Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir William Fairlie and Family, 1800 

Robert Home (1752-1834)

Portrait of Sir William Fairlie and Family, 1800, Robert Home
Oil on canvas
19th Century
59 ¾ x 52 in (152.4 x 132 cm)
Provenance: by descent in the sitters’ family until 2005
This portrait of the celebrated ‘India merchant’ William Fairlie was painted in Calcutta in February 1802 by the British artist Robert Home. It is one of Home’s most ambitious and successful works, and is thus one of the most important paintings made in the Raj in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Home’s sitter books record that Fairlie paid the high sum of 3000 rupees. Fairlie is shown with his wife Margaret and their three eldest children William, John, and Agnes Maria.

William Fairlie was one of a succession of Scottish traders who made their fortune in the British Empire. He began his agency in Calcutta (where a ‘Fairlie Place’ was first recorded in 1794), in partnership with John Fergusson, a fellow-Ayrshireman. By the turn of the century his firm was involved in a wide range of businesses extending well beyond India. In 1798 he was described in terms of high praise to the then Governor General of India, Richard Wellesley:

‘…Mr Fairlie you would find the best informed in commercial matters in Bengal. I suppose no English house in India has such extensive concerns as Mr Fairlie’s, but what I look to is that you may depend upon his giving opinions perfectly unbiased by self-interest. His fortune is very large and his credit seems almost unbounded.’ [David Scott, Fairlie’s London partner]

Wellesley certainly needed Fairlie’s wealth for his wars of aggression against the Marathas and Tipu Sultan of Mysore, which were both expensive and unauthorised. Fairlie played a major role in supplying the Company''s Bengal army with elephants, bullocks, camels and victuals.

In the early nineteenth century Fairlie’s agency house was the largest shipowner in Calcutta, and transported rice, indigo and cotton, as well as carrying opium to the China coast. The ship Fairlie, was built on the Hooghly River in 1811-12, and subsequently carried emigrants to Australia for many years. The larger ship William Fairlie traded regularly between London and Canton for the East India Company between 1821 and 1832.

Fairlie was also involved in financing trade in Danish ships between India, Java and Europe, and through his partners and connections established a trading network which encompassed Canton, Batavia, Manila, Penang and New South Wales. Many of Fairlie’s connections with the China coast developed in conjunction with the Reid brothers. ‘Fairlie, Reid’ became ‘Reid and Beale’ in Canton, thereby leading through Beale and Magniac to Jardine, Matheson in 1832.

In 1798 Fairlie married Margaret Ogilvy, daughter of John Ogilvy of Murtle, in Calcutta. Fairlie had already employed the services of Robert Home, and indeed was one of Home’s first sitters in Calcutta, commissioning a ‘head’ in July 1795, and ordering three copies of it subsequently, as his ‘sitters’ book’ reveals. Two further entries appear in the ‘sitters’ book’ in 1802: ‘Mrs Fairlie and Two Children H.L [price] 1500’, and ‘Mr Fairlie and Child [price] 1500’. Then an entry for ‘monies received’ in October 1802 reads ‘Mr Fairlie and family – 3000’.
The two entries for February 1802, as well as the note of receipt, must refer to the present picture, and suggests that the family may have sat for Home in two separate groups, brought together in the final work.
The Fairlies had two more children who survived to adulthood, James Ogilvy and Margaret Elizabeth; they were portrayed in England, with their mother, by Sir Martin Archer Shee. Having returned from India the Fairlies settled in Park Crescent, London, and William became a Member of Parliament. After his death in 1825, his widow Margaret bought the estate of Coodham in south Ayrshire, Scotland, and built a substantial house there; she died in 1845. The estate was inherited by her son (Colonel) James Ogilvy Fairlie, who with the Earl of Eglinton founded the Open Golf tournament in 1860. William and Margaret’s eldest daughter Agnes Maria, who appears as a small child in this picture, was married in 1821 to her cousin, (Colonel) James Fairlie of Holms, by whom she had nine sons and five daughters.

Robert Home first studied painting under Angelica Kauffman, R.A., and began to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1780; he worked in both Italy and Ireland before sailing to India in 1790, where he accompanied the army of Lord Cornwallis as official artist during the arduous campaign against Tipu Sultan. By June 1795 Home has established a successful studio in Calcutta. In October it was reported that he ‘was much employed, and has handsome prices, I hear’. This is confirmed by his sitters’ book, which is preserved in the National Portrait Gallery, London. His standard charge was 500 sicca rupees (£60) for a head, and 2,000 rupees (£240) for a full-length portrait.
In addition to his commissions from wealthy East India Company civilians, Home painted several portraits of Marquis Wellesley, of Lord Minto (who succeeded him as Governor-General), and of the Marquis’s brother Arthur, later Duke of Wellington; he also portrayed a number of military commanders and high court judges. Among his patrons was the diarist William Hickey, who observed that in 1804 Home was ‘then deemed to be the best artist in Asia’. He was also an able draughtsman: his ''Select Views in Mysore, the Country of Tippoo Sultan'' were published in London and Madras in 1794, and in Calcutta he made 215 watercolours of Indian mammals, birds and reptiles, some of which were also worked up as oils.

In 1814 Robert Home (who was now in his sixties) left Calcutta for Lucknow, and became court painter to the Nawab (later King) Ghazi-ud-din Haidar of Oudh. Here he was employed not only in portraiture but in designing furniture, regalia and howdahs. He received an annual salary of £2,000. When the King died in 1827 Home retired with his married daughter to a ‘handsome establishment’ at Cawnpore (Kanpur), where he died at the age of 82, having spent most of his long life in India.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.