On display in London, natural history paintings by an obscure 19th-century Bengali artist by Malini Roy from Scroll.in

The British Library has loaned 20 paintings and manuscripts to the Wallace Collection in London for the “Forgotten Masters” exhibition, running through April 2020. Included are a selection of four works by the relatively unknown artist Haludar, whose natural history drawings are on display for the very first time.

When the exhibition curator William Darymple started scoping paintings to be included in the exhibition, I brought to his attention the natural history drawings in the collection commissioned by the Scottish surgeon Dr Francis Buchanan-Hamilton – 1762–1829, hereafter referred to as Buchanan – at the turn of the 19th century. When I showed him the delicate paintings of a moloch gibbon, a sloth bear, a long-tailed macaque and the gerbils painted by the artist Haludar, Dalrymple was intrigued and we started considering the conservation aspects in displaying these works for the first time.

Sloth bear drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, circa 1799-1806. Credit: British Library (CC Public Domain)

In researching the Buchanan collection at the British Library, which consists of several hundred natural history alongside countless volumes of his notes, I met with Dr Ralf Britz an ichthyologist, or fish scientist, at the Natural History Museum, who was working on Buchanan’s volume on Fishes of the Ganges held in the British Library. When I mentioned my plans to work on the drawings of mammals in the Library’s collection and researching the artist Haludar, he immediately sent me a scientific article by the French zoologist Henri de Blainville. In 1816, de Blainville wrote in the science bulletin, par la Société philomathique de Paris, that a new species of Cervus niger could be identified “after a very beautiful coloured drawing that was completed on site by Haludar, an Indian painter”. After reading this article, I started to look at other early 19th century periodicals to see if any other zoologists were looking at de Blainville’s work or by chance also mentioned Haludar.

Indian sambar deer, Cervus Niger, drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, circa 1799-1806, Barrackpore. Credit: British Library (CC Public Domain)

I discovered that in 1819, the German naturalist Lorenz Oken’s periodical Isis also made reference to Cervus niger, stating it was “painted on the spot by the master painter Haludar”. Both references to Cervus niger, which is an Indian Sambar deer, provided only brief descriptions of the species, and omitted to give details regarding the source of the scientific information as well as the location of the artwork by Haludar. However, in cross-referencing C niger with Haludar, we are directed to a single drawing in the British Library’s collection that was commissioned by Francis Buchanan inscribed with the artist’s name, that had been deposited at the Company’s library on Leadenhall Street, London in 1808. This painting of Cervus niger is one of 28 natural history drawings now held in the British Library that are inscribed Haludar Pinxt and that were prepared between 1795 and 1818, when Buchanan was working as a surgeon for the East India Company and actively documenting botanical and zoological specimens during his travels across the subcontinent.

This article first appeared on British Library’s Untold Lives blog.

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