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Portrait of an officer with a red jacket, by Tilly Kettle,

Tilly Kettle

(1735-1786)
Tilly Kettle was the first Western artist to establish a portrait practice in India. Arriving at Madras in 1769, he found a ready market amongst the leading figures of the ascendant British Raj.

Biography

Tilly Kettle was the first Western artist to establish a portrait practice in India. Arriving at Madras in 1769, he found a ready market amongst the leading figures of the ascendant British Raj. His Reynolds-esque manner, of which the present work is a classic example, was the very latest style, and immediately proved popular amongst his fellow expatriates.

After two years in Madras, Kettle traveled north to Calcutta, the effective capital of British India, and the administrative seat of the East India Company. There he painted many leading Raj figures, including at least three portraits of the Governor-General, Warren Hastings. Kettle’s status as a western artist earnt him the patronage of local Indian rulers, and, while at Faizabad, he was employed by the Nawab of Oudh. He also painted scenes of Indian daily life and ritual, some of which portrayed the more harrowing aspects of Hindu culture, such as the practice of Suttee, in which a widow burns herself to death on her husband’s funeral pyre. Some of these works can be found in the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Kettle evidently settled in well to Indian life - he took an Indian mistress, for example, by whom he had two children, Ann and Elizabeth.

When Kettle eventually returned to England in 1776, he had earned a considerable fortune, and it was his success in India that encouraged other artists of merit - from Zoffany to Chinnery - to undertake the same long voyage. However, Kettle was not able to sustain the busy portrait practice in England that he had enjoyed in India. Although he began to show works at the Royal Academy, which were apparently well received, he had difficulty adapting to his new position as a relatively unknown artist amongst fierce competition.

Read full biography

Tilly Kettle was the first Western artist to establish a portrait practice in India. Arriving at Madras in 1769, he found a ready market amongst the leading figures of the ascendant British Raj. His Reynolds-esque manner, of which the present work is a classic example, was the very latest style, and immediately proved popular amongst his fellow expatriates.

After two years in Madras, Kettle traveled north to Calcutta, the effective capital of British India, and the administrative seat of the East India Company. There he painted many leading Raj figures, including at least three portraits of the Governor-General, Warren Hastings. Kettle’s status as a western artist earnt him the patronage of local Indian rulers, and, while at Faizabad, he was employed by the Nawab of Oudh. He also painted scenes of Indian daily life and ritual, some of which portrayed the more harrowing aspects of Hindu culture, such as the practice of Suttee, in which a widow burns herself to death on her husband’s funeral pyre. Some of these works can be found in the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Kettle evidently settled in well to Indian life - he took an Indian mistress, for example, by whom he had two children, Ann and Elizabeth.

When Kettle eventually returned to England in 1776, he had earned a considerable fortune, and it was his success in India that encouraged other artists of merit - from Zoffany to Chinnery - to undertake the same long voyage. However, Kettle was not able to sustain the busy portrait practice in England that he had enjoyed in India. Although he began to show works at the Royal Academy, which were apparently well received, he had difficulty adapting to his new position as a relatively unknown artist amongst fierce competition.

In 1786 Kettle decided to return to India, this time travelling over land. However, he never reached his second home and is thought to have died en route, perhaps in present-day Basra. His work can today be found in institutions such as the Tate Gallery, the Courtauld Collection and the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

 

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500 Years of British Art