While organizing a new exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, curator Holly Shaffer GRD ’14 said she intended to reveal the “secret history” of British colonial art in India.
“Adapting the Eye: An Archive of the British in India, 1770-1830” focuses on works by Gangaram Tambat, an Indian artist who was worked as an assistant to renowned British imperial artist James Wales. The exhibit, a precursor and companion to the British Art Center’s upcoming showcase of works completed in 16th- and 17th-century India, brings to light the work of previously unacknowledged Indian artists — like Tambat — who acted as religious and cultural interpreters for European painters.
“The overarching goal of the exhibition is to show that every single object was made with the help of Indian artists,” said Shaffer. “It’s the secret history of the art.”
Shaffer said that Tambat’s influence is evident in works by British landscape painter like Thomas Daniels. Based off Tambat’s preliminary sketches, Daniels’ paintings of the cave temples at Ellora make great use of linear perspective and light watercolors, a radically different approach from his other works, Shaffer said.
The exhibition comprises pieces from the British Art Center’s collection of Charles Warre Malet, a representative of the East India Company in Southern India. Though the pieces have been in the British Art Center’s collection for 44 years, Shaffer said this will be their first time on exhibit in the gallery. The pieces on view range from watercolors and sketches of Indian rock temples, political figures and dancing girls to sculptures representing the British-devised Indian caste system.
Shaffer said she arranged the show in six parts, dividing it thematically based on the works’ subjects: architecture, landscapes, cities, manner and customs of Indians, social hierarchies and natural history. Wales, who was one of the few British artists to acknowledge his Indian assistants, completed the majority of the pieces in the archive .
Gillian Forrester, the British Art Center’s curator of prints and drawings, said the exhibition’s focus on the complex relationship between British and Indian artists also echoes through the upcoming show “Johan Zoffany RA,” which explores how British Imperial artists functioned in India.
“This was the ideal project to complement the Zoffany exhibition,” Forrester said. “When we have a major loan exhibit [such as “Johan Zoffany RA”], we like to complement it with another exhibition [drawing on works] from our collection, which talks to it and expands its issues.”
“Johan Zoffany RA,” organized jointly with the Royal Academy of Arts in London, opens at the Yale Center for British Art on Oct. 24.