Next week’s auction of printed works could be a pointer to a growing interest beyond the stranglehold of painted canvases.
In a country with a short history of art auctions, similarities rather than differences have been a distinguishing hallmark. Which is why collectors can look forward to next week’s auction in Bangalore of “antiquarian books, maps, prints & photographs”. Auction house Bid & Hammer has had a somewhat chequered career in the Garden City, often mixing antiquarian prints with sculpture and art. But this 232-lot auction is its most focused and ambitious to date.
The works to be auctioned include delightful and occasional first edition books, lithograph prints, engravings, hand-coloured aquatints, maps, printed pages from journals and newspapers (from Illustrated London News to advertisements in the annual supplements of The Times of India of the twenties and thirties) and illustrations that were probably reproduced in books and have been turned into sets of images, duly framed for the collectors’ edification (such as the typecast portraits published in The Costumes of Indoostan).
In most collecting societies, antiquarian books and prints are either the starting point or useful in filling gaps — in this case in the way the “Empire” was positioned back home with an eye to showing off its flora, fauna, landscapes, architecture and, unsurprisingly, its rajas and merchants, traders and nautch girls. If these books and views and prints were in high demand in Britain before India’s independence, waning interest there has hardly kept up with antiquarian interest in India. It is only now, that Indians, confident about their nationhood and selves, are ready to bid for a past when India was Hindostan, and we are able to look back with amusement, rather than anger, at places that were called (or at any rate spelled) Nepaul and Birmah, the Sinde and Boorhanpore.
This, then, is an auction for the bounty hunter, for those with not just collecting interest in printed art, but in topics and subjects ranging from India and its Native Princes (published 1878; Rs 75,000-90,000) to The Countries of the World (4 vols; Rs 72,000-90,000), from George Atkinson’s 1911 Curry & Rice (On Forty Plates) for Rs 45,000-65,000 to the 1813 Oriental Memoirs in four volumes with “29 hand coloured plates and 79 steel engravings” estimated at a pricier Rs 6.5-8 lakh. Droll, therefore, to notice the pencilled price on the title page on one of the volumes: “Rs 35/-”.
If the books range from views of Himalaya Mountains to The Book of Pigeons and Speaking Parrots — you can hardly fault the British for their lack of meticulousness to detail — the maps, of Malabar & Coromandel, or Johnson’s Hindostan (and indeed, even Johnson’s Asia), of A Map Intended to Illustrate the Relative Situation of the British Empire in the East as, indeed, Overland Route to India and China, are less expensive and likely to cause both cartographer and collector hours of fascination.
The engravings and lithographs and other prints involve the usual Raj prints of native princes and royal visits, of the Delhi Darbar and of army uniforms, of sketched prints by the indefatigable Miss Emily Eden (culled from her Portraits of the Princes & People of India), of illustrations by the Daniel brothers and William Simpson, William Hodges and James Fergusson, among others. But the pick of the selection at the auction is printed works around the epochal life and times of Tipu Sultan — many of those dealing with the surrender of his sons to the British (including two engravings by Joseph Grozer, Rs 1.75-2 lakh and Rs 2-2.25 lakh respectively; another by Anthony Cardon, Rs 2.6-3 lakh; and Duncan Campbell’s version estimated at Rs 1-1.3 lakh), and at least one by L Schiavoneeti depicting The Body of Tippoo Sultaun recognised by his Family for Rs 2.25-2.75 lakh. Robert Hyde Colebrooke watercolour of Tipu Sultan’s Seringapatnam estimated between Rs 12 lakh and Rs 15 lakh is probably an outlier in terms of pricing.
The photography section is probably the weakest in comparison, but for most works, the prices, if not the timing of the auction (7:00 pm at ITC Windsor, Bangalore, on August 17) could go a long way in resurrecting interest in the illustrated history of a colonised nation in danger of forgetting its past, as well as prices that, given the peaks of most modern art, could be a stepping stone for an emerging breed of collectors in India.
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.