The first time I went to the British Library, I saw an exhibit called Writing Britain. The setup was dull- a mixture of grays and blacks and whites, a page come to life. Even though the Mughal exhibit was in the same set of rooms, I felt as though I was entering a new world of color and culture. There were so many fascinating objects- ranging from paintings to crowns to books (with a replica set of armor, thrown in for good measure). It took me a while to decide which piece to write about. Yet I found myself going back to the painting “A European in Indian Dress Watching a Performance”.
It wasn’t the most important object in the exhibit. In fact, I’m pretty sure no one else found this piece as interesting as I did. It is a picture of Sir David Ochterlony, who was born in Boston, MA, was of Scottish heritage, and eventually became a British General. Though he is typically presented in his military uniform, he is wearing Indian attire in this piece. Why did I find this so fascinating? For me, it seemed to represent a blend of cultures and countries. I am far more familiar with Western history. Throughout the exhibit there were notes on what was happening at different times in the Mughal empire. Occasionally these would include names I was familiar with. Names that I had associated with specific places, ideas, times. There were also Mughal images of saints, influenced by foreigners. And I had a moment, one of those ones where you realize that everything is connected. It was not the first time, and, I am positive, it will not be the last. There is an entire world of cultures- people and stories and themes traveling through lands, blending, coming together.
This blend of cultures comes through in the painting. A British General, born in a land that would fight and gain its independence within his lifetime, sits in India, wearing native attire. The mixture continues within the room. The painting itself is done in a Delhi style- yet the room is decorated with British Portraits. One of the miniature portraits within the painting is of a woman. She appears to be holding an instrument, most likely a harp. In the crowd locals are playing their own music. The British Portraits also show an alternate style of dress.
I am currently taking an Art History class on British Art in London. For my first essay for the class, I wrote about British court portraits. Though the portraits included in the painting are rather different from 17th century court portraits, I couldn’t help but think of my other class. One thing we talk about a lot is that British art is truly a blend of influences. Even the court portraits of Charles I were famously done by Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck. So, how British is British Art? We are constantly influenced by an entire world, a collection of cultures with their own histories and traditions coming together. When we look at a piece, we must remember the context- all the influences, all the world.