Romain Pingannaud: We are very lucky to be offering five Indian Pahari paintings from 1760–65 in the upcoming sale, which Robert catalogued when they were offered at auction in February 1960. They are from the deceased estate of someone you might have known, Robert — Anthony Hobson.
Robert Skelton: I did know Anthony Hobson. He was head of the Books department at Sotheby’s and the son of a former chairman of the auction house and a great traveller — extremely energetic and accomplished.
RP: Our five paintings were grouped into two lots in that 1960 sale. From the original lot 2 we’ve got Vasudeva carries the baby Krishna across the river Yumna and Kamsa begs forgiveness from Krishna’s parents. The third painting from that lot is Durga’s warning given to Kamsa which is a very good painting I think.
An illustration to the Bhagavata Purana: Durga’s warning given to Kamsa, Basohli-Guler style, India, circa 1760–65. Opaque pigments and gold on paper. Estimate: £25,000–35,000. This work and those below are offered in our Arts of India sale in London on 10 June
RS: Ah yes, very dramatic.
RP: I like how there are three episodes depicted in the same painting: on the left Kamsa is informed by his ministers that the child is born, on the right he snatches the girl from her parents and in the centre she reappears in the sky as the eight-armed Goddess Durga. Then we have lot 53 from the 1960 sale which is two paintings — Jambavan takes the jewel from the lion which killed Prasena and Jambavan fastens the jewel to his daughter’s cradle. So how did you come to catalogue these works?
RS: The sale was in 1960. By then I’d been in the V&A a little while. What I really wanted was to get a job in a provincial museum but I had no qualifications, so I thought, right, I’ll get a job in the V&A on the ground level for five years.
An illustration to the Bhagavata Purana: Jambavan gives the Syamantaka jewel to his daughter to play, Basohli-Guler style, India, circa 1760–65. Opaque pigments and gold on paper. Estimate: £25,000–35,000.
Sara Plumbly: Did you know anyone at the V&A?
RS: No. The V&A had taken over Ham House near where I lived so when I was in Ham House I asked the cleaner about jobs at the V&A, so he was my advisor about getting a job there! There was an open competition for museum assistants and I applied. What I didn’t know was that I’d come first on the list and that sealed my fate. William Archer, a senior Indian civil servant, had come back from India and joined the V&A as Keeper of the Indian Department. Lee Ashton was director of the museum at the time and unlike most people he was not Eurocentric. Archer said to Ashton, the Indian department has always been treated as the poor relation, I want the museum assistant who comes first on the list. I learnt this ten years later.
‘He pulled a Persian manuscript out of the cupboard and said ‘Persian’s a beautiful language, why don’t you learn it?’’
Of course I was terribly upset to be banished to India. I was sent across the building to what had been the first ever museum of Indian art founded by the East India Company in 1797. In the 1880s it was handed over to the V&A. Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, who was director of the British Museum, had been offered it first but said no. Then when it went to the V&A Franks grabbed the Indian antiquities, so one of the jobs I had when I was Keeper was to buy the sort of stuff that was less well-represented such as Indian sculpture.
RP: How did Sotheby’s approach you to catalogue these paintings?
RS: Their cataloguing was being done by Mirza Yeda Dawud, a Persian living in London. He knew about Persian painting but this Indian stuff was turning up. Archer nobbled Anthony Hobson and said, look, I’ve got somebody who can do it better. And so I found myself cataloguing on the side. But when Ashton learned that several V&A staff were doing this for salerooms, he banned the practice.
RP: Were the paintings in this series bound together or stacked up or in folders?
RS: I think they were in folders.
An illustration to the Bhagavata Purana: Yasudeva crosses the Yamuna with the infant Krishna, Basohli-Guler style, India, circa 1760–65. Opaque pigments and gold on paper. Estimate: £25,000–35,000
SP: It’s a lot of paintings to catalogue!
RS: I know! I had to decode all the inscriptions on them. I used the Prem Sagur which is a Hindi translation of the Bhagavata Purana as my guide to the subject matter.
SP: So did you teach yourself the languages?
RS: Yes, I just had to.
SP: So when you turned up at the V&A’s door…?
RS: The point is, Archer was a bit of an old bully — I mean he was a very warm-hearted bully. Because there was nobody in Europe who read Takri, a local script used in the Punjab Hills, and because Archer was in love with Pahari miniatures, he needed Takri for his research. So he said to me, ‘Learn Takri’, which I was able to do by using the Linguistic Survey of India. Then a year later in 1951, Basil Robinson from the metalwork department at the V&A wanted to have an exhibition of Persian painting on which he was the leading UK authority. I was allocated to Robbie as his fetching and carrying person and one day in his office he pulled a Persian manuscript out of the cupboard and said, ‘Persian’s a beautiful language, why don’t you learn it? Here’s C.L. Hawker’s elementary Persian book.’ And so I took it, but I couldn’t figure out the difference between initial, medial and terminal forms of letters. So then along came the Korean War and since I was on the Z Reserve I was called up. But because in the army I was a Brigade’s general staff clerk I didn’t know how to fire 3.7 ack-ack guns. All my mates were firing ack-ack shells over the Bristol Channel while I was sitting in the tent in the rain with nothing to do. But I had that book with me and so during that period of six weeks I managed to crack what I’d been too stupid to before!
An illustration to the Bhagavata Purana: the snake demon Ugrasura swallowing Krishna, the gopas and their herd. Attributable to Fattu or a close follower of Manaku, Basohli-Guler style, circa 1760–65 A.D. Opaque pigments heightened with gold on paper. This work was sold in our Arts of India sale in London in June 2013
RP: You catalogued these paintings as 1760–65. The date hasn’t changed that much. Do you think they are important in the history of Indian painting?
RS: Yes, I think they represent a transitional phase from the 1730 Basohli style of Nainsukh and his older brother Manaku. We see Manaku responding a few years later to Nainsukh’s acquisition of a more Mughal style. Initially writers such as Archer and Khandalavala firmly believed that Nainsukh was a Mughal artist who retreated to the Punjab Hills following Nadir Shah’s invasion of India. It is more likely that the younger brother had joined a family of his own relations or acquaintances employed as Mughal artists before returning home to the Hills a few years later when affairs in the capital became strained. Later on, because of his earlier experience of travel beyond the Hills, Nainsukh was employed by Raja Balwant Singh of Jasrota to make visits to pilgrim centres. On one occasion he went as far afield as Puri in Orissa.
RP: The first painting of this series that I saw was when I went on a valuation with Philip Belcher to a house in London. It was a deceased estate and I walked into the drawing room and there was this amazing painting of Ugrasura, that pink snake demon, in the centre of the living room, and I thought it was such a great painting, a great work of art! We’re talking 1760, 1770. With it were two others from the same Bhagavata Purana series and another painting by Manaku or Fattu — and the estate decided to sell those paintings. For two years I chased the executors to say are you sure you don’t want to sell Ugrasura, I’m sure we could do something, it’s a great painting. And they managed to offer it for the sale and we put it on our cover and it made this great price. It was bought by the art dealer Nancy Wiener who put it in her catalogue. I think she attributed it to Fattu who is Manaku’s son and Nainsukh’s nephew. And since I saw that painting I’ve been tracking down all the others from the series.
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