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Painted mid-way through Smart’s time in India, the sitter here wears a discreet mourning pin to hold her fichu in place. Her tightly curled hair signifies a new fashion at this date. When, only the year before, white, or coloured powder would have covered the hair or wig, this sitter is at the forefront of fashion with her natural hair tightly tonged with irons. Smart captures this same fashion on sitters around this time, for example, in the portrait of a lady traditionally called Charlotte Anne Edmondstone (dated 1788).[1] Testament to Smart’s forensic painting technique is the sheen of perspiration seen on the sitter’s nose and her flushed cheeks – evidence of the stiflingly hot Indian climate.

It is likely that this portrait shows a young widow, who may have had her portrait commissioned ahead of a new marriage. Records from this period shows the status of many women noted as ‘widow’ at the point of marriage. Life in India...

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Painted mid-way through Smart’s time in India, the sitter here wears a discreet mourning pin to hold her fichu in place. Her tightly curled hair signifies a new fashion at this date. When, only the year before, white, or coloured powder would have covered the hair or wig, this sitter is at the forefront of fashion with her natural hair tightly tonged with irons. Smart captures this same fashion on sitters around this time, for example, in the portrait of a lady traditionally called Charlotte Anne Edmondstone (dated 1788).[1] Testament to Smart’s forensic painting technique is the sheen of perspiration seen on the sitter’s nose and her flushed cheeks – evidence of the stiflingly hot Indian climate.

It is likely that this portrait shows a young widow, who may have had her portrait commissioned ahead of a new marriage. Records from this period shows the status of many women noted as ‘widow’ at the point of marriage. Life in India was only for the resilient.[2] Very few unmarried women ventured out to join the British community in India, with the notable exception of the artist Diana Hill (c.1760-1844), who travelled to Calcutta in 1786 – a year later than Smart’s arrival in the country. Widowed, and with her two young children in tow, Hill caused quite a stir – not least because she was without the protection, support, and social acceptability of a husband.

Although we do not know the specific circumstances of the sitter in this portrait, if she were a widow her remarriage prospects would have been greatly improved by the ratio of men to women in Madras at this date. Young men working for the East India Company often travelled unmarried, determined to focus on work and making money to eventually return home (John Smart himself was in this category). Travelling without a wife often concerned other family members, who were aware of the scarcity of unattached British women in India. When John Cochrane’s son James travelled to Madras in 1790, he was advised to marry his son first to a local Lanarkshire girl and to send her with her new husband to India for fear that otherwise their grandchildren would be mixed race.[3] Two of John Smart’s own daughters married in India to men in the employ of the East India Company.

Smart’s time in India ended in 1795, six years after the present work was painted, and he returned to London, settling in Mayfair. He enjoyed steady, profitable patronage during his time in India, many of whom he had connected with prior to his departure in 1785. After he was back in England, from 1795, he and his sitters retained their strong links to India. For example, in 1810, fifteen years after Smart’s departure, a Colonel Charles Reynolds was sending one of Smart’s works to an Indian colleague.[4] 

The fact that this miniature has come back to the UK at some point in its history, suggests that either the sitter or her children also returned ‘home’, just as Smart himself had done. Portrait miniatures were vital objects during this period when the invention of photography was still some time off. With India a six-month journey away from UK shores, it is possible that this miniature was sent to close relatives for whom this image would have been a most treasured possession.

[1] Sold Sotheby’s, London, 6 December 2018

[2] Mortality rates can be calculated partly from the small numbers who returned home to Europe from India. It has been calculated that of the 508 individuals appointed to the Bengal Presidency between 1762 and 1784, 321 died in India with only 32 returning to Britain.

[3] Ed. J. M. MacKenzie, T. M. Devine, Scotland and the British Empire, Oxford University Press, 2016.

[4] The miniature is inscribed ‘To/ Moolla Abul/ Futteh Sahib/ from/ his sincere friend/ Colonel CharlesReynolds/ 1810 ‘.

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500 Years of British Art