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One of a pair of Calcutta School watercolours of Indian treepies that sold together for £26,000 at Sworders.

While some areas of the Orientalist art market have suffered commercially from links with colonialisation, the way these works combined Mughal artistic traditions with European working methods seems to have lent them appeal rather than hindered them on the modern market.

A number of exhibitions in the last 10 years have underlined this.

An exhibition of the bird paintings commissioned between 1777-82 in Calcutta by Mary, Lady Impey, wife of the East India Company’s chief justice Sir Elijah Impey, was held at the Ashmoleon in Oxford in 2012-13. More recently a show titled Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company ran at the Wallace collection in 2019-20.

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

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

Colonial patronage

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

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

It is rare therefore, but not unheard of, for the name of the individual artist to be recorded (Lady Impey’s studies, for example, were by three named artists). This means that when they emerge at auction today they tend to be catalogued as simply ‘Calcutta School’ or, more generically, ‘Company School’.

Their values relate strongly to their subject matter: the more flamboyantly coloured birds tend to do better and, unsurprisingly, the rarer species command a premium.

Artistic factors relating to how refined and delicate they are in terms of the execution are also key (in particular buyers will look carefully at the meticulous rendering of the feathers). As you would expect, condition, size and provenance also play an important role as with other sectors of the art market generally.

Until around the mid 1990s, many of these bird pictures could be acquired relatively affordably but their increasing recognition and growing interest from bidders in the sub-continent has led to a considerable growth in prices, particularly for quality examples.

A further boost has come over recent years with the advent of internet bidding, making 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.

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One of a pair of Calcutta School watercolours of koels that made £16,000 as a single lot at Sworders.

Commercial boost

In the latest test of the market, the sale of the Sally Hunter and Ian Posgate collection at Sworders (25% buyer’s premium) on May 18 underlined this commercial change.

It included a group of 23 lots comprising Indian ornithological watercolours from c.1800 which were returning to the market having originally been acquired at leading auctions and through London specialist dealer Arthur Millner.

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

While they also amassed a notable Modern British art collection, the ornithological paintings made some impressive returns with all 23 lots selling for a combined £189,410.

The lots drew interest both on the phone and online and were knocked down to four different bidders: three from the UK and one in India.

In particular the five Calcutta School works drew demand, selling significantly over estimate. “The examples Sally and Ian collected were of great quality – some exquisitely detailed,” said Sworders specialist in charge Jane Oakley.

“The Calcutta school prospered for only a short period at the end of the 18th century into the beginning of the 19th century and these works were therefore a good date for anyone interested in Company School pictures.”

The top lot among the group was a pair of finely executed watercolours 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 colour as it flies passed.

The 18¾ x 13in (48 x 22cm) pen, ink and watercolours (heightened with bodycolour) were numbered ‘400’ and ‘399’ in Persian – probably representing their position in an album rather than an edition number. They had been bought together at Christie’s in September 1997 for £1898 including premium.

Given a cautious £600-800 estimate here, perhaps on account of the small repair to one of the works and a few areas of foxing, the bidding nevertheless took off and the lot was eventually knocked down at £26,000 to a private buyer in London.

The rise in value many times over was in part due to the strong performance in June last year of a group of exceptional Calcutta School works which sold at Bonhams and seem to have lifted the bar for the market. While two topographical figurative works at Bonhams made £60,000 and £50,000 apiece, a study of a bird perched on the branch by Calcutta artist Shaykh Zayn al- Din (fl.1770-80s) with provenance to the Impey collection made £32,000.

Also bid dramatically over estimate at Sworders was a Calcutta School study of a purple heron that was pitched at £400-600. Another superbly detailed work and this time with seemingly no condition issues (although it was unexamined out of its elegant frame), the 17½ x 11½in (44 x 29cm) watercolour and bodycolour was again purchased by a private buyer in London. The £17,000 price was the highest for an individual work in the collection.

Two further Calcutta School lots made significant rises on previous prices. One was a pair of watercolours of koels (a member of the same family as the cuckoo) that made £16,000 (estimate £600-800) to a different 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 watercolours depicting teal that made £5400 (guide £600-800) and had been purchased for £2300 at Christie’s in October 1999.

'Company School'

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

While the works catalogued as simply ‘Company School’ were more uneven in quality, they all sold well nevertheless.

A group of four watercolours of exotic birds, all with labels, easily passed a £400-600 estimate and took £13,000 from a bidder in India – one of several lots in the collection migrating home at the sale. A group of five studies of birds from the parrot family also took £10,000 (est: £500- 700) and outstripped the £1035 they had made as a group lot at Christie’s again in October 1999.

This last result again underlined a jump in price over the intervening 21 years.