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Eastern Encounters pattern
Eastern Encounters

Drawn from the Royal Library's collection of South Asian books and manuscripts

CAT. NO. 15

Album of Mughal portraits and calligraphy

Mughal, early seventeenth century with later additions

Album of portraits and calligraphy in ink and opaque watercolour including metallic paints on paper; set into composite margins of ornamented papers with ink inscriptions; illuminated frontispiece; dark red morocco binding with gold block-stamping and painted decoration | 58 fols; 29.8 × 20.4 cm (average) | RCIN 1005038

In this album, each opening alternates between pairs of facing portraits and pairs of single verses of Persian poetry in fine calligraphy. Both the paintings and panels of calligraphy are set at the centre of each folio with borders of equal width, suggesting that the album was originally bound in a concertina format rather than along one edge.

Portraiture was an art form of profound significance at the Mughal court. Physiognomy was considered a direct reflection of character, and it was believed that one could better understand someone’s nature by examining their portrait (a science known as firasa). While early Mughal portraits largely followed Iranian conventions, the 1580s saw a shift towards more subtle, naturalistic portraiture without precedent in Iranian or South Asian painting. Although striving for more physical accuracy, Mughal artists nevertheless did not seek to paint tactile likenesses as Mansur achieved in his natural history paintings (cat. no. 13). Portraits were emphatically flat and highly burnished in a style reminiscent of Western portrait miniatures. In Mughal portraiture, the figures typically stand in profile or three-quarter profile, never gazing back at the viewer.

It is recorded that during the Emperor Akbar’s reign, ‘at his Majesty’s command, portraits have been painted of His Majesty’s servants and a huge album has been formed. Thus the dead have gained new life and the living, immortality.’[42] These portraits allowed the Emperor to ‘gauge their true character’.[43] Akbar’s successor, Jahangir, commissioned his artists to capture likenesses of himself (some of which he sent as diplomatic gifts),[44] his courtiers and other contemporary rulers, even sending an artist to Iran to paint a portrait of Shah Abbas so he might know him better. Individual portraits also provided prototypes for larger group paintings as well as murals on palace walls, although these are now largely lost. In 1620, Jahangir commissioned the restoration of portrait murals, which decorated a garden pavilion in Kashmir. He recorded their subjects in his memoirs:

Repairs had been ordered on the picture gallery in the garden, and it had recently been painted by the masters of the age. On the upper level was a picture of Jannat-Ashyani [Humayun] and his Majesty Arsh-Ashyani [Akbar]. Opposite they had drawn a picture of me and my brother Shah Abbas. There were pictures of Mirza Kamran, Mirza Muhammad Hakim, Shah Murad and Sultan Danyal. On the second level they had made pictures of the amirs and intimate servants.[45]

Portrait miniatures, cameos and medals in a European style were also commissioned by Jahangir to be presented as gifts to courtiers (see cat. no. 16).

The portraits in this album form three distinct groups: a set of six painted for Prince Salim (as Jahangir was known before his accession) during the years 1600–1604 when he rebelled against his father, and set up a semi-independent court in the city of Allahabad; a later group of 24 dating to c.1610–30; and 28 others, largely unrelated, spanning the years c.1630–1750. The first two groups were evidently part of an earlier compilation, remounted and amalgamated with the later paintings in their present format in the mid-eighteenth century, possibly in the workshops of Shuja al-Daula, Nawab of Awadh, c.1750–70.

The earliest paintings include depictions of Salim’s ancestors, Babur, Humayun, and his recently deceased brother, Sultan Murad.[46] The portrait of Babur by Nanha contains a treasonous dedicatory inscription to Padshah [Emperor] Salim and that of Humayun by Mohan is dated 1603 (cat. no. 17). The paintings are in an Iranian style, with each figure kneeling on a felt rug holding or surrounded by objects which reveal certain personal qualities or attributes. Such artistic conventions were impressed on Salim’s predominantly Indian artists by the then head of his studio, the Iranian painter Aqa Reza of Herat.[47] In contrast, the portraits in the album dating to c.1610–30 follow the new Mughal conventions of full-length standing portraits in which the figure stands in profile or threequarter profile with the upper body slightly turned towards the viewer, usually against a turquoise background with indications of grass and flowers under the figures’ feet and sky above.

A second Mughal album in the Royal Collection (RCIN 1005069) contains paintings mounted in the same style of border and opens with a similar frontispiece, thus forming a pair with this volume. It was also collated in the mid-eighteenth century from a varied group of earlier works including portraits (see cat. nos 3536), imaginary scenes (cat. no. 44), holy personages (cat. no. 14) and paintings presumably taken from Mughal manuscripts (cat. no. 45). These leaves were later cropped and folios from another album pasted on the reverse. The later folios feature paintings of birds and animals mounted into coloured borders decorated with gold flecks.

  • [42] Ain-i Akbari, vol. 1, p. 109.

    [43] Schimmel 2004, p. 273.

    [44] Sent, for example, to Adil Shah of Bijapur and Sultan Muhammad Qutub Shah of Golconda; see Overton 2014, pp. 245–6.

    [45] Jahangirnama, p. 341.

    [46] Babur, fol. 3v: RCIN 1005038.c; Sultan Murad, fol. 4r: RCIN 1005038.d; Mirza Kamran, fol. 5v: RCIN 1005038.e; Humayun, fol. 6r: RCIN 1005038.f; Bayram Khan, fol. 8r, RCIN 1005038.h; Muhammad Hakim Mirza, fol. 9v: RCIN 1005038.i.

    [47] See, for example, Gulshan Album (GPL MS 1663), fol. 134. For a discussion of the Iranian style of Salim’s atelier in Allahabad see Singh 2017, pp. 46–55. A similar portrait to those in this album can be found on the colophon page of a manuscript produced at Allahabad in 1602 depicting the calligrapher Mir Abdullah: Divan of Amir Hasan Dihlavi, Walters Art Museum, MS W.650, fol. 187a. Another album known as the ‘Salim Album’, now dispersed, can also be dated to Salim’s Allahabad atelier. The largest group of folios from this survive in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. See Wright ed. 2008, pp. 55–67. 

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