Academy in London upon his return in 1796, including this painting. Throughout the series Devis provides a convincing evocation of village in rural Bengal, for which there is little to no precedent in Anglo-Indian art, and the paintings are an important early record of life in the subcontinent in the late eighteenth century.  

Other works from this series, now held in the British public collections, include Carpet Weavers, in Patna and A potter engaged in throwing a pot at a wheel (both British Library); A scene in a brazier’s shop in Bengal and A blacksmith’s shop in Bengal (each Victoria & Albert Museum, London); and Stamping coinage in the Mint and An assayer at work in the mint, Calcutta (both Ashmolean Museum, Oxford); whilst a scene of Indian women grinding corn is in the Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven. Another painting from the series, The Weavers (depicting the weaving of muslin, painted at Satipore), recently sold at Gorringes, in Lewes, 12 March 2024, lot 201, for £130,000.


1 Archer 1979, p. 248.

2 The painting is now in the British Library, London.