This previously unknown portrait of the bibi (or beebee) of an East India Company official relates closely to the portrait of an Indian woman, thought to be the bibi of John Wombwell (the Company's Paymaster at Lucknow), painted by Charles Smith in Lucknow in 1786 (see fig. 1 overleaf). The sitter in the present picture -- possibly to be identified as the bibi of Suetonius Grant Heatly, the American East India Company official, by the contemporary inscription on a label on the stretcher ('My own Ann Heatly') -- is seated on the same silk bolsters, with the same props, and in the same setting as the Wombwell sitter. The latter portrait was described by Mildred Archer in her chapter on Charles Smith's few extant Indian portraits as: 'a portrait of an Indian woman seated on a cherry red carpet and wearing a mustard yellow and gold dress. She has the heavily-lidded eyes, calmness of mien, neatly modelled features and softly textured drapery of Jawan Bakht and at the same time the similar restless agitation of dress so noticeable in the small portrait of Asaf-ud-daula. The bolsters against which she leans have the chevron patterns in green and yellow -- typical of Lucknow fashion -- and a Lucknow setting is further suggested by the Islamic archway in the distance on the left. Too confident in her poise to be an orthodox Muslim woman of rank -- for no such woman would have allowed herself to be painted in public -- yet too relaxed to be a courtesan or dancing-girl, she is more probably the bibi of yet another Lucknow European, perhaps John Wombwell.' (M. Archer, India and British Portraiture 1770-1825, London, 1979, p.182 and colour plate 110.)
Portraits of the Indian mistresses of East India Company men were relatively common in the late-18th century, with commissions by Wombwell and other 'white mughals' including William Hickey, Colonel Claud Martin, Sir Charles Warre Malet and Major William Palmer from artists such as Zoffany, Renaldi, James Wales and Charles Smith.
'In the early decades of trading in India and through the 1780s, aristocratic Indian women consorts were a given for the domestic lives of ranking English and European traders, and a political necessity for the Company's trading and military agendas. In the seventeenth century, Job Charnock, the Company founder of English Calcutta was, along with his Indian bibi and their multi-racial children, a social and political tour-de-force for the Company's interests. The term "bibi" survives as a personalized or intimate term for "princess" in several Indian languages, and the women who first formed relationships with the European traders in the seventeenth century were, in fact, princesses of the Indian royal families. They were young women taken from the royal zenana -- sisters, nieces, daughters of the ruling nawab or his brothers -- and given in arranged marriages to important European traders or officials. Well educated at home by elderly scholars, these noblewomen were literate, often able to speak and read several languages and regional dialects, and schooled in the study of mathematics, history, the natural sciences and medecine. Necessarily, these arrangements were more than just domestic and personal ones: they constituted alliances between a reigning nawab and a powerful Company representative that promoted the political and economic interests of each party.
'Frequently, and especially in the 1780s, when English artists paint the Indian princess consorts of Company officials, the very conventions of female portraiture were altered radically to emphasize the personal and intimate sexual ideal that is an implicit given in the relationships. Fashionable portraits of English women by artists like Gainsborough and Romney -- wives, daughters, sisters, or mothers of well-connected Englishmen -- are usually vertical in format and show the subjects seated stiffly in a formal pose, holding in their hands some girlish signs of innocence or womanly sign of domesticity: a book, a piece of embroidery, an ornate teapot, or a basket of flowers. In contrast, these far more sensual portraits of Indian women consorts are often horizontal in format and show the subjects at rest and informally lounging against cushions on a divan or an oriental carpet, poses derived from representations of the figure of Venus in Italian Renaissance paintings. The women are dressed in richly coloured and gold embossed silks, and they wear quantities of jewelry, more of which may be on display in a box or cup nearby. The bibis are usually pictured alone, but in an exotic setting of drapes and bolster cushions that is perhaps the personal zenana of the bibi's official. Unlike the female subjects of English portraits, there is an open acknowledgement -- and perhaps celebration -- of the bibi's sexuality and their intimacy with the Englishmen. The onlooker senses mystery in these portraits, but it is not the mystery of a tawdry oriental tale; rather, it is the mysterious sexuality shared proudly by the Englishman and his bibi -- and as such the jewelry box, filled cup and hookah become symbols of their enhanced and shared sexual experience. No English woman would or could be portrayed like this -- and after the high and free-living communion between cultures was ended by Governor-General Wellesley in the late 1790s, no Indian woman would be. No intimate or empowered portraits of Indian bibis can be found dating to after the 1790s.
'Of the intimate portraits of bibis that do survive from the 1780s, there is a varying but consistent emphasis on sensuality. A 1786 portrait by Charles Smith of John Wombwell's bibi keeps a vertical format and presents an elegant Indian woman dressed in saffron silks sitting upright on a wide divan. Her gold-bangled arms rest comfortably, one on her knee and the other on a back cushion. A gold chalice festooning jewels sits to her left by the red velvet couch; between the jewel cup and her there is [a] cushion saved, perhaps, for another person to join her. The background behind the princess is filled out by the marbled outer walls of a palace, its elaborate entrance gateway in the distance, and a few attendants who are performing domestic tasks. Wombwell's princess stares directly out of the painting toward the viewer, as if inviting the viewer to join her on the divan. Since Wombwell commissioned the portrait, the implied viewer is, we presume, the Company accountant himself. Despite the suggestively intimate details of the portrait, the representation of the princess -- reputed to be from the court of the Mughal Emperor in Delhi -- is a regal one: the portrait acknowledges her high social status -- and her close and ideal (and continuing) association with an Englishman.' (H. de Almeida and G.H. Gilpin, Indian Renaissance: British Romantic Art and the Prospect of India, Aldershot and Burlington VT, 2005, pp.81-85.)
Charles Smith, a Scot schooled at the Royal Academy, took a passage to India on the Belmont in 1783, and is thought to have arrived in Calcutta, via Madras, in mid-September. Arriving at the same time as Zoffany, he appears to have found difficulty winning commissions, and his only surviving Indian pictures, including the present work, appear to date from 1786, when, with the protection of the new Governor-General, John Macpherson, he went up-country to Lucknow, armed with commissions from Macpherson for portraits of the nawab and his court. He appears to have resided at Lucknow between February (arriving at the same time as Ozias Humphrey) and October 1786, before travelling on to Delhi, where he reputedly worked for the Mughal Emperor Shah Allam. He was back in England late in 1787 and exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1789 and 1797, and, after a gap when he seems to have returned to Lucknow (the Indian Registers record him there as a portrait painter 1800-11), exhibited again at the Royal Academy from 1815-29, and at the British Institution from 1817-22.
The present portrait of a voluptuous bibi at Lucknow is an important addition to his few surviving works. The inscription on the label on the stretcher, 'My own Ann Heatly', might be attributable to Suetonius Grant Heatly, labelling the portrait as of his 'wife' and also suggesting the portrait was painted for him. The English nomenclature 'Ann Heatly' is however unusual for an Indian bibi, normally known by their Indian names. Heatly himself was an American East India Company official from Newport, Rhode Island. He had joined the Company as a writer in 1766. He worked as a junior and senior merchant, submitted the first proposals for working coal mines and selling coal in West Bengal in 1774, and was Chief at Purneah in 1783. The present picture would put him in Lucknow in 1786. He was painted with his sister Temperance by Devis at around the same time (see fig. 2), this latter picture thought to have been painted in Calcutta (Christie's, 23 Sept. 2005, lot 16).