ART MARKET: Essex sale provides latest market test for Company School bird paintings

While some areas of the Orientalist art market suffered commercially from ties to colonization, the way in which these works combined Mughal artistic traditions with European working methods seems to have made them attractive rather than hindered in the modern market. .

A number of exhibitions over the past 10 years have underlined this.

An exhibition of the bird paintings commissioned between 1777 and 1782 in Calcutta by Mary, Lady Impey, wife of the Chief Justice of the East India Company, Sir Elijah Impey, was held at the Ashmoleon, Oxford in 2012- 2013. More recently, a show called Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company ran at the Wallace Collection in 2019-20.

Together they demonstrated how the keen observation and attention to detail derived from Mughal miniature painting merged with a new scientific approach to natural history emanating from the West. This happened around the same time that the British introduced watercolour, sepia wash and European paper to India (previously Indian miniatures were mainly created in gouache).


Calcutta School study of a purple heron – £17,000 from Sworders.

Colonial patronage

Although the practice of bird painting in India predates the period of British rule, the fact that a large number of ornithological works were commissioned by colonial patrons from artists working in Lucknow, Calcutta, Patna , Madras and Delhi means a steady stream of them continues to emerge. at auction in the UK.

Indeed, the production of these watercolors became something akin to an industry, with officers of the East India Company giving artists access to the birds kept in their aviaries, menageries and botanical gardens.

It is therefore rare, but not unheard of, that the name of the individual artist is recorded (the studies of Lady Impey, for example, were made by three named artists). This means that when they come out at auction today, they tend to be cataloged simply as “the school of Calcutta” or, more generically, “the school of business”.

Their values ​​are strongly tied to their subject: birds with the most flamboyant colors tend to do better and, unsurprisingly, the rarest species command a bounty.

The artistic factors linked to the refinement and delicacy of the execution are also decisive (buyers will be particularly attentive to the neat rendering of the feathers). As you might expect, condition, size and provenance also play an important role, as in other sectors of the art market in general.

Until the mid-1990s, many of these bird pictures could be acquired relatively affordably, but their growing recognition and growing interest from bidders on the subcontinent led to a dramatic increase in prices, particularly for quality examples.

Further impetus has come in recent years with the advent of internet auctions, making them more accessible to Indian buyers. Copies sold at auction more than 20 years ago can now fetch with an extra ‘0’ added – a noticeable increase, especially in a mainstream industry like this.


One of a pair of Calcutta School koel watercolors which fetched £16,000 in a single lot at Sworders.

Commercial boost

In the latest market test, the sale of the Sally Hunter and Ian Posgate collection at Sworders (25% purchase bonus) May 18 highlighted this commercial change.

It included a group of 23 lots comprising Indian ornithological watercolors dating from around 1800 which were re-entering the market after being acquired at major auctions and through the London specialist dealer Arthur Millner.

Hunter was a gallery owner herself in London and compiled a large art collection with her late husband, Posgate, an insurance underwriter at Lloyds of London, which was kept in their Victorian home on the outskirts of Henley on Thames.

Although they also amassed a remarkable collection of modern British art, bird paintings made impressive returns with all 23 lots selling for a total of £189,410.

The lots attracted interest both by phone and online and were offered to four different bidders: three from the UK and one from India.

In particular, the five Calcutta School works attracted demand, selling well above estimate. “The examples that Sally and Ian collected were of high quality – some extremely detailed,” said Jane Oakley, lead specialist at Sworders.

“The Calcutta School only flourished for a short time from the late 18th century to the early 19th century and so these works were a good date for anyone interested in company school pictures.”

The group’s largest lot was a pair of finely executed watercolors depicting Indian treepies. The bird, also known as the rufous treepie, is a member of the crow family but with conspicuous plumage and a long, black-tipped tail. It creates a flash color in passing.

The 18¾ x 13 inch (48 x 22 cm) pen, ink and watercolors (highlighted with body color) were numbered ‘400’ and ‘399’ in Persian – likely representing their position in an album rather than a edition number. They had been purchased together at Christie’s in September 1997 for £1898 including premium.

Given a conservative estimate of £600-800 here, possibly due to a small repair to one of the works and a few areas of foxing, bidding nevertheless took off and the lot eventually sold for 26 £000 to a private buyer in London. .

The multiple rise in value was partly due to the strong performance in June last year of a group of outstanding works from the Calcutta School which sold at Bonhams and appear to have raised the bar for the market. While two figurative topographic works at Bonhams fetched £60,000 and £50,000 each, a study of a bird perched on the branch by Calcutta artist Shaykh Zayn al-Din (fl.1770-80) from the Impey collection fetched £32,000.

Another vastly overpriced offer at Sworders was a Calcutta School study of a purple heron which was offered at £400-600. Another superbly detailed work and this time without any condition issues (although it has not been examined out of its elegant frame), the 17½ x 11½ inch (44 x 29 cm) watercolor and bodywork have again purchased by a private buyer in London. The price of £17,000 was the highest for an individual work in the collection.

Two other Calcutta school batches made significant increases from previous prices. One was a pair of watercolor koels (a member of the same family as the cuckoo) which fetched £16,000 (estimate £600-£800) from another London buyer bidding online. It had been acquired for £1785 with premium at Christie’s in September 1997. The other lot was a pair of watercolors depicting teals which fetched £5400 (guide book £600-£800) and had been bought for £2300 at Christie’s in October 1999.

“business school”


One of a group of four Company School watercolors of exotic birds – £13,000 at Sworders.

While the works cataloged simply as “Company School” were of more uneven quality, they all sold well nonetheless.

A group of four watercolors of exotic birds, all with tags, easily passed an estimate of £400-600 and took £13,000 from a bidder in India – one of several lots from the collection migrating home during sales. A group of five studies of birds from the parrot family also took £10,000 (estimated £500-700) and topped the £1,035 they won as a group at Christie’s in October 1999.

This latest result again underscored a rise in prices over the past 21 years.

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