It is with great pleasure that we announce our forthcoming exhibition of the Parlby Album, a selection of fine and hitherto unknown watercolour paintings by Indian artists working at the end of the 18th century, which opens a fascinating window onto the lives and tastes of the British in India at this time.
Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, the noted Indian specialist, has uncovered the story of the family and the community that lies behind this captivating group of paintings, depicting a number of vibrant festive and religious events as well as the Palladian-style houses of wealthy Englishmen and women who chose to live away from the bustle of the city. The album belonged to Louisa Parlby, who may have been an early member of the ‘fishing fleet’ – the rather unkind term for single ladies who sailed to India in search of a husband. She found one in James Parlby, an engineer living in the exclusive English enclave of Maidapur, south of Murshidabad, the old capital city of Bengal. A precursor to the postcard or even photograph album, for Louisa these paintings would have been a splendid way of sharing scenes from her life abroad; for her husband they may even have been a kind of portfolio of the work he did developing these grand mansions.
One particular highlight depicts a nautch, or Indian dance performance, presented to a senior officer from the East India Company, who is portrayed seated and smoking a hookah . Another especially fine painting shows two caparisoned elephants, set in a hilly landscape .
The Maidapur houses, each placed in their own gardens, have a calm and dream-like quality about them. Set in the lush Bengal scenery, they stand nevertheless as exemplars of the English ‘gentleman’s seat’. Cattle drowse on the lawns while their owners drowse too on their day beds, their stays and waistcoats loosened and the venetians closed. The men for whom these houses were built would have all been neighbours, ranging in status from a baronet to the grandson of a stone mason, but who would nonetheless have visited each others’ houses, borrowed each others’ horses, and attended dinners and balls together.
The Parlby Album thus represents an exciting new discovery which adds to our knowledge of late 18th century India, but which also provides an enchanting glimpse of how the English made themselves so thoroughly at home in a foreign country.