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Eastern Encounters pattern
Eastern Encounters

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

CAT. NO. 75

Maharajah Ranjit Singh

Lahore, <i>c</i>.1842

Painting in opaque watercolour including gold and silver metallic paints with decorative incising on paper with painted margins in gold and jewelled frame | 28.5 × 22.1 cm (page); 34.7 × 28.2 cm (frame) | RCIN 452414

This posthumous equestrian portrait of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh Maharajah of the Punjab (1780–1839), is reminiscent of the majestic seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century depictions of Mughal emperors (see cat. no. 33) incorporating the imperial symbols of the nimbus and the parasol, but here in an idiom distinct to the nineteenth-century Punjab.[249] Although by this time the equestrian ruler portrait was relatively common in the courts of Rajasthan and the Punjab, the representation of Ranjit Singh on horseback was particularly pertinent to the renowned horseman and denotes an aspect of the Maharajah’s character not captured in other contemporary depictions such as the famous Emily Eden armchair portrait. According to a European visitor to the court of Lahore:

When he [the Maharajah] seats himself in a common English armchair, with his feet drawn under him, the position is one particularly unfavourable to him; but as soon as he mounts his horse, and with his black shield at his back, puts him on his mettle, his whole form seems animated by the spirit within, and assumes a certain grace, of which nobody could believe it susceptible. In spite of the paralysis affecting one side, he managed his horse with the greatest ease.[250]

It was this image of the Maharajah as a gallant warrior which was revered by his successors. The horse he is riding is undoubtedly meant to represent the famous Laili, bought by the Maharajah for a colossal 600,000 rupees, and described as his ‘finest horse [...] a dark grey, with black legs […] and full sixteen hands high’.[251]

The painter Imam Bakhsh of Lahore (fl. 1825–45) was employed by many members of the city’s nobility although he is best known for his paintings commissioned by French and Italian generals in the service of Ranjit Singh.[252] His style was somewhat derivative of that of Pahari painters with the Maharajah depicted against a dramatic landscape within a decorative painted oval frame as in cat. no. 74. Yet in his iconography and the dignified presence of his figures, Imam Bakhsh also harks back to Lahore’s earlier Mughal painting traditions. By the 1840s, many artists were working in this more formal idiom distinct from the fluid, romantic style developed in the Punjab Hills.[253]

The painting was probably set into its unusual jewelled frame after the portrait was given to the Governor-General, Lord Ellenborough. Portraits presented to Ranjit Singh of Ellenborough’s predecessor, Lord Auckland, and of Queen Victoria were set into frames of a similar style.[254]

  • taswir-e sarkar-e maharaja[h] ranjit singh bahadur / likeness of his Highness Maharajah Ranjit Singh Bahadur 

    amal-e imam baksh musawwir lahauri / work of the Lahori painter Imam Bakhsh

  • [249] See Melikian-Chirvani 1999, pp. 61–73.

    [250] Hügel 1845, pp. 380–1.

    [251] Ibid., pp. 333–4. Ranjit Singh sent an army of 12,000 men to capture Laili from an Afghan tributary who initially refused to part with his beloved horse. A number of comparable equestrian portraits of Ranjit Singh can be found in the V&A and the Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh. A similar portrait of Maharajah Ranjit Singh mounted on a white horse by Imam Baksh of Lahore, dated 1841, is in the Musée Guimet, Paris (BG 39756) and another in the same collection (BG 39753) illustrates Court’s memoirs. See also RCIN 618762, ‘Portrait of Ranjit Singh’ after a painting by Alfred de Dreux, Musée du Louvre, Paris, inv. 4096.

    [252] See Lafont and Schmitz 2002. General Court employed Imam Bakhsh to illustrate his memoirs while General Ventura employed him to illustrate a volume of La Fontaine’s Fables.  An illustrated manuscript containing three masnavis in New York Public Library, made for the Lahore nobleman Abd’al-Majid Khan, also contains ten paintings attributed to Imam Bakshsh of the 1830s. See also Imam Baksh Lahori, ‘Ranjit Singh in Old Age with his Sons’, Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh, published in Anand ed. 1981, p. 20.

    [253] See Lafont and Schmitz 2002, pp. 96–8.

    [254] On 31 May 1838, two Company officers presented Ranjit Singh with a portrait ‘very well painted and set with diamonds, containing his name…’: Umdat ul-Tawarikh, vol. III, p. 567 quoted in Goswamy 1981, p. 76. On 30 December 1838 Ranjit Singh gave Auckland his picture also ‘set in diamonds with two rows of pearls’; see Eden [1984], p. 234. For a portrait miniature of Ranjit Singh in the Royal Collection see RCIN 420769.

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