4. A great Indian fruit bat (flying fox)
Attributed to the circle of Ghulam ‘Ali Khan (active 1817–1855), Company School, Calcutta
late 18th–early 19th century
Watercolor on Whatman paper
8 ¼ x 13 ⅜ in. (20.8 x 34 cm.)
The collection of William Lipton (d. 2018).
The Company School of Indian painting came into being as the officers of the British East India Company and their families expanded control in India and became patrons of the arts. As a result, the 18th and 19th centuries saw Indian artists (many of which were trained in the Mughal tradition) adapt their style to suit European palettes, particularly in their interest in science and discovery. This led to the production of stunning images of local flora and fauna which were often compiled into albums by their patrons and taken back to Europe. Within the so-called Company School, there developed two famed artistic circles–the circle of Bhawani Das and the circle of Ghulam ‘Ali Khan—which produced the Impey Album and the Fraser album, respectively. These two albums are largely considered to be the finest examples of Company School paintings ever produced.
Here, the artist has chosen the great Indian fruit bat (Pteropus giganteus) as his subject in this fine and dramatic study. The animal is rendered naturalistically, the artist paying exceptional attention to detail, most notably in the soft fur, almost-human eyes, and curling claws. In regards to another Company School drawing of the same subject, Stuart Cary Welch points out that “[it] looks far too disturbing to be a strict fruitarian. Its eerie extra claws, useful for holding bananas or mangoes, evoke Gothic horror tales.” Such an evocative subject, which was drawn from life, surely sparked the fascination of this painting’s European patron, who likely wrote the English inscription in the lower right corner, signed JB, recording the subject’s impressive size, “3 feet 9 inches from wing to wing.”
There are three other known Company School illustrations of fruit bats, all of which are attributed to Bhawani Das, who produced extensive natural history studies for Sir Elijah Impey, Chief Justice of Bengal (1774–1782), and his wife, Lady Mary (see William Dalrymple, Forgotten Masters, Indian Painting for the East India Company, London, 2020, p.69–71, figs. 32–34). While the present image is executed on European Whatman paper, as were many other known Impey Album pages with similar illustrations, it is drawn on a much smaller scale, and more closely resembles illustrations produced by the circle of Ghulam ‘Ali Khan. See a folio from the Fraser Album at the British Museum depicting eight Sikh courtiers and servants of the Raja Patiala (acc. 1988,1020,0.1). While quite different in subject, the two images share the softly stippled layering of colors, rounded forms, and subtle naturalism that characterized paintings produced by the circle of Ghulam ‘Ali Khan. While the present image is almost certainly not from the Fraser Album, which consisted majorly of figure drawings and costume studies, it was likely produced by the same group of artists for another patron.