Lady Mary Impey and her Calcutta Menagerie

Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Sulphur Crested Cockatoo on a Custard Apple Branch’, 61.5 x 86 cm, 1777.

In 1773 Sir Elijah Impey moved from England to India to assume his role as first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at Fort William, Calcutta, under the direction of the ill-fated Governor-General, Warren Hastings. Elijah’s wife, the natural historian, Mary Impey, moved with him and soon established a menagerie of Indian and South East Asian birds and animals in their extensive grounds. In 1777 Mary commissioned artists (among them Shaikh Zain ud-din, Ram Das and Bhawani Das) to paint her exotic flora and fauna. These skillful and accurate paintings numbered 362 and became part of a collection known as the Impey Album. Most of the images are inscribed both in Persian and in English by Mary herself. Lady Mary also kept copious notes on the inhabitants of her menagerie which were to prove valuable to later botanists.

Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Pair of Lorikeets on Broken Branches’, 50.8 x 73.66 cm, 1780, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The paintings belong to the Company School of art, in other words, encyclopaedic images commissioned by members of the East India Company to appeal to British tastes. They reflect the then British penchant for studiously and systematically recording everything down to the minutae of daily life in India. The Impey Album is a particularly fine example of this genre of painting, especially the works produced by the artist, Shaikh Zain ud-din, which really need to be seen ‘in the flesh’ in order to fully appreciate their skilful execution and striking beauty.

A Map of Fort William, Calcutta, 1844.


Johan Zoffany, Lord and Lady Impey in India with some of their children and staff.
Shaikh Zain ud-din


A Green-winged Macaw’, attributed to Shaikh Zain ud-din, c. 1780, San Diego Museum of Art.

Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘A Golden-fronted Leafbird Perched on a Peach Tree Branch’.
Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Pied Hornbill’, 1777.
Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Common Crane’, 88.2 x 60.6 cm, 1780.
Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Black-necked Stork’, 83.8 x 60.1 cm, 1781.


Shaikh Zain-ud din, ‘Black-necked Stork II’, 95.5 x 62.5 cm,  1782.
Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Adjutant Stork’, 96.4 x 58.5 cm, c. 1780.


Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Sarus Crane’, 95 x 61.2 cm, c. 1780.
Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Greater Flamingo’, 89.4 x 62.6 cm, 1781.


A detail from a painting by Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘An Ornate Lorikeet on the Branch
of an Indian Cherry Tree’, 1777, sold by Forgelynch in 2014.


Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘Exotic Pheasant’, c. 1777.


Bhawani Das (c.1778-1782)


Shaikh Zain ud-din.


Shaikh Zain ud-din.
Detail of a painting by Shaikh Zain ud-din depicting a Curucui, 1779. Sold at Christie’s.

Shaikh Zain ud-din, ‘An Orange-headed Ground Thrush and
a Death’s Head Moth on a Purple Ebony Orchid Branch’, 59.7 x 80 cm, 1778,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Bhawani Das, ‘A Branch of a Mango Tree’, c. 1780,65.5 x 45.4 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Unknown artist, ‘Custard Apple Branch’, 51.5 x 36 cm, c. 1785,
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Black Stork in Landscape’, 90.2 x 68.6 cm, c. 1780, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


It is not known who painted this image of a Black Stork but based on style, scale and date of execution it could be by Shaikh Zain ud-din or at the very least, a pupil or admirer. Unlike most Shaikh Zain ud-din paintings, the composition includes a landscape. I have a suspicion, though, that the landscape with its tiny meandering river is a later addition by someone seeking to ‘improve’ the painting since it doesn’t accord with the scale or accurate rendering of the bird.

The Impeys’ sojourn in India did not end auspiciously. In 1784, the British Prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, passed a bill (called, imaginatively, the Pitt Bill) to make the East India Company accountable to parliament. In theory this was a positive move, though unfortunately the first case initiated following the bill was marred by complex feuds, and general opaqueness.  In 1787, Elijah Impey and his life-long friend, Warren Hastings, were put on trial for alleged crimes of corruption. The principle accusation was for what was perceived by some, including Edmund Burke, as the mishandeling of the famous Maharaja Nandakumar case in 1775, overseen by Elijah Impey. Nandakumar (also known as Nuncomar) had been hired by the East India Company to collect taxes in certain provinces of West Bengal. He and Hastings had never seen eye to eye and eventually a case was brought against Nandakumar for large-scale fraud. Nandakumar was the first Indian to be hanged under British law. Impey was aquitted after it was decided that Nandakumar had been given a just and fair trial, and Warren Hastings was eventually acquitted of all charges several years later. To this day, opinions on Hastings and his character vary dramatically. The result of the case was to prove fairly disastrous to India, as Nicholas Dirks writes in Scandal of Empire … ‘not only was empire hardly abandoned; it was reformed precisely so that the private and idiosyncratic excesses of venality and corruption attached to particular individuals could be transformed into national interest, both metaphorically and literally.’ (Dirks, 2006: 31)

1024px-warren_hastings_by_tilly_kettleTilly Kettle, Warren Hastings.

… Every accumulation of knowledge, and especially such as is obtained by social communication with people over whom we exercise a dominion founded on the right of conquest, is useful to the state: it is the gain of humanity… It lessons the weight of the chain by which the natives are held in subjection; and it imprints on the hearts of our own countrymen the sense and obligation of benevolence. Even in England this very effect is wanting. It is not very long since the inhabitants of India were considered by many, as creatures scarce elevated above the degree of savage life; nor, I fear is, that prejudice wholly eradicated. (Warren Hastings quoted in Marshall, 1970: 189)

~ by laxshmirose on April 26, 2018.

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