Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of an Officer of the Bengal Artillery 1780s

Thomas Hickey (1741-1824)

Portrait of an Officer of the Bengal Artillery, Thomas Hickey
Oil on canvas
18th Century
32 x 26 inches 81.3 x 66cm
Private Collection USA
We are grateful to Andrew Cormack FSA Keeper of Medals, Uniforms and Visual Arts at the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, for suggesting that the sitter is wearing the uniform of the Bengal Artillery.

The exotic fronds just visible at the top right of this painting as much as the sitter’s uniform identify this painting as an Indian subject. The hill-fort visible to the left further sets the scene, which although superficially European in appearance resembles the ruins of Bijaigarh visited by Hickey’s near-contemporary in India William Hodges, who painted a large study of them at around this date (Sothebys March 22nd 2005 lot 25).

The cannon establishes the sitter as an artilleryman, and the uniform details suggest that he is an officer in the Bengal Artillery. The forces in India were not part of the British Army proper, but were organized into three Presidency Armies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay and were answerable not to the War Office but to the East India Company although their uniforms follow the patterns ordained for the regular army by a Warrant of 1768.

Hickey had left London, where he had lived after an artistic education in his native Dublin and a six year sojourn in Italy, to make his career from the patronage of the British soldiers and administrators in India. He was amply qualified to do well in that taxing environment, in which an engaging personality, resilience and humour were as essential for success as skill with the brush, and the notable number of portraits dating to his first period in India from March 1784 to January 1791 are evidence of his success.

Stylistically this painting belongs among the products of Hickey’s mature style of the later 1780s. He had always been ‘brilliantly skillful in the capture of likeness’1 and in the painting of detail and costume, essential attributes of a painter who always relied very heavily on the patronage of soldiers, and by this date he had honed his skill in composition and colour. The present portrait belongs among a group of highly successful and insightful portraits such as Colonel George Burrington of the Bengal Battalion 1788 (formerly with Spink), and William Hickey with a bust of Edmund Burke c.1790 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) and has affinities in mood with the Officer in a red uniform (Dowell’s Edinburgh March 22nd 1963).

Hickey had left England for India because he was unable to establish himself in practice there, and during his brief return in June 1791 he encountered the same difficulty in obtaining sufficient patronage. The friends that he made in India were more reliable, and he was invited by Lord Macartney, who had been Governor of Madras from 1781 to 1785, to accompany him on his embassy to China as a salaried painter. Hickey returned to England afterwards, and then went back to Madras with his two daughters in late 1798. He remained there until 1805 when he was disillusioned by the East India Company’s refusal to appoint him its official painter and in 1807 he went to Calcutta. The Napoleonic Wars made travel home to England too dangerous at this time, and he remained until 1812 when he returned to Madras. He still produced some works of distinction in his old age, and the Madras Gazette recorded that ‘the portraits he had finished only a few days prior to his dissolution bore every appearance of his wonted vigour, genius and skill.’2

1. Mildred Archer India and British Portraiture 1770 – 1825 Oxford 1979 p.205
2. ibid. p.233
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.