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Opaque and transparent pigments on paper heightened with gold, inscribed in black nasta'liq in the upper left, and in pencil to the left of the elephant's front leg, mounted, framed and glazed
Folio 12 ¼ x 16 ½in. (31 x 42cm.)
James Fraser (1783-1856) and William Fraser (1784-1835)
With Malcolm R. Fraser, Esq, and thence by descent until sold,
Sotheby's London, 7 July 1980, lot 16
The Ismail Merchant Collection, Christie's South Kensington, 7 October 2009, lot 139
Anon Sale, Bonhams London, 8 April 2014, lot 300
Mildred Archer and Toby Falk, India Revealed: The Art and Adventures of James and William Fraser, 1801-35, London, 1989, p. 110, pl.98.
In the upper left in black ink and repeated in pencil in nasta'liq, Mawla Bakhsh
In the centre left in nasta'liq in pencil, fil mawla bakhsh-e khassa-ye hozur-e vala, 'The elephant Mawla Bakhsh of the royal majestic presence'

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Emilie Frontera
Emilie Frontera Senior Sale Coordinator

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Lot Essay

This impressive painting depicts the elephant Mowla Bakhsh from the imperial Mughal stable of Akbar II (r. 1759-1837). The elephant is richly caparisoned with hunting howda equipped with rifle, bows and pistols. Its mahout looks plain by comparison, dressed in white jama, but carries an appropriately ornate gold and black ankus (elephant goad). The elephant and its trappings bear a striking resemblance to the painting of Akbar II and Prince Mirza Selim riding an elephant, lot 113 in the present sale. The elephant in that painting is identified as Chand Murat and it is possible that Mowla Bakhsh and Chand Murat shared the same royal stable.

Our painting of Mowla Bakhsh dates from 1815-19, midway through the reign of Akbar II, but an elephant of the same name is identified to be the favourite elephant of the final Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II (r.1837-1857) by S. Mahdi Husain (Bahadur Shah Zafar and the War of 1857 in Delhi, Delhi, 1958, reprinted 2006, p. 54). Husain goes on to recount that following the capture of the Red Fort by the British in 1857 the royal elephant rejected the food given to it and was declared a rebel. It was ordered that the elephant be auctioned and upon being purchased by a grocer for just 100 Rupees under British orders, the royal elephant let out a great shriek and died. Although our painting predates this by some fourty years, given the long lifespan of elephants it is possible that this is the same animal.

The so-called ‘Fraser Album’ was compiled by James and William Fraser. James Fraser arrived in Calcutta in January 1814 before he was joined by his brother and travelled on an East India Company expedition to Nepal. During this trip James Fraser began recording the landscapes, monuments, and people he encountered in drawings and paintings which is reflected in his diary entries. In their attempts to record all that they saw, William also hired local artists to ‘take the likenesses of several of the servants and the Ghorkas’ (Toby Falk and Mildred Archer, India Revealed: The Art and adventures of James and William Fraser 1801-35, London, 1989, p.45). Returning to Delhi in August 1815 the brothers encouraged further artists to record Mughal court dancers and singers beginning the five-year project which became ‘The Fraser Album’.

The paintings were later discovered among the the papers of James and William Fraser in Inverness. Sotheby’s auctioned the group in two sales, the first in London on the 7 July 1980 and the rest in New York on 9 December later that year. The group, which occupy an important place in the study of Company School painting, were only really brought to light with the publication of Toby Falk and Mildred Archer’s book India Revealed: The Art and adventures of James and William Fraser 1801-35 (London, 1989).

The present painting belonged to the collection of the legendary film producer Ismail Merchant at Christie's South Kensington, 7 October 2009, lot 139. Lot 138 of that sale was another Fraser Album page from the same collection showing the Bullock Cart of Prince Mirza Babur, which is now in the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (illustrated in Barakat, Mohamed, Ishak and Albert, A Journey through Islamic Art, Kuala Lumpur, 2023, pp. 192-193, no.2.52). Further illustrations from the Fraser Album have been sold in these Rooms, An Eye Enchanted: Paintings from the Collection of Toby Falk, 27 October 2023, lot 139, 25 October 2019, lot 24, and in Christie’s New York, 21 March 2018, lot 353. Others have sold at Sotheby’s, London, The Edith & Stuart Cary Welch collection, 25 October 2023, lots 62 and 63; 25 October 2017, lot 98; and The Khosrovani-Diba Collection, 19 October 2016, lot 19.

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