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  4.33 Madhu Rao Narayan, Maratha Peshwa and Nana Fadnavis with Attendants, 1792  

©The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain
and Ireland, London
Madhu Rao Narayan, Maratha Peshwa and Nana Fadnavis with Attendants; 1792

Oil on canvas
228.6 x 190.4 cm

JAMES WALES (1747-1795)

his painting was commissioned by Madhu Rao soon after James Wales arrived in Poona in July 1792, and shows the young Peshwa (Ruler) of the Marathas with his able Chief Minister, Nana Fadnavis. Through the British Resident at Poona, Sir Charles Malet, Wales had also been introduced to the most powerful of the Maratha rulers, Mahadaji Sindhia, and, with Malet's patronage, the Scotsman received many lucrative commissions. He shows the Peshwa seated in the Durbar hall of the Shanwarwada Palace in Poonah, and wearing the typical Maratha turban, with a jewelled sarpesh (turban ornament) of the design worn only by royalty. A shamiana or canopy was often erected over this type of cushion throne, to emphasize the status of those seated on it, for example, in a public audience.

James Wales was born in Peterhead, North East Scotland, and was largely self-taught. His early portraits, painted on tin plate, were sold in Aberdeen for 1- 1 ½ guineas each. After moving to London, Wales also painted landscapes and exhibited at the Royal Academy (1788/89) and Society of Artists (1783/91) before deciding to try his fortune in India and sailing for Bombay in 1791. Here he was fortunate to receive commissions from a fellow Scot, Craufurd Bruce, and also to meet Sir Charles Malet, who invited him to Poona. Wales took with him as his assistant, a soldier of the 77th Regiment, Robert Mabon, who was disillusioned with military life and wanted to pursue his artistic interests. Mabon made lighthearted sketches of their flood-engulfed journey from Bombay to Poona, and at Poona, he provided meticulously detailed sketches of jewellery, metalwork, furniture and architecture, as references for Wales. Wales himself introduced European art to the Maratha court, persuading the Peshwa to establish a school for drawing and negotiating the use of a 'Bungello' for the display of works of art. For his patron, Wales painted a large picture of the Treaty of Poona signed on 6 August 1790. Malet had negotiated this alliance between the Marathas and the British, against Tipu. He had also visited Hyderabad, where William Kirkpatrick, the Resident, was working to dissuade the Nizam from joining Tipu against the British.

By tradition, the Marathas were a tough, martial race, with neither time nor interest in paintings. However, the court, seeing the British fondness for commissioning portraits, decided that it could only enhance their political favour with the British to do likewise - greatly to Wales's advantage :

'It is no small pleasure for me to find that I improve in my painting and that I do not like to leave any picture till it is in a much higher state of perfection than my painting used to be,' he wrote. Unfortunately, when the vast Maratha empire began to collapse, with the wars of 1803-05 and 1817-1819, many of these Maratha portraits were destroyed, and some of Wales's best-known surviving works are the engraved views of Elephanta, which he worked up from drawings into paintings for an early patron, a retired Company servant, James Forbes.

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