As the son of a renowned local portrait painter August Theodor Schoefft was raised in an artistic milieu in Pest, Hungary. He was an artist with an inquisitive mind and a strong taste for the observation and recording of the exotic. He travelled from an early age and crossed several continents in his search for foreign cultures. Although he had a strong orientation towards the East and his oeuvre is dominated by Asian subject matter, he was equally drawn to the underlying sophistication of the primitive Indian tribes of America. A fine example of this is his portrayal of a Chief of the Kickapoo Indians and his family (Anonymous sale; Sotheby's New York, 11 March 1999, lot 110, sold for $57,500). For the artist it was all about conveying the fascinating imagery of those things so far removed from the everyday life of his European contemporaries.
The artist managed to finance his explorations by securing the commission of several prestigious portraits, most famously that of the greatest Statesmen of Hungarian history, Count Istvn Szchenyi. In 1835, he travelled to India via Turkey and made a series of sketches and illustrated notes which were made up into larger oil compositions on his return to Europe.
During his time in India, Schoefft worked in Lahore at the court of Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), the 'Lion of the Punjab' and celebrated Sikh ruler and where in 1841 he painted his best known work, The Court at Lahore. This monumental picture, in which over a hundred portraits are depicted, received critical acclaim when it was exhibited at the Vienna Salon in 1855. The ruler's son, Maharaja Duleep Singh (1838-1893), famously adopted by Queen Victoria, hung it at his English home, Elvedon Hall in Suffolk, before it was returned to Lahore where it is now displayed alongside the collection of his daughter, Princess Bamba.
The present picture was almost certainly executed on his return to Europe at a similar time to the Lahore canvas. It is historically significant for depicting a gang of Thugs, a subject which fascinated nineteenth-century Britain, although rarely recorded by artists of the day.
The Anglo-Indian word, Thug, referred to the cult of wandering highwaymen adept in duping travellers and practising theft and strangulation. This organized, ruthless, swift and elusive fraternity was active in India for nearly two centuries. Their strategy was to gain the confidence of travellers and, after lulling them into a false sense of security, to throw a short length of material around their necks and strangle them. They would then plunder their bodies before burying them.
The Thug heartland lay amid rocky, arid Madhya Pradesh in central India and operated largely unnoticed by the British until the 1820s when the repeated unaccountable disappearances of treasure-bearers attracted attention. It was Lord Bentinck, Governor General of India (1827-1835), who eventually took a personal interest and turned the matter into a proper investigation, supported by Major William Henry Sleeman, a British officer, who created a mechanism for the systematic destruction of the cult. Between 1830 and 1840, Sleeman pursued, meticulously documented and eventually captured more than 3,000 Thugs and deservedly became a hero of the Raj.
In this picture, the shrine to Ganesh acts as the focal point of the composition. The turbaned male figure in the foreground on the left menacingly twists a white turban cloth with murderous intent directed towards the unsuspecting Akali Sikh warrior seated in front of him while the musicians and the recumbent female provide distraction.
An engraving of the present lot with only small variations is illustrated in Narrative of the Indian Revolt, 1858. According to the unknown author of the publication, Schoefft's picture serves as a contemporary account. It cites one 'M Schaeft [sic] of considerable artistic genius' who, whilst in Delhi visited Thug prisoners. At the prison he worked with an Indian potter reproducing scenes of banditry in clay as described in detail by the prisoners. On one visit, Schoefft was recorded as having 'painted the picture which represents a scene displayed by the Thug prisoners' and which was later worked into the grand scale oil picture offered here. (ibid, p. 209, engraving illustrated pp. 210-211). Schoefft creates what could be viewed as a 'Salon' piece - a narrative of a contemporary event aggrandized and painted on a scale to rival that of a History Painting. With its alluring and fecund females alongside murderous males, Schoefft's portrayal of the Thugs upholds the 19th Century preoccupation with and Western vision of India as exotic and 'other'.
Thugs fascinated the British public. In 1839 Queen Victoria, who took an enthusiastic interest in Indian affairs, demanded to see the proofs of Confession of a Thug, by Colonel Philip Meadows Taylor, a colonial officer in Hyderabad. Tales of Thug exploits inspired writers like Mark Twain and John Masters; the latter's novel on the subject The Deceivers was made into a film produced by Ismail Merchant, starring Pierce Brosnan. Schoefft's exploration of the cult of Thugs captures the fascination of the West with this dangerous and exciting subject.
For further information see H. Yule and A.B. Burnell, Hobson-Jobson The Anglo-Indian Dictionary, Hertfordshire, 1996, pp. 915-917.
For another depiction of the subject please see lot 143.