Great Indian Fruit Bat or Flying Fox
One of the works from the Rochell collection that was originally part of the Impey Album, this picture of a great Indian fruit bat (or ‘flying fox’) is signed by Bhawani Das and dates from c. 1778-82. It is estimated at £300,000-500,000 at the Sotheby’s sale.

Rochell is well known to Sotheby’s. He spent the first 18 years of his career at the auction house where he founded the Indian and Southeast Asian Art department in 1988. He later served as managing director of Sotheby’s Asia and joined the firm’s board of directors before leaving and opening his own gallery in New York in 2002.

The sale is titled ‘In An Indian Garden’ and will feature 44 paintings across 29 lots with an overall estimate of £1.7m-2.5m.

Around half of the Company School pictures (works by Indian masters commissioned by East India Company officials in the 18th and 19th centuries) depict birds with others focusing on other animals, flora, human figures and the architecture of the Indian subcontinent.

Most have never been on public view and are emerging for the first time in decades but seven of the works featured in the Wallace Collection’s 2019-20 exhibition Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, curated by the well known writer and historian William Dalrymple.

The exhibition underlined how these naturalistic studies on paper linked Indian artistic traditions with European working methods and the show also introduced the UK public to some of the finest Indian painters working during the late Mughal period such as Shaykh Zayn al-Din, Ram Das, Bhawani Das and Ghulam Ali Khan – all of whom are represented in the auction.

This sub-sector of the art market has been gaining notable attention of late. Prices have grown significantly over the last few decades but, more recently, the advent of internet searching and online bidding has made them more accessible to Indian buyers. Examples sold at auction over 20 years ago can now make sums with an extra ‘0’ added – a notable increase especially in a traditional sector such as this.

Sotheby’s head of sale Benedict Carter spoke of how the “remarkable hybrid style merging Mughal and European elements” was “finally receiving the full attention it deserves”, while Dalrymple said it was “a genre that is only now beginning to receive its full credit”.

The most valuable works in the Rochell collection come from the albums commissioned by the East India Company’s chief justice Sir Elijah Impey and his wife Mary. The couple kept a menagerie of animals in their gardens in Calcutta and hired local artists to paint a total of 326 studies to record the different species between 1777-83 – over half of which depicted birds.

After the couple brought back their extensive collection to England, the albums were broken up when they sold at auction in London in 1810. Several studies are now held in international institutions including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the V&A in London. Today works from the Impey album have major commercial cache and lead the market for Company School paintings.

A Lesser Adjutant Stork (Leptoptilos Javanicus)

‘A Lesser Adjutant Stork (Leptoptilos Javanicus) In a Landscape’, Company School, Lucknow, c.1775-85 – estimated at £60,000-80,000 at Sotheby’s.

Other works in the sale were commissioned by the likes of the Fraser brothers, Viscount Valentia and Major General Claude Martin. The latter was a merchant, soldier, architect, hot air balloonist and collector who did much to spark the fashion among British ex-pats to commission and collect such works. Here a depiction of a lesser adjutant stork (Leptoptilos Javanicus) with provenance to his collection is estimated at £60,000-80,000.

Among other previous owners of works in the Rochell collection are Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, South Asian paintings collector Edwin Binney, scholar and curator Stuart Cary Welch and former US Ambassador to Morocco, The Hon. Joseph Verner Reed, Jr.

Stork eating a snail

This work from the Rochell collection has provenance to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Depicting a stork eating a snail it is among the studies, it comes from the Impey album and is signed by the artist Shaykh Zayn Al-Din and dated 1781. It is estimated at £200,000-300,000.

Rochell said: “I first began to collect these lesser-known masterpieces over two decades ago simply for my personal enjoyment, my imagination having been captured by their ‘East meets West’ aesthetic. When they were painted, these works were the principal way in which India could be revealed to those in Great Britain, who otherwise could only hear stories about this sumptuous land.

“Many years on, as they are beginning to take their rightful place in world art, these pieces can now inspire a new generation of collectors who I hope will cherish them as I have.”