This beautifully assured portrait study of three figures was made by Ozias Humphry during his trip to India made between 1785 and 1787, almost certainly showing three servants, Humphry’s drawing is an unusually sensitive record by an eighteenth-century European artist of non-elite Indians. Humphry, like Johan Zoffany who was in India at the same moment, filled several sketchbooks with informal, rapidly made impressions of the country he encountered. These studies include casual sketches of barefoot Indian women, squatting men as well as portraits of individual attendants and landscapes of the houses of westerners he met on his travels. Ultimately Humphry had unfeasible expectations of his time in the country, expectations which resulted in an acrimonious lawsuit and his return to Britain. Curiously, unlike his contemporaries Thomas and William Daniell or Zoffany, Humphry never made use of the remarkable archive of studies he had made in India. The majority of Humphry’s drawings remain in sketchbooks now in the British Library, this is an immensely rare, loose sheet.
Humphry had a conventional trajectory, he was trained by the miniaturist Samuel Collins in Bath, before establishing a flourishing practice in London from his studio at 21 King Street, Covent Garden. Humphry visited Italy for four years, travelling with George Romney to Rome in 1773. Returning to London, Humphry, in common with other painters of the period, responded to the economic downturn in Britain by looking to India for potentially lucrative commissions. Humphry approached the East India Company for permission to travel to India in July 1784. Humphry compiled a list of materials he was proposing to take with him which included ‘an easel that packs’, ‘varnish nut oil’, ‘drying oil’ and frames in pieces in addition to ‘ivories’, glasses’ for miniatures and their cases. By the time Humphry had embarked on board the Francis for Calcutta he was able to write of his expectation of making ‘a competence, if not affluent provision’ for his old age.’
Once established in Calcutta, Humphry found the city less remunerative than he had hoped. Following rumours that Johan Zoffany was earning a fortune working in Lucknow, Humphry petitioned the Acting Governor-General, Sir John Macpherson, for letters of introduction to the Nawab wazir of Oudh, Asaf-ud-Daula. Macpherson duly wrote explaining Humprhy’s practice as a miniaturist: ‘[t]here is another style of painting, that of drawing perfect likeness in small pictures, which is most agreeable, because the hand of friendship can always carry them as a remembrance. The most eminent gentleman in England in this line of painting is Mr Homphry, whom I have deputed to the Presence to bring me pictures of your Excellency, of the Shah Zudda, and your own son and your Ministers. He will show your Excellency a picture of me, and it is a true ressemblance. Till I have the pleasure of a personal interview with your Excellency, make me happy by sending me your picture, and by your attention and favour to Mr Homphrey, who has drawn some of the Kings of Europe, and who has met with favour from the King of England. It is worthy of Princes to favour men who are eminent to the fine arts.’
Humphry left Calcutta and began the long journey on the Hooghley by budgerow. Throughout the journey he was alive to the novelty of all he was seeing, recording his first ride on an elephant at Murshidabad, first sight of an alligator on the Ganges, at Sakrigali he was interested to see pilgrims returning from Allahabad with holy water. He noted the ‘picturesque and pleasing effect of them reposing in shadow under trees near the river.’ All the time Humphry was drawing what he saw, writing home to Mary Boydell, daughter of his sponsor John Boydell: ‘it was my desire in this Indian expedition not more to make money than to collect materials, by drawing and painting the dresses and manners of the people, which I shall endeavour to convert both to profit and employment after my return to England.’
Humphry arrived in Lucknow in February 1786 and was immediately introduced to the cosmopolitan European community as well as the Nawab and his court. Humphry completed his portrait miniatures of Asaf-ud-Daula, his son and the other dignitaries suggested in the letter from Macpherson along with a number of European sitters. His sketchbooks show that he stayed with a number of the prominent European personalities, including John Wombwell, whose servants he drew. It seems likely that the present drawing dates either from his journey upcountry or time in Lucknow. The finely worked sheet is handled in Humphry’s characteristic manner, the hands and face of the central figure are described with a mass of hatched lines, consistent with Humphry’s method as a miniaturist. Unlike the majority of studies in the British Library sketchbooks, this sheet offers a penetrating portrait of the elderly retainer with his flowing white beard and red turban. The status of the man is suggested by the pose, Humphry carefully delineates the man’s powerful hands grasping his stick or staff, confirming him as a working figure rather than one of the ruling elite. Humphry has added profile studies of both a middle-aged Indian and a young man, creating a composition that recalls traditional images of the three ages of man.
Whilst at Lucknow Humphry was clearly actively gathering studies of interesting Indian figures, intent on producing some form of publication on his return to Britain. The French army officer Claude Martin wrote to Humphry on his return to Britain: ‘I am very glad to find you carried with you many memorandum of this country, it will enable you to give the world many fine thing[s] from your elegant pencil. Remember I am to be in the subscription if you make any for your portefolio of ‘Les loisies de Chevalier Humphry, des beauiés des Indes orientales ou des Vièrges de l’East’ To underscore the point, Martin sketched a voluptuous dancing girl. In the end Humphry never used the extensive material he assembled in India. His dyspeptic character resulted in a lengthy legal wrangle over payment from Macpherson and it seems to have soured his relationship with the country and its people . The present sheet, a rare example on the market, demonstrates both how attentive and how sensitive Humphry was to the new worlds he encountered in India.