The picture appears to be a missing fragment of a majestic group portrait commissioned by the Nawab of Arcot and the Carnatic (1717-1795). It depicted the Nawab Muhammad Ali and his five sons and was presented to Charles Bourchier, the Governor of Madras on his retirement in January 1770. When it was shown at the Royal Society of Artists in 1771, it was the first oil painting of an Indian potentate and his family to be exhibited in London. A large mezzotint was made of the picture but no copy of it can now be traced. In about 1869 the picture was in the possession of the governor's grandson, Captain Charles Bourchier. His nephew, Captain Claude Stracey Clitherow remembered seeing it at 66 Wimpole Street as a boy. Shortly after this time, Mildred Archer records that the picture was cleaned and cut down so as to remove the sons, probably to fit a particular position in another house. Claude Stracey Clitherow inherited the fragment showing the Nawab and it is recorded in his collection in 1925 (see illustration). There is no further record of this fragment or the rest of the picture, if indeed it survived.
Tilly Kettle was the first portrait painter of consequence to go to India. When Kettle arrived in Madras in June 1769, the Nawab of Arcot was building his Chepauk Palace. A lavish and extravagant social life flourished around his court which soon became a centre for spongers and adventurers. The Carnatic wars with the French had involved the Nawab in heavy debts and British exploiters added to them by advancing whatever loans he required. He employed a British adviser and increasingly adopted English manners and customs. Kettle's success with the British in Madras may well have induced the Nawab to commission him to paint the large family portrait and a portrait of the Nawab on his own, now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The appearance of the large family portrait in the London exhibition in 1771 suggests that Kettle was eager to maintain his links in England as well as provide early proof of success in India.
After Kettle's departure to Calcutta, the Nawab commissioned several family portraits by the artist George Willison (1741-1797) including a portrait of himself and his second son Amir-ul-Umara who also features on the far right in the present picture. On 7 February 1777, the Nawab made a secret will naming Amir as his successor. The fact that the younger son was the favourite perhaps explains the slightly wistful expression on the face of the older brother in the present picture. His eldest son Umdat-ul-Umara, however, succeeded to the throne after the Nawab's death in 1795. Umdat agreed to accept a pension in return for a cancellation of the family's debts and the extravagant social life in Madras gradually declined. After the fall of Seringapatam in 1799, treasonable correspondence between Tipu Sultan and Umdat and his father came to light. The British Government repudiated the existing treaty of 1792 with Nawab Muhammad Ali, resolved to assume the government of the Carnatic and made a provision for his family. Umdat died on 15 July, 1801, before the proposed arrangements could be concluded.
During Kettle's seven years in India, Kettle continued to be commissioned to paint nawabs and native princes and made a considerable fortune. Shuja-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Oudh was one of his many distinguished patrons. On returning to England in 1776, he found it difficult to earn a good living as a portrait painter and decided to return to India in 1786. He fell ill during the course of the journey and died in Aleppo.