Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of an Officer of the East India Company 1770c.

Tilly Kettle (1735-1786)

Portrait of an Officer of the East India Company, Tilly Kettle
Oil on canvas
18th Century
85 1/2 x 53 1/2 inches 217 x 133.5 cm
Collection of John Tomlinson Esq., Whitehaven, Cumbria. Sold from his estate, Christie''s 3 December 1904 lot. 127, bt.McLean With Thomas McLean, London. Anon. sale, Christie''s, 20th May 1955, lot.149, bt.Gooden. With Gooden and Fox, London. The Astor family of Ditchley, Oxfordshire and subsequently Bruern, Oxfordshire until 1997.
The Times, Monday, 5th December 1904, pg.13 Arthur B Chamberlain, George Romney, 1910, pg.308 Mildred Archer, India and British Portraiture 1770-1825, 1979, p.69, ill. pg.24.
This outstanding military portrait was painted by Tilly Kettle, the first major Western artist to go to India. Arriving at Madras in 1769, he portrayed the leading figures of the region, both British and Indian. At Faizabad he was employed for a year by the Nawab of Oudh; for the remainder of his visit to India Kettle was based in Calcutta, receiving commissions from judges and administrators, and, in a few cases, their wives. He painted at least three portraits of Warren Hastings.

When he sailed from Calcutta for England on 30th March 1776 he had earned a considerable fortune. It was Tilly Kettle's success in India that encouraged other artists of merit -from Zoffany to Chinnery- to undertake the long voyage to India. In 1786 Kettle set off for India again, this time overland; he reached Aleppo in July, but died soon afterwards.

Like the prinicipal figure in several other of Kettle's portraits -notably that of Shuja-ud-daula which was given to Louis XVI in 1778, and is still at Versailles- the scarlet-coated officer advances one leg towards the spectator, while his head is presented full face. Despite the element of swagger in the posture, and the magnificence of his gold-braided uniform, the overall expression suggests not so much arrogance as a steady confidence and an awareness of responsibilty.

The tropical location is made plain by the plantain tree on the left and the palm trees on the right, beneath which can be seen a battalion of sepoys of the Bengal Infantry is encamped. Indeed, the picture can de regarded not simply as a striking portrait of an individual, but an apt reflection of the immense military and economic power of the East India Company in the 1770s.

The identity of the sitter has not been established with any certainty, although the name of Major Sweeney Toone has been suggested among possible candidates. Major Toone served as Aide-de-Camp to Warren Hastings and the latter stood as godfather to two of Toone's sons. In 1773 Toone was responsible for raising a troop of cavalry at Benares to serve as the Governor General''s Body Guard. The flamboyant uniform in this portrait has been compared to that of the Body Guard, although -regulations notwithstanding- uniforms in this period were seldom a rigidly-fixed matter and the dress might as easily be that of an infantry officer. The sepoy dress depicted with some care in the background has been identified as that of the Bengal Third Brigade.

It is not known certainly whether or not this portrait was executed in India, but if, however, like a good many of Kettle's Indian works, the portrait was in fact painted in England, this might explain the portrait's superb condition. This certainly was the conclusion of the Times correspondent (5th December 1904 see literature) who stated when writing of this and other paintings in the Tomlinson collection that the canvasses did not show the effects of the heat in India ''and it may be taken as a certainty that they have never left England.''
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.