This painting comes from an important series of natural history studies made for George Annesley, 2nd Earl of Mountnorris and Viscount Valentia, when he made a private tour of India from 1802-1806. He was a keen amateur natural historian and visited many botanists and zoologists during his trip, chronicling his travels in three volumes entitled Voyages and Travels to India, Ceylon and the Red Sea, Abyssinia and Egypt in 1802-06, published in 1809. In Calcutta there were a number of English residents who shared his passion in natural history, and Annesley's visits to local aviaries and menageries inspired him to commission many natural history drawings, mostly of birds, and several of which have subsequently found their way into other collections. Annesley gifted two to Lord Wellesley when he stayed with him in 1803 and saw the menagerie in Barrackpore, and which are now in the British library (see M. Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, London, 1962, p. 96). There is another in the Chester Beatty Library (published by L. Leach, Mughal and other Indian Paintings from the Chester Beatty Library, London, 1995, vol. ii, pp. 761-2). As with the Beatty illustration, the artist of the present example has rendered his observations with painstaking precision; contrast with a group from the same series sold at Sotheby's London, 10 April 1989, lots 5-21. In this work of the Bengal vulture, the shaft and barbs of each feather are carefully delineated, as are other morphological characteristics, including the neck, beak, eyes and feet. As Leach surmises, it is possible this artist was exposed to European works and even trained in Western painting techniques.
Four other works from these series have been attributed to an artist known as Gurudayal, who was in the service of Dr. Buchanana and later William Lloyd Gibbons at the Barrackpore Menagerie; see Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, Indian Painting for British Patrons, 1770-1860, 1991, nos. 11 and 12, and S.C. Welch, Room for Wonder, 1978, nos. 18a-b (18c is the same as the one in Hazlitt, et al). These paintings of two different Indian Egrets, an Indian Crane and an Indian Pelican are similar to the present example in the scientific veracity of their presentation, especially when compared with others less well-observed, such as those mentioned in the London auction, above. Given how closely the present example compares with those attributed to Gurudayal, It is possible that the Bengal Vulture is by the same artist.
For others from this series in addition to the aforementioned, see S.C. Welch, Indian Drawings and Painted Sketches, 1976, no. 26; Sotheby's London, 11 December 1968, lot 80; 12 December 1972, lots 4 and 5; and 31 May 2011, lot 115; and Sotheby's New York 28 October 1991, lot 11.