Lady Impey’s Indian Bird Paintings Back

On show in the Ashmolean Museum until 14 April are twelve exquisite paintings of Indian birds commissioned by Mary, Lady Impey between 1777 and 1782. Elijah Impey, her husband, was appointed the first Chief Justice of the New Supreme Court at Calcutta in 1772. He set himself up to master Indian law and learn Persian (still the court language), while taking a great interest in Indian life and culture. The Impey family were painted by Johan Zoffany in 1783, just before they left India, shown being entertained by a group of Indian musicians with little Marian Impey dancing in Indian style.
Lady Impey was fascinated by Indian flora and fauna and she and her husband established a large aviary of rare birds as well as a menagerie. She employed three Indian artists, Shaikh Zayn ud-Din, a Muslim, and Bhawani Das and Ram Das, Hindus, all from Patna, to paint birds, fish, flowers, and animals from life. This was in the spirit of the growing interest during the eighteenth century in natural history reinforced with the purchase by George III, in 1762, of the Paper Museum of Cassiano del Pozzo (1583-1657). Pozzo was secretary to Pope Urban VIII and a member of the Accademia dei Lincei, one of the earliest scientific academies in Europe, which emphasised direct visual observation as a key to unravelling the mysteries of nature. The Impeys’ large collection of paintings was sold after Elijah’s death in 1809 and the paintings on view, as well as another six, belonged to Sir Henry Acland (1815-1900), Oxford’s Regius Professor of Medicine, who presented them to Oxford’s Radcliffe Science Library.

All but one of the paintings on exhibition are by Shaikh Zayn ud-Din and represent a fascinating variety of birds. Each is signed by the artist with accompanying notes. An early commission was for the Indian Hornbill (Anthracoceros malabaricus), c. 1777, which shows the large bird perched on a tree stump entwined by a decorative red flowering creeper. Trained in the Mughal tradition of miniature painting, Zayn has adopted the European convention of natural history painting as seen in illustrations available in books of engravings no doubt brought to his attention by Lady Impey. While examples had earlier been brought to the Mughal Court by the Jesuits, and patrons such as the Emperor Jahangir were fascinated by birds and employed artists to paint particular specimens, natural history had never formed the main subject of Mughal painting.

What distinguishes the paintings on view is that the artists had to adapt the scale of the birds to a large format to fill the sheets of Whatman paper, available in Calcutta together with artists’ materials sent out from England. In fact, some of the paintings are inscribed with the measurements of the species they depict, such as the Common Crane (Grus grus), 4 foot 6 inches from its bill to the ground. This bird takes up the whole sheet, his neck curved back with his head against his breast and his orange eye as the focal point. Painted in gouache, however, there are still strong suggestions of the Mughal tradition and training seen in the very refined and delicate painting of these birds. Paint is built up layer upon layer with very fine brushes that capture the lightness of the birds’ feathers. A particularly beautiful example is the Sarus Crane (Grus antigone), 1780, a handsome bird whose red legs contrast with its blue-grey over white plumage, subtly merging into its white neck and the gradations of red and black on its head. The Great Flamingo (Phoenicopteros ruber) of 1781 is depicted with wonderful pinky feathers and its wings lined with black, its neck forming a decorative S curve to accommodate it within the sheet of paper. Its head, yellow eyes, and beak are painted with precision and its legs rendered in incredible detail. In contrast to the delicate form of the flamingo, the Adjutant Stork (Leptoptilos dubins), c. 1780, is a more imposing figure, a large bird with black, brown and blue feathers in its wings, an orange, brown and red head and neck, a large yellow eye and huge beak. Here too, though, the focus is on intricate detail: the very fine wiry lines of the bird’s hairs and different bristles, as well as the markings on its black legs of a delicate honeycomb or diamond pattern, are all minutely painted in gouache. This carrion-eating scavenger, which takes up the full sheet of paper despite being shown half-size, was a common sight in Calcutta perched on trees and the roof lines of Government House, its static, pensive and waiting pose earning its name, the Adjutant Stork.

Equally sensitively painted is the Demoiselle Crane (Anthropoides virgo), c. 1780. The only painting included by Bhawani Das, it is slightly smaller, the grey plumage painted with the greatest delicacy. The labels in the exhibition are most informative as to species and habitat, and in the case of the painting by Das, the label explains how it is often mentioned in poetry and folklore and how beautiful women might be compared to this bird for its slender graceful form.

One of the most delightful and different paintings, with a horizontal format, is of a Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo (Cactura galerita), 1777, sitting on a broken branch of a custard apple tree (Annona reticulata) against an attractive pattern of green leaves and yellow fruit. It is not an Indian bird but possibly comes from Australia or New Guinea and it is suggested that it was acquired by Lady Impey as a pet. Lady Impey was recognised as one of the earliest British patrons of Indian natural history art and although not on view, one species of the pheasant family was even named after her: the Himalayan Monal, Lophophonius Impejanus, also known as the Impeyjan Pheasant, a National Bird of Nepal. With her enthusiasm and interest she made a great contribution to the investigation of natural history in India which would be taken forward under the auspices of the Asiatic Society, founded in 1784 by Sir William Jones. Besides being greatly informative about the different species depicted, these very beautiful paintings demonstrate admirably the blending of two cultural traditions – very fitting for the Ashmolean’s theme of ‘Crossing Continents’.


‘Lady Impey’s Indian Bird Paintings’ is at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, from 16 October 2012 to 14 April 2013. It can also be viewed on Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art