Five hundred years of art: Toby Falk’s collection of Indian paintings

The art historian, ‘one of the giants in the field’, collected works spanning the ages from the Mughal empire to the 20th century, and on 27 October they are being offered at Christie’s in London

A selection of works from An Eye Enchanted: Indian Paintings from the Collection of Toby Falk, offered on 27 October 2023 at Christie's in London

A selection of works from An Eye Enchanted: Indian Paintings from the Collection of Toby Falk, offered on 27 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

‘Artists are the delight of all the world,’ wrote the second Mughal emperor Humayun (1508-56), and his cultured views were clearly shared by his progeny. For more than three centuries, the mighty Mughals dominated northern India, bringing in a cultural renaissance that is still celebrated today.

The Mughal rulers were master strategists and sophisticated self-promoters, using paintings to control the image they projected. They enticed artists to the royal courts from across south and central Asia by lavishing their vast resources upon them. In return, those artists depicted them in bright colours as noble warriors, refined but fierce in battle.

In Celebration of Elephants, Mewar, Rajasthan, India, circa 1705-15. Opaque pigments heightened with silver on paper. Folio 10¼ x 18⅜ in (26.1 x 46.9 cm). Sold for £103,320 on 27 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

The art historian Toby Falk devoted his career to the study of Indian miniature painting, publishing some of the most important texts on the subject. He considered the Mughal dynasty to have transformed Indian art. As they expanded their empire and extended its power, the refinements of Mughal painting travelled south, giving rise to hybrid styles across the region.

On 27 October 2023, Falk’s personal collection of Indian paintings will be offered in An Eye Enchanted: Indian Paintings from the Collection of Toby Falk at Christie’s in London. Sara Plumbly, director and head of Islamic and Indian Art, describes Falk as ‘one of the giants in the field’, and the collection as ‘eclectic and fascinating’.

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A portrait of Hayat Khan, Khidmat Parast (d. A.H. 1068/1658 A.D.), signed Murar, Mughal India, circa 1630. Opaque pigments heightened with gold on paper. Folio 13⅛ x 8¾ in (33.3 x 22.2 cm). Sold for £176,400 on 27 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

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Abu’l-Hasan Asaf Khan (d. 1641 A.D.), Mughal India, circa 1615. Opaque pigments heightened with gold on paper. Folio 16⅛ x 11¼ in (40.9 x 28.5 cm). Offered in An Eye Enchanted: Indian Paintings from the Collection of Toby Falk on 27 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

It spans 500 years of Indian painting, from the 15th to the 20th century, focusing predominantly on Mughal, Pahari, Deccani and Company School artworks. Also on offer are a number of Persian paintings, produced in the Safavid and Qajar periods. ‘Toby wrote Qajar Paintings, which is still consulted today,’ says Plumbly.

Auction highlights include a 17th-century portrait of Asaf Khan, father of Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s much-loved wife for whom he built the Taj Mahal; a painting of a hunting party from the Mewar school (below); and an image of a black stallion from the rare Rajasthani school of Sawar (also below).

A Royal Hunting Party, Mewar, Rajasthan, India, circa 1705-15. Opaque pigments heightened with gold and silver on paper. Folio 10 x 17¾ in (25.5 x 45 cm). Sold for £441,000 on 27 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

Contrasting with the formality of Mughal painting are a great number of works from the many Rajasthani schools. Though widely varied, these paintings are a celebration of colour and pattern. In the Royal Hunting Party (circa 1705-15), which Plumbly describes as ‘one of the most extraordinary examples of Mewar painting’, a falconer chases his quarry across a verdant landscape. The work incorporates the naturalism found in Mughal painting, while the bursts of colour — pale greens, pinks, orange and black — are clearly Mewar and bring to mind early Renaissance fresco.

A hugely popular subject, hunting was almost a creed in the Indian courts, and it is claimed that Emperor Jahangir hunted more than 17,000 animals. When his adored 20th wife, Nur Jahan, revealed herself to be a crack shot, dispatching several tigers while riding an elephant, she was richly rewarded with jewels and money. Hunting was considered so important that legislative timetables were often disrupted by the prolonged pursuit of prey — much to the frustration of court officials.

Thakur Pratap Singh of Sawar on a black stallion, Sawar, Rajasthan, India, circa 1680. Opaque pigments on paper. Folio 13 x 17⅝ in (32.9 x 44.9 cm). Sold for £30,240 on 27 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

Horses, too, were feted and frequently depicted in art, This Sawar-school painting of a black stallion (circa 1680) dwarfing its rider is thought to depict the ruler Thakur Pratap Singh, but emphasises the animal’s importance. This small court, nestled between the more powerful states of Ajmer, Mewar and Kota, was clearly of particular interest to Falk. Influences from each of these neighbours can be strongly felt in Sawar painting. The half-coloured finish of the picture of the stallion is reminiscent of the Mewar painter known as ‘the Stipple Master’, while the fine lines used for shading draw upon painting from Kota.

Portrait of Buhadoorah, a ‘Fraser Album artist’, Delhi or Haryana, north India, first quarter 19th century. Opaque and transparent pigments on paper, laid down on card. Card 16⅛ x 12 in (31.4 x 31 cm). Sold for £264,600 on 27 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

Another area of great interest to Falk was Company School painting. In 1989, he published India Revealed: The Art and Adventures of James and William Fraser, which documented the lives of two East India Company employees. The brothers commissioned Indian artists to paint scenes of life in their country using European watercolours and paper, resulting in an extraordinary fusion of British and Indian artistic impulses.

Perhaps the best-known examples of this new ‘Company School’ style are the paintings from the Impey Album, about which Toby Falk and his wife Fael jointly published Birds in an Indian Garden in 1984.

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‘Each work is interesting,’ says Plumbly of the collection, ‘be it for an intriguing detail, the history, the pure beauty, or perhaps the fact that it comes from a little-known school. Toby had a discerning eye, and with each of the paintings, whether the value is £500 or £200,000, you sense immediately why it was included in his collection.’

Explore Islamic and Indian Art Week at Christie’s in London, October 2023

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