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Zayn al-Din and Zoffany: Portraits of the “Ruling Class” in Colonial Calcutta

Monday 19 November 2018, 4.30PM

Speaker(s): Hawon Ku

This paper examines two portraits by Shaikh Zayn al-Din and Johan Zoffany, both depicting members of the Impey family. Sir Elijah Impey was appointed Chief Justice of the newly established Supreme Court of Calcutta in 1774, and with his wife Lady Mary Impey, were well-known patrons of Indian painters during their residence in India. 

Zayn al-Din’s painting is usually classified as an example of Company style paintings, or of the “Company School”, denoting those commissioned to Indian painters by the employees of the East India Company. Indian painters were employed to produce paintings of Indian architecture or festivals, portraits of various castes, or in the case of Lord and Lady Impey, native flora and fauna. However, among Zayn al-Din’s paintings, this painting itself is quite unique as a portrait of Lady Impey, an English woman, in her sitting room surrounded with Indian servants, and is normally read as representing the colonial superiority of the white woman, or the depiction of ‘native races’ according to types and occupations. On the other hand, Zoffany’s portrait of the Impey family is one of his earliest conversation pieces painted in India, and displays many common features found in his works, such as the theme of music, native servants, and the background with exotic trees and plants. While both paintings depict the subtle authority of the sitters, I question how the artists have interpreted and consolidated their essential qualities, and whether both could be regarded as successful.

Hawon Ku is an art historian with a special interest in the visual cultures of early modern and colonial South Asia. She is Associate Professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations, Seoul National University, and is currently affiliated as Visiting Scholar within the Department of Religions, History and Philosophy, SOAS.

Location: BS/005 Bowland Auditorium