Company Culture: British Artists and the East India Company, 1770-1830

Thursday, October 16, 2003
Sunday, January 11, 2004

Writing from late eighteenth-century London, Lord Chatham marveled that “the riches of Asia have been poured in upon us.” Tea, spices, fabrics, and other luxury goods from the Indian subcontinent transformed everyday life in Britain. These were the products of an aggressive and dynamic colonial endeavor spearheaded by “the Grandest Society of Merchants in the universe”—the East India Company. Founded in 1600, this powerful collective of London-based merchants controlled every aspect of British involvement in India until 1813. Although Parliament ended its commercial monopoly on all trade east of the southern tip of Africa in that year, the company continued as the governing bureaucratic and military presence on the subcontinent until 1857.

Among the “riches of Asia” exported to Europe were paintings, drawings, and prints produced by the many British artists, draftsmen, surveyors, engineers, and amateurs who traveled to the Indian subcontinent in search of patronage and aesthetic inspiration. Company Culture, organized to complement Traces of India: Photography, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation, examined the role played by visual artists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in

Tilly Kettle, Shuja-ud-daula, Nawab of Oudh (detail), 1772, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

documenting the East India Company’s extraordinary imperial initiative and formulating the image of the British presence in India. Selected from the Center’s rich collection of paintings, works on paper, and rare books, the exhibition focused on the period from 1770 to 1830. It explored shared themes, such as strategies of representation, imperialism, and the formulation of national identity for British India.

Company Culture was organized by the Center and curated by Morna O’Neill, PhD candidate in History of Art, Yale University.