Thomas Hickey (1741-1824)
This highly unusual depiction both reinforces the archetypal colonial relationship but also offers insight into the inevitable human bonds that were formed between the British and their host nation.
As well as an important work within the oeuvre of Thomas Hickey, the present painting acts as an invaluable visual document of life in colonised India during this period. The picture shows a naked European boy attended by his Indian nurse, or Ayah. An Ayah was typically an Indian woman employed to look after the women and children in an Anglo-Indian household, and acted as a mentor and companion for the children whilst young, prior to them being sent back to England for schooling. This highly unusual depiction both reinforces the archetypal colonial relationship but also offers insight into the inevitable human bonds that were formed between the British and their host nation.
Although an unusual format to see in portraiture produced in England around this time, the present work fits comfortably into the series of lengthways portraits of natives Hickey produced from the outset of his arrival in India in 1780, perhaps the best known being his Portrait of an Indian Lady, perhaps Jemdanee’ [National Gallery of Ireland]. The subject here was evidently one that Hickey was known for, as the comparable Laurence Sullivan and his Ayah [Henderson Collection] shows.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century an influx of British painters embarked on the tiresome journey to India to seek patronage from the emerging British settlements. Around thirty painters and over twenty miniaturists joined the pilgrimage, some, like Johan Zoffany (1733-1810) staying for less than a decade, and others, like Hickey, staying for a lifetime. They worked in a highly competitive market, buoyed up by the exaggerated wealth of the land from the British press and fought for the patronage of the native royals and families of the wealthy East India Company officials.
Hickey left England in 1780 and, following a brief period spent in Lisbon after his ship was captured, arrived in Calcutta in 1783 where he took ‘a large and handsome house in the most fashionable part [of the city]’. Hickey enjoyed several years of strong patronage in Calcutta, however following a decline of business, not helped by his preoccupations with a book he was publishing on ancient art, Hickey decided to relocate to Madras and in March 1789 he set sail. Hickey obviously fell on hard times and by 1790 he was back in England after selling his collection of silver in Calcutta on 23rd December 1790.
After a period spent working in London, Ireland and even China Hickey once again returned to Madras, arriving in 1798 with his two daughters. Hickey remained in Madras for the remainder of his career with the exception of five years between 1807 and 1812 spent in Calcutta. The political and social climate had changed somewhat since his last visit and a series of wars between the East India Company and the Kingdom of Mysore had culminated in the signing of a treaty and the surrender of two royal prince hostages to Lord Cornwallis. This provided an abundance of subject matter in the form of both large subject pictures relating to the war and the subsequent surrender, as well as portraits of the victorious East India Company officials such as Hickey's portrait of Richard Colley Wellesley, 2nd Lord Mornington, painted 1799.