The status of a courtier at the Mughal imperial court was reflected by his outfit, says Christie’s Islamic Art specialist Behnaz Atighi Moghaddam. ‘Elaborate courtly dress not only signified the extent of your wealth, but also your proximity to the emperor.’
It was customary for courtiers to wear sumptuous woven-silk garments, as well as decorated sashes, strings of pearls and magnificent jewelled turbans.
‘You have to imagine how the gold and silver threads would have dazzled in the candlelight, bestowing a kind of regal aura upon the courtier’ — Behnaz Atighi Moghaddam
Metal-thread brocade textiles, however, were reserved for the most distinguished royal courtiers. ‘The expense and procedures involved in creating such garments made them the most highly valued at court,’ says Atighi Moghaddam.
‘You have to imagine how the gold and silver threads would have dazzled in the candlelight, bestowing a kind of regal aura upon the courtier — a privilege afforded only to those closest to the emperor.’
Courtiers generally either commissioned their outer garments directly from local silk ateliers or received them as gifts from the emperor. The Mughal rulers — notably Akbar (r. 1556-1605), Jahangir (r. 1605-27) and Shah Jahan (r. 1627-58) — were generous patrons of the arts, commissioning everything from paintings to textiles.
A rare survival of the Mughal silk ateliers, this magnificent metal-thread brocade garment features an entirely gold ground. ‘The weight of the robe surprises you,’ says Atighi Moghaddam. ‘This would have been a highly prized possession, most likely worn by an important member of the royal inner circle.’
The robe is decorated with Persian-style rose bushes woven in coloured silk — a motif widely found in Mughal textiles, from carpets and shawls to velvets.
‘It reflects a unique period of diplomatic and cultural exchange between the Mughal and Safavid courts,’ says the specialist. ‘At the turn of the 18th century, highly skilled Mughal and Persian artisans would have travelled between the two courts, combining the traditional techniques and designs of each empire in their work.’
The shape of the present robe, however, is typically Mughal. The high neck and knee-length hem classify it as an angarkhi, which is a shorter form of the angarkha, a type of Mughal robe worn by men and characterised by an inserted panel over the chest.
‘Because metal-thread brocade robes were so expensive to make, old garments were often reused and refashioned into newer styles,’ says Atighi Moghaddam. ‘It’s possible that this was the case with ours.’
Surviving contemporary Mughal paintings enable scholars to date styles and fashions, as well as textiles and designs. ‘We know from these extremely detailed and descriptive pictures that angarkha constructed from gold brocade were highly fashionable at court in the 17th and and 18th centuries,’ says Atighi Moghaddam.
A folio, above, from the Late Shah Jahan Album, which sold in October 2017 for £548,750, is a case in point. Executed circa 1640-45, it depicts the Mughal courtier Mirza Raja Jai Singh Kachhawa of Amber (r. 1621-67) dressed in a jama — a three-quarter or ankle-length robe — with a gold brocade similar to the present example.
Although it is not known exactly for whom the garment was made, Atighi Moghaddam suggests it once belonged to either Henry Vansittart (1732-70), Governor of Bengal from 1759 to 1764, or his brother George Vansittart (1745-1825), who lived in Bengal from 1761 to 1776. ‘The present robe was also previously offered in a Vansittart estate sale,’ the specialist explains.
British officials — particularly those associated with the East India Company — were often painted in Indian attire. One celebrated example is Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Captain John Foote (1761-65) of the British East India Company, now in the collection of the York Museums and Gallery Trust.
‘Portraits such as this illustrate the fascination of Europeans with the Indian styles and traditions of the time,’ says Atighi Moghaddam. ‘It was very usual practice in the 18th century for wealthy Westerners to shop for and wear sumptuous Indian textiles.’
In addition to its noteworthy provenance, the garment offered at Christie’s is completely intact. ‘It’s very rare to see an entire Mughal brocaded robe of this quality and date at auction,’ says the specialist. ‘Mostly we just see brocaded fragments.’ With only subtle creasing under the arms, it’s also in excellent condition.
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Comparable robes can be found in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. ‘This robe offers a wonderful glimpse into Mughal imperial fashions and customs,’ says Atighi Moghaddam. ‘Given its historical significance, we expect to see great interest from private collectors and institutions alike.’