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Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent


The seventeenth century was a period of instability and financial difficulty for the British monarchy, but in South Asia a dynasty of emperors now known as the Mughals celebrated a glorious Golden Age. Many of the South Asian paintings and manuscripts in the Royal Collection date to this period when the Mughal Empire, richer and stronger than any European power, encompassed much of the Indian subcontinent. The rulers of Britain, a small island on the edge of Europe, had scant knowledge of the splendour of this early modern superstate. Few paintings of South Asia reached Europe during this time, and Westerners could only visualise its glories through fantastical-looking prints and drawings based on descriptions made by travellers returned from the East (fig. 1). For English merchants and adventurers of the late sixteenth century, the subcontinent was primarily a source of spices and textiles, from cheap cotton to the finest silks, which were now increasingly in demand throughout Europe. But this was a fiercely competitive environment where Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch traders already operated. In 1600, with a view to ensuring English merchants played a stronger role in this lucrative commercial contest, Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603), the last Tudor monarch and contemporary of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) (see cat. nos 112), granted a group of 125 shareholders a monopoly on all English trade to Asia. Through this royal charter, the East India Company was born.[1]

Fig. 1: Pieter van der Aa (1659–1733), The Court of the Great Mughal at Lahore, 1729, engraving, 38.4 × 50.8 cm, plate 28 of La Galerie agréable du monde [...] Tome second de Perse & Mogol, RCIN 1021719.d

Fig. 1: Pieter van der Aa (1659–1733), The Court of the Great Mughal at Lahore , 1729, engraving, 38.4 × 50.8 cm, plate 28 of La Galerie agréable du monde [...] Tome second de Perse & Mogol , RCIN 1021719.d ©



The first Company ship to reach India arrived in Surat in 1608. A bustling Mughal port in Gujarat on the western coast, Surat was at the heart of the Indian textile trade and the pilgrim port for the Hajj. It soon became the site of the Company’s first ‘factory’,[2] a permanent trading post where European silver was exchanged for Indian textiles. Having already been trading there for nearly a century, the Portuguese community put up strong resistance to the newly arrived English factors, and it was clear that the Company needed the protection of the Mughal padshah (‘emperor’) for their venture to succeed. The Mughals were a Muslim dynasty from Central Asia who proudly traced their lineage back to Timur and Genghis Khan. They invaded the land of Hindustan in the early sixteenth century and established an empire that at its greatest extent stretched from Kashmir to Mysore. Jahangir (r. 1605–27) (fig. 2) (see cat. nos 1325, 29) presided over a peripatetic court which travelled between the empire’s provincial capitals, and European merchants operating on its outskirts were obliged to travel inland to gain farmans (‘imperial concessions’) to sanction their commercial activities. James I (r. 1603–25) (fig. 3) agreed to appoint the first official English envoy to India on behalf of the East India Company and, in 1613, announced Sir Thomas Roe (fig. 4) ‘as his embassador[…] for the better establishing and settling an absolute trade in any partes with the Dominions of the greate Magore’.[3]

Fig. 3: Crispijn de Passe the Elder (1564–1637), <i>James I</i>, <i>c</i>.1630–45, engraving, 17.4 × 11.7 cm,  RCIN 601378  Fig. 2: Renold Elstrack (1570–<i>c</i>.1625), <i>Jahangir</i>, <i>c</i>.1616–21, engraving, 19.5 × 12.0 cm, RCIN 680524

left: Fig. 3: Crispijn de Passe the Elder (1564–1637), James I, c.1630–45, engraving, 17.4 × 11.7 cm, RCIN 601378 right: Fig. 2: Renold Elstrack (1570–c.1625), Jahangir, c.1616–21, engraving, 19.5 × 12.0 cm, RCIN 680524 ©

Fig. 4: George Vertue (1684–1756) after Michiel van Miereveld (1567–1641), <i>Sir Thomas Roe</i>, 1741, engraving and etching, 31.7 × 18.9 cm, RCIN 660859

Fig. 4: George Vertue (1684–1756) after Michiel van Miereveld (1567–1641), Sir Thomas Roe, 1741, engraving and etching, 31.7 × 18.9 cm, RCIN 660859 ©

Roe’s journey took almost a year. On arrival in Agra his mission immediately encountered difficulties when Muqarrab Khan, one of the Emperor’s courtiers, requested to see the gifts the Englishman had brought for the Emperor. After examining Roe’s horse-drawn coach with its fading upholstery, the looking glasses, telescopes, swords and a few prints, he told the envoy that these would not impress the Great Mughal. Roe had yet to learn the vital role that gifts played in Mughal court culture. A present at the highest level was called a nazr. Often comprising a quantity of gold coins together with other high-value objects, a nazr was presented by dignitaries to the Emperor at a ceremonial durbar as an expression of loyalty and submission. They in return received the Emperor’s protection, which was manifested by the public presentation of expensive robes of honour, known as khil’at or sarapa (‘head to foot’), including turbans, coats and jewels or jewelled weapons. These were considered physical embodiments of the Emperor, the wearing of which was a symbolic ‘act of incorporation’ into the body of the padshah.[4] The quantity and value of the khil’at reflected the level of authority they transmitted, appropriate to the mansab or ‘rank’ of the receiver. A lower-level tribute was called a pishkesh, often offered when a petition was brought before the Emperor. Again, it was reciprocal in nature. The courtier’s pishkesh was valued and recorded before being placed in the imperial treasury so that an appropriate favour could be given by the Emperor in return.   

In the decades preceding Roe’s mission, Jesuit priests from Europe had been welcomed with great enthusiasm at the Mughal court. They brought fine oil paintings of the Christian saints and an eight-volume illustrated Polyglot Bible as presents. Yet the British visitors of the same period failed to grasp the concept of ritual, obligatory offerings and dismissed the practice as little less than bribery and corruption. However, the presentation of lavish gifts was no novelty for the British envoy. In 1604, he had travelled as James I’s ambassador to Spain to ratify a peace treaty with King Philip III and had taken with him a multitude of expensive gifts. Roe’s problem in India was that James and the East India Company had failed to provide him with gifts of comparable quality, as he wrote in desperation to its directors back in London: 

Here are nothing esteemed but of the best sorts: good Cloth and fine, and rich pictures, they comming out of Italy over land and from Ormus[Hormuz]; soe that they laugh at us for such as wee bring […] I […] shalbe ashamed to present in the Kyngs name (being really his embassador) things soe meane, yea, woorse then former messengers have had; the Mogull doubt-lesse making judgement of what His Majestie is by what he sends.[5]

Fig. 5: John Hoskins (<i>c</i>.1590–1665), <i>Portrait of a Lady</i>, <i>c</i>.1612–15, watercolour on vellum, 6.6 × 4.3 cm, RCIN 420983

Fig. 5: John Hoskins (c.1590–1665), Portrait of a Lady, c.1612–15, watercolour on vellum, 6.6 × 4.3 cm, RCIN 420983 ©

Jahangir was eventually presented with a group of large oil paintings from England. These included portraits of King James, Queen Anne and their daughter, which Roe recorded as being displayed behind the Mughal Emperor’s throne at the nau ruz (‘New Year’) ceremonies in March 1616 and 1617.[6] In October 1616, Roe nevertheless witnessed with dismay the arrival of the Iranian ambassador, Muhammad Reza Beg, whose gifts included 27 horses, seven camels, an array of embroidered velvets, silk carpets, Venetian glass, jewel-encrusted swords and daggers, and casks of fine wines. The Emperor received them as tokens of the Shah of Iran’s allegiance and in return granted the ambassador funds for the Shah’s campaign against the Ottomans. In a later report on his progress Roe wrote back to London, ‘[The Emperor] accepted your presents well; but after the English were come away he asked the Jesuiyte whether the King of England were a great Kyng that sent presents of so small valewe.’[7] Jahangir did grant Roe the desired farman and sent a letter to James acknowledging the gifts delivered by his ambassador. The Emperor promised protection to all Englishmen in Mughal dominions but asked James to remind his merchants to bring in their ships ‘all sorts of rareties & rich goods fitt for my pallaces’, a subtle hint perhaps that he should try harder next time.[8]  Roe spent almost four years at the Mughal court, during which time perhaps the most successful gift he presented to Jahangir was from his own collection: a miniature portrait (fig. 5) of a female acquaintance (supposedly Roe’s wife) that provoked a wager between him and the Emperor. Jahangir sent for his ‘Cheefe Paynter’, who claimed he could make a copy indistinguishable from the original, and Roe bet him 10,000 rupees to the contrary.[9] When the painter returned having made five copies of the miniature, they were laid before Roe alongside the original for his examination. He admitted that they were ‘so like that I was by candle-light troubled to discerne which was which [and] at first sight I knew it not’.[10] Jahangir was delighted with the outcome and offered Roe his choice from the copies to take back to England as an example of his painter’s skill.


Fig.6 John Smith (1653–1742), <i>Charles I, c</i>.1683, mezzotint, 27.0×16.7cm, RCIN 601553 Fig.7 Pieter van Gunst (1658/9–<i>c</i>.1731) and Cornelis Vermeulen (<i>c</i>.1644–<i>c</i>.1708/9), <i>Shah-Jahan</i>, 1705, engraving 39.0×24.2cm RCIN 618739.c

Fig.6 John Smith (1653–1742), Charles I, c.1683, mezzotint, 27.0×16.7cm, RCIN 601553 Fig.7 Pieter van Gunst (1658/9–c.1731) and Cornelis Vermeulen (c.1644–c.1708/9), Shah-Jahan, 1705, engraving 39.0×24.2cm RCIN 618739.c ©


The turbulent reign of Charles I (r. 1625–49) (fig. 6) had an adverse effect on the East India Company’s trade at a time when the Mughal Empire was entering an era of unparalleled magnificence under the Emperor Shah-Jahan (r. 1628–58) (fig. 7) (see cat. nos 2636). Charles I suggested that he himself should become a shareholder in the Company so that his ‘favour and protection’ might support trade with the East during the economic downturn.[11] Improved trade would, of course, also generate some much-needed customs revenue for the Crown. After establishing a new factory named Fort St George on the eastern coast, the future city of Madras (modern Chennai), the Company almost collapsed due to poor sales of pepper in London and decided to export it to Italy instead.[12] In addition to financial woes, a more immediate problem was that of piracy. In 1637, the East India Company President and his council at Surat were imprisoned in retribution for the plundering of Mughal ships by pirates said to have been flying the English flag. To free them, Charles I was compelled to send a monetary nazr to Shah-Jahan. In the accompanying letter, Charles assured Shah-Jahan that he ‘absolutely disfavours both the offence and the offenders’ and promised to do everything in his power to guarantee that reparation was made.[13]


left Fig. 8: Nicholas Dixon (1660–1708), <i>Charles II</i>, <i>c</i>.1673–8, watercolour on vellum, 8.5×7.2cm, RCIN 420129 right Fig. 9: Nicholas Dixon (1660–1708), <i>Catherine of Braganza, c</i>.1675, watercolour on vellum, 9.6×7.9cm, RCIN 420108

left Fig. 8: Nicholas Dixon (1660–1708), Charles II, c.1673–8, watercolour on vellum, 8.5×7.2cm, RCIN 420129 right Fig. 9: Nicholas Dixon (1660–1708), Catherine of Braganza, c.1675, watercolour on vellum, 9.6×7.9cm, RCIN 420108 ©


The East India Company’s trade monopoly was withdrawn for four years under Cromwell and Parliament ordered the arms of the late King to be removed or defaced from all ships.[14] Following the Stuart Restoration, Company officials approved the presentation to Charles II (r. 1660–85) (fig. 8) of a congratulatory address and a gift of silver plate costing over £3,000. Subsequently the King granted the Company a new royal charter.[15] The Company’s initial gifts were complemented by further ‘loans’ to the king which, by the end of Charles II’s reign, amounted to £170,000. This provides some indication of the vast profits being amassed by the Company at that time. A new post of ‘Embellisher of letters to Eastern Princes’ was created specifically to decorate the royal missives the merchants asked the King to send. In May 1662, a significant benefit accrued to the Company when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza (fig. 9). Part of her large dowry was the Portuguese territory of Bom Bahia (Bombay) – literally the ‘Good Bay’ – on the western coast of India (modern Mumbai).[16] To Charles, these far-off islands were of little consequence, and in 1668 he agreed to rent them to the East India Company for an annual fee. He later relinquished his sovereignty over them altogether. The subsequent shifting in focus of the Company’s activities from Mughal Surat to this autonomous English territory (fig. 10) was highly significant, and soon factors there were minting coins in the name of the British crown. Back in Europe there was a growing demand for calicoes, chintz and cotton and the Company’s trade soared.     

Fig. 10: Anonymous, <i>The English Fort of Bombay</i>, <i>c</i>.1700, engraving, 35 × 43 cm, in J. Churchill, <i>A Collection of Voyages and Travels</i>, 1732, vol. 3, p. 545, RCIN 1141503

Fig. 10: Anonymous, The English Fort of Bombay, c.1700, engraving, 35 × 43 cm, in J. Churchill, A Collection of Voyages and Travels, 1732, vol. 3, p. 545, RCIN 1141503 ©

Fig. 11: Pieter van Gunst (1658/9–<i>c</i>.1731) and Cornelis Vermeulen (<i>c</i>.1644–<i>c</i>.1708/9), <i>Aurangzeb (Alamgir)</i>, 1705, engraving, 39.0 × 24.2 cm, RCIN 618739.d

Fig. 11: Pieter van Gunst (1658/9–c.1731) and Cornelis Vermeulen (c.1644–c.1708/9), Aurangzeb (Alamgir), 1705, engraving, 39.0 × 24.2 cm, RCIN 618739.d ©


Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the factors again demonstrated a diplomatic naivety in the management of their South Asian enterprise. In 1688, trade negotiations with Emperor Alamgir (r. 1658–1707) (fig. 11) (see cat. nos 30, 31, 3336) failed.[17] The Company reacted by blockading Mughal harbours and plundering their ships, including those carrying pilgrims to Mecca. The Emperor responded with an assault on Bombay Castle and a threat to massacre all Englishmen in India. This forced the Company into a quick surrender and marked an often-overlooked and humiliating defeat. In exchange for a grovelling acknowledgement of responsibility and a large indemnity payment, Alamgir eventually agreed to issue the Company with a farman, reauthorising their trade in his dominions. In the meantime, Alamgir’s deputy in Bengal granted the East India Company permission to establish a new factory in the province, named Fort William after the new King William III (r. 1689–1702) (fig. 12). The area chosen, on the banks of the River Hooghly in the Ganges Delta, was the cheapest and most bountiful source of cotton in all India, later known by the anglicised name of the nearby village Kalikata, ‘Calcutta’ (modern Kolkata). Bombay, Madras and Calcutta eventually became independent ‘Presidencies’, but it was Calcutta that emerged as the English power base and centre of the Company’s commercial and administrative activities.

The death of Charles II had cost the Company a key supporter. It was feared that William III (born Prince of Orange) would naturally favour the Dutch East India Company. Having taken over many Spanish trading posts, this was their main competitor in the region. The English Company reportedly offered the King’s closest advisors £50,000 in bribes in the hope that its royal charter would remain intact. Such corruption resulted only in public scandal, however, and its dominance came to an end in 1698 when a rival ‘New East India Company’ was established by an Act of Parliament. It was the start of a new era, when the protective system of the Bank of England meant that monopolies were no longer sanctioned by royal charters but by Parliament. While the Tories supported the old Company, the Whigs supported this new group of merchants who were prepared to lend William III £2,000,000 for his war fund in return for royal support.[18]

The New East India Company set about appointing a royal ambassador to secure a farman from the now aging Alamgir. On 1 January 1699, Sir William Norris, Member of Parliament for Liverpool, was given the commission by the King. His task was to ‘establish a friendly and good understanding’ with the Great Mughal, to whom the King sent a letter of introduction for Norris. In it he commended the ‘most mighty, most victorious and most renowned Emperor Aullem Gheir’ on his great conquests and the extension of Mughal dominions William praised the protection given by the Emperor and his predecessors to English subjects trading in his empire and signed off as his ‘loving friend’.[19] The Company spent £16 on the letter’s calligraphy and its embellishment, and instructed that it be translated into both Persian and Arabic.[20]

Fig. 12: Peter Schenk (1660–1713), <i>William III</i>, <i>c</i>.1689–1702, engraving and etching, 24.9 × 17.6 cm, RCIN 603034

Fig. 12: Peter Schenk (1660–1713), William III, c.1689–1702, engraving and etching, 24.9 × 17.6 cm, RCIN 603034 ©

Nine months later, Norris arrived at the new Company’s factory at Masulipatam (Machilipatnam) on the south-eastern, or Coromandel, Coast and travelled on to the Emperor’s camp, then based in the Deccan. The English entourage included more than 60 Europeans and 300 liveried Indian attendants in the service of the Company. An English courtier, Thomas Thorowgood, who had learnt Persian for the trip, was given responsibility for administering gifts for Alamgir. The presents included 12 brass field cannon, a crimson cloth of state embroidered with the Royal Arms, chests of fine textiles, swords, gold and silver vessels (including seven teapots), clocks, watches, telescopes, two ‘double microscopes’ and six ‘extraordinary christall reading glasses with fish skin cases’.[21]

In April 1701, the English procession arrived in great pomp, the ambassador travelling through crowds of spectators on a palanquin behind the Union flag and the 80 cartloads of presents.[22] First to be presented to the Emperor was William III’s letter and a nazr of 201 gold mohurs (Mughal coins) offered in a finely wrought gold cabinet. Alamgir then ordered that Norris be dressed in a turban and robe of honour before the Emperor accepted the remainder of the English gifts. Norris marched proudly out of the ceremony wearing the turban ‘on my Hatt’ and wrote back to London that ‘[we] have good grounds to believe he [Alamgir] is very well pleased’.[23] Norris obtained two further audiences with the Emperor but his negotiations did not meet with success: Alamgir insisted that he would only permit the new Company to trade if they offered a guarantee for security at sea and to suppress all piracy in the Indian oceans.[24] The ambassador refused to agree to these terms and left empty-handed. Yet, in an apparent gesture of goodwill, he was asked to remain at the imperial camp in Burhanpur on his return journey to the coast until the Emperor had sent a letter and sword for him to deliver to William III in England.[25] In Mauritius the dejected Norris learnt of the intended amalgamation of the two English East India companies and that his embassy (which had cost over £80,000) had been for nothing.[26] He died at sea in October 1702, and in 1708 the two companies were officially merged to form the ‘United Company of Merchants Trading to the East Indies’, known generally as the ‘United East India Company’ or more simply as the ‘East India Company’.

By the time of Alamgir’s death in 1707, Mughal territories were at their greatest extent, covering most of the subcontinent. His prolonged wars in the south had however drained the imperial treasury, and subsequent vicious wars of succession in which a series of Mughal emperors was deposed or assassinated (1707–19) weakened the centralised structure of the empire.[27] Meanwhile, the East India Company’s fortunes went from strength to strength. Since the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707 this was now a British, rather than solely an English enterprise. The great profits of this multinational corporation allowed it to lend huge sums to the Government, which in turn guaranteed its trade monopoly and long-term security. The Company’s influence soon eclipsed that of its European commercial rivals and, despite the directors in London cautioning its employees against entering into Mughal politics or local disputes, some merchants refused to stick to business but sought executive power.[28] Left largely unsupervised, they would eventually reshape the entire political landscape of South Asia. 



[1] A contemporary transcript of the charter survives; see IOR/A/1/2.

[2] Probably from the Portuguese feitoria for ‘a trading post in a foreign land’. 

[3] Agreement of 16 November 1614, quoted in Bayly ed. 1990, p. 38. On 24 April 1613 Edward Norgate, considered the finest limner of the age, was paid £10 by James I’s Treasurer of the Chamber ‘for his paynes taken to write and Lyme in Gold and Colours certain Letters written from his Majesty to the King of Persia, and the King of Mager’ quoted in Norgate 1997, p. 2. This was not James’s earliest communication with the rulers of India: he wrote a letter of introduction to the ‘King of Surat’ and ‘King of Cambaia’ in February 1608 and 1611, and other circular letters in 1610 and 1611. 

[4] See Cohn 1996, pp. 106–62 and Gordon 1996.   

[5] Quoted in Foster ed. 1926, p. 77. A volume of Sir Thomas Roe’s diary and letters copied in India by his secretary Edward Heynes survives in the British Library, Add. MS 6115. These were published in part by Samuel Purchas in his 1625 four-volume Hakluyutus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes.   

[6] Quoted in Foster ed. 1926, p. 357. 

[7] Ibid., p. 99. 

[8] Letter from Mughal Emperor Jahangir to King James, dated February 1617. BL Add. MS 4155, fol. 100. 

[9] Purchas 1625, vol. 1, ch. 16:3, pp. 546–8.

[10] Ibid., p. 547.

[11] Quoted in Lawson 1993, p. 33.

[12] Supple 1970, pp. 125–9 and Calendar of Court Minutes, vol. 2 (1640–3), pp.185–6.

[13] Draft letter from King Charles I to the Great Mughal, endorsed January 1637, in Calendar of Court Minutes, vol. 1 (1635–9), pp. 217–18, and later reference on p. 252. A Mughal manuscript of the Gulistan of Sa’adi, now in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, contains an inscription supposedly in Shah-Jahan’s hand which states that it was sent as a gift to His Majesty the padshah-e inglistan, i.e. Charles I (see Leach 1995, vol. 1, pp. 359–69). This terminology employed to refer to the English king was not however in use until the early nineteenth century, implying that it is almost certainly a later fake added at the Qajar court of Iran. Another inscription suggests the manuscript was sent as a gift to Fath Ali Shah of Iran from George IV. There is no record of the manuscript having ever been in the Royal Collection, and it is likely that it was chosen as a gift for the Shah from the East India Company’s holdings then re-bound in its presentation covers. Many thanks to Saqib Baburi for his thoughts on this manuscript.

[14] Calendar of Court Minutes, vol. 4 (1650–54), p. 38. 

[15] A copy of the first of the charters granted to the East India Company by Charles II in 1661 is found in BL MS Sloane 2178, fols 34r–45v. For the address and gift see Calendar of Court Minutes, vol. 6 (1660–3), pp. iv, v, 36.

[16] See BL Add. MS 38038: despatches relating to the cession of Bombay to England from Alfonso VI, King of Portugal, and his ministers and Portuguese Ambassador Extraordinary to England, 1662–6 (in Portuguese).

[17] For Alamgir and the English see Sarkar 1933, ch. XVII.

[18] See Robins 2006, pp. 50–4 and Lawson 1993, pp. 51–7.

[19] See BL Add. MS 31302, pp. 3–4: ‘Letter to the Great Mogull’. The contents and instructions for the letter were approved by the Company’s Court of Directors on 10 November 1698: see IOR/B/42, p. 71.

[20] See Das 1959, p. 84, note 8. It was probably embellished by Gideon Royer who then held the post of ‘Embellisher of letters to Eastern Princes’.

[21] For a full list of presents from William III and the ambassador see IOR/G/40, vol. 20, pp. 61–7.

[22] See BL Add. MS 31302, fols 63v–64r.

[23] Ibid., p. 59.

[24] Piracy continued to be a major issue in the first quarter of the eighteenth century.  See ‘Requests by East India Company for commissions to seize pirates, 1704’, Blenheim Papers, BL Add. MS 61611, fols 220r–229v and ‘Pirates’ wives’ petition to Queen Anne relating to a pardon for pirates of Madagascar and East and West Indies, 1707–8’, Blenheim Papers, BL Add. MS 61620, fols 155v, 171v and .

[25] The letter BL MS Or. 6286, dated 7 Sha’ban 1113 / 7 January 1702, was found amongst the ambassador’s effects.

[26] Das 1959, p. xv.

[27] See Cheema 2002.

[28] Lawson 1993, p. 53.