copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
27 January 2007
It is well known that the mutual influences of eastern and western
art go back a long way, so that Rembrandt, for instance, knew
and copied Mughal paintings. What I always forget is that Mughal
artists knew and copied European prints. I shouldn't forget
this, because one of the most famous results of this influence
is in Oxford, where I live. The Ashmolean owns a copy of Dürer's
figure of St John the Evangelist, made in 1600 after an engraving
that dates from 1510, by a 12-year-old artist at the Mughal
court, Abu'l Hasan.
This young man worked under the patronage of
Prince Salim, who went on to become the emperor Jahangir and
ruled from 1605-27, the fourth of the great Mughal emperors.
Abu'l Hasan became a leading portraitist. His copy from Dürer
takes the figure of the saint from an engraving of the crucifixion
and manages to be at once faithful to its conception and, in
the execution of the face, rather strange and non-European.
I can't say with confidence that, if I had
been shown this drawing without any advance knowledge, I would
have been able to guess what sort of thing it was. It is often
illustrated, but Mughal drawings are not as familiar to us as
Mughal paintings, where the wealth of decorative detail (the
flatly executed patterns of the garments, the floral designs,
the geometrical borders) gives you an immediate sense of where
There is a Mughal brush drawing at the Museum
of Fine Arts in Boston (this, and the previous drawing, can
be seen in Andrew Topsfield's little book Indian Paintings from
Oxford Collections, 1994) depicting a gaunt unshaven figure
lying on a bed, with a disordered and collapsing arrangement
of pillows and bolsters, his jacket open to reveal an emaciated
ribcage, his arms thin and his hands like long claws. The subject
(the artist is unknown) is identified as the dying courtier
Inayat Khan features in Jahangir's memoirs.
The emperor records: "He was one of my intimate attendants.
As he was addicted to opium, and, when he had the chance, to
drinking as well, by degrees he became maddened with wine. As
he was weakly built, he took more than he could digest, and
was attacked by the disease of diarrhoea, and in this weak state
he two or three times fainted." Inayat Khan was put on
a palanquin and brought before the emperor. Jahangir was fascinated.
"He appeared so low and weak that I was astonished. He
was skin drawn over bones. Or rather his bones, too, had dissolved.
Though painters have striven much in drawing an emaciated face,
yet I have never seen anything like this, nor even approaching
it. Good God, can a son of man come to such a shape and fashion?
As it was a very extraordinary case, I directed painters to
take his portrait."
So the Boston drawing is the work of one of
these unnamed court painters. And the Bodleian Library in Oxford
owns the painted version of exactly the same scene: the identical
figure, the identical lopsided arrangement of pillows and bolsters,
but with a simple background, showing a wall with two niches,
each containing two vases. Nothing of the drawing's naturalism
has been abandoned. This is one of the masterpieces of Mughal
portraiture, and indeed one of the touchstones of world art.
This, by the way, is a generally held opinion
among those who have studied Mughal art. John Fleming and Hugh
Honour, in The Visual Arts: A History, write that "No more
coolly objective image of a man confronting death has ever been
painted. The beauty of its austerely geometrical structure,
its predominantly pallid tone lit only by the carefully placed
patches of bright colour and the tiny strip of blue and red
ornament in the right-hand corner, glows like a fading ember.
Every link with the Iranian style of decorative miniature painting
has been severed in this extraordinary work."
This painting is one of around 50 Indian works
on display in the Bodleian's tiny exhibition space. It is a
free show, and continues until April 28. The paintings have
been chosen from the holdings of both the Bodleian and the Ashmolean.
Oxford received its first gift of Indian paintings, amazingly
enough, from Archbishop Laud, who was vice-chancellor of the
university, in 1640. Nobody knows how the Laud album came into
the archbishop's collection, but he donated it just before his
A painting of a girl snake-charmer comes from
the "Laud Ragamala" - that is a garland of ragas or
musical modes, each illustrated. The Laud album contains 18
pages from what would originally have been 36 or more. The Asavari
mode, the snake-charmer's mode, is - as Topsfield informs us
- usually performed in the early hours, and derives from the
snake-charmer's plaintive melody. The girl, the ragini, is shown
sitting on a rock, with one snake in hand, and another two around
her neck and her leg. She is bluish-skinned and wears a skirt
made of leaves. The thought of Laud having owned this painting,
let alone having perused or valued it, is to me very surprising.
It is a curious fact that Oxford owns the earliest
Indian paintings and the earliest Indian sculpture to enter
a western museum or library. In addition to the Laud paintings,
it owns the "Hedges Vishnu", a stone carving donated
in 1686 by Sir William Hedges, who was governor of the East
India Company in Bengal. And once, when I was being shown the
Indian coins at the Ashmolean, a curator pointed out a gold
coin that had been donated by the first governor-general, Warren
But it is not the case that the library or
the museum has been continuously collecting Indian art since
the 17th century. Much of the present holdings derives from
the imperial period, when colonial administrators were able
to buy and collect items from the old princely libraries. All
in all, it represents a remarkable collection, but it cannot
always be put on display. So these occasional opportunities
to see bits of it are worth taking. There is a selection, for
instance, of pages from the emperor Akbar's copy of the Baharistan,
or "Garden of Spring", a royal manuscript dating from
1595. This gives the exhibition its title - The Flower Garden
of Spring: Paintings from Mughal India.