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  4.35 Mohamed Ali Khan Walajan, Nawab of Arcot, 1777  

©Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Mohamed Ali Khan Walajan, Nawab of Arcot; 1777

Oil on canvas
236.2 x 146 cm


eorge Willison was born in Edinburgh, where his father was a printer and publisher, and his grandfather a clergyman. Thanks to the interest of a wealthy uncle, George Dempster, Willison followed his training at the Edinburgh Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Sciences with a period in Rome, where he studied under Anton Raphael Mengs. Returning to London, Willison exhibited at the Society of Artists and the Royal Academy, but these were unexceptional works, and in 1772, he applied to the Company for permission to try his fortune in India. Almost certainly, this decision was related to the fact that Dempster had been elected a Director of the Company that same year. Tilly Kettle's portrait of Mohammed Ali and sons, exhibited at the Academy in 1771 may have suggested to Dempster that the Nawab might welcome another European artist at his court.

Willison arrived in India in 1774, at the age of 33, and Mohammed Ali, anxious to maintain credibility with the British, on whose protection he depended, promptly commissioned two full-length portraits. Moreover, these were to be presented to the East India Company and to King George III himself. Six commissions were received between 1774 and 1775, a further two between 1776-77, and others which seem not to have survived. Willison was paid handsomely for his portraits, despite the fact that he charged the Nawab double his normal prices (75 pagodas (=£30) for a bust-length portrait, and 300 pagodas (=£120) for a full length. He also painted a portrait of the unfortunate Governor of Madras, Lord Pigot, and a version of 'The Last Supper' based on Raphael's masterpiece, for St. Mary's Church in the Fort. It is said that a substantial sum of money, about 3,500 pagodas (=£1,400) was still owed to him when he left Madras for England in June, 1780, but another artist and contemporary, Ozias Humphrey, noted that Willison had actually already received £17-20,000 from Mohammed Ali before his departure. The English artist, Paul Sandby, writing on 3rd February 1783, commented, 'Willison has brought from thence £15,000…he will now sit by the fire at Auld Reekie (i.e. Edinburgh) snugly by the ingleside……fortune is seldom raised in the north, south or west. The east, is appears, is the golden point and compass to wealth.'

The subject of Willison's portrait, Mohammed Ali, reinforces that popular conception, with the added European conventions of draped curtain, the strong but elegant column, and the terrace landscape, with palm trees to evoke the East. Tilly Kettle, Willison and the miniaturist John Smart were all employed to paint the Nawab's portraits. He could be courteous, immensely hospitable, always emulating English customs and manners, such as taking breakfast and tea, and sitting on chairs rather than cushions. Sir John Macpherson, writing to Lord Macartney in November 1781 declared, 'I love the old man ….mind me to my old Nabob. I have been sending him sheep and bags of rice by every ship. It is more than he did for me when I was fighting his battles.' The Nawab was an ally of the Company, but still harboured great ambitions of power in the S.Indian arena, where Haidar Ally, the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad were constant rivals. The Nawab could also be unpredictable and devious, and his breech of promise in failing to surrender Trichinopoly to Haidar in 1751 was at the root of so many confrontations between Haidar and the British. When Haidar swept into the Carnatic towards Arcot on 23 July 1781, with a terrifying army estimated at 86-100,000 men, it was not Mohammed Ali, however but the British who provoked Haidar's wrath, after violating his territory to seize the western port of Mahé.

In fact, the Nawab had very little real independent power. For the defence of his territory, he paid the British 400,000 pagodas per annum (=£160,000) and 10 out of the 21 battalions of the Madras army were posted to garrison his forts. The British derived income from his jagirs (land grants); and Mohammed Ali's lavish life-style was financed by loans from the Company's bankers - at very high rates. By 1780, as Willison left for home, the Nawab's debts had risen to £3,340,000, and Edmund Burke was thundering in the House of Commons about scandalous morals in India.

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