Monday, December 9, 2013

Evidence of Things Seen : A Pair of Madras Portraits in Watercolour

This is a long, very long, write-up about a minor triumph resulting from staring and squinting at a pair of portraits, a meandering and discursive excursion in identifying the sitters. The portraits in question are a pair of watercolours that I won at an auction in the US last year.

When I saw the online auction listing my eyes popped out and the overwhelming question was "Who dis dude in the first portrait? Surely a Madras merchant?". That much was apparent because the artist was Simon Fonceca, a leading Madras artist of the time, the 1850's. And the view through the window in the first portrait suggested a possible Madras location.

 A few mouse clicks and I had made my high bid, or so I thought, and spent in suspense the few days until the auction. The items did fall to me but right at the maximum of my absentee bid whereas I had expected to knock them down at about a a fourth or even a fifth of that level. The auction house is a highly respected one and they had certainly not run my bid to its maximum. Clearly there was someone else who had bid nearly as high as myself but I will never know who or why.

I had bid from Madras, India for these portraits in watercolour being auctioned in southern USA, bidding sight unseen as it were. In fact the pictures, in their original period frames, reached me only late this November when my daughter Sundari, who lives in California, brought them over.

Since winning the paintings, I have been trying to figure, and to reach a more than reasonably certain conclusion about, the identities of the sitters in the two portraits. The exercise has also involved some rudimentary semiotics or, simply put, the interpretation of signs and symbolisms. And the two drawings are dotted about with signs, hints and symbols, some blindingly obvious and others less than obviously blinding. Whilst I am not, in any sense, knowledgeable about semiotics we are all, in a very real sense, readers and interpreters of the signs and symbols we encounter in daily life. And I took my inspiration from Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, my only and limited exposure to pop semiotics. As Ubertino says in the book : "I know nothing. There is nothing that I know. But the heart senses certain things. Let your heart speak, question faces, do not listen to tongues. ... ". And that is exactly what I have tried to do with these portraits.

Like I said, it is a pair of watercolours. The first is of a man and is dated March, 1849. The second is of a lady and her son, about 8 or 9 years old, and is dated September 1853. The second drawing includes an insert, on the wall, of the first, establishing a visual link or affinity between the two paintings. Also, I took it as a sort of a sign within a sign, its significance to be pondered over. The sitters in the second drawing are evidently the wife and son of the subject of the earlier, 1849, drawing. Both drawings are signed by Simon Fonceca, a very highly rated and well known artist of the period, an Anglo Indian or Eurasian who was Catholic and lived in Santhome, Madras. We know that he died in 1870. Here are the two drawings (each 21 x 15 inches approx sheet size, i.e not counting the frame) :

Now, the first portrait shows a man of apparently no little affluence and standing in society, immaculately attired, evidently a businessman aged between 40 and 50 years. Fonceca being an artist who lived in Madras, it seemed most likely that these were portraits of a Madras family. That the setting is India and Madras is further apparent from the colonial building and from the view through the window. This view shows the Madras Roads, or roadsteads where the ships "ride" at anchor, so instinctively familiar to anyone who has lived here and seen other drawings of the "Roads" (even though, to most people, it is only a nondescript bit of ocean-front that is visible in the drawing). In fact the ocean front may have been put in the picture, deliberately, so that the location of the portrait is shown to be Madras. Also, the presence of a steamer on the Roads denoted a shipping connection. More on all this a little further down. The second portrait is evidently that of his wife and son seeing that the first portrait is shown in the background, framed on the wall. See what I mean about the drawings being laden with signs and hints?

The Dramatis Personae .... er .... the Suspects

Obviously, the key to identifying the subjects of the second drawing is to work out the ID of the sitter in the first. Nothing definitive can be inferred at a first glance except that, for a number of reasons, the "needle of suspicion" points to one of the three Arbuthnots who were in Madras around that time, either John Alves (1802 - 75) or Archibald Francis (1804 - 79) or William Urquhart (1807 - 74). All three were siblings, sons of Sir Wm Arbuthnot, 1st Baronet, the elder brother of George A the founder of the Madras firm. Each was, by turn, resident in Madras at various times between c. 1825 to about 1860, and managing the affairs of the family firm.

The Arbuthnot Attribution for the Portraits

First, why do I think it could be one of the Arbuthnots? Because the most likely subjects for the portrait were surely from among the Binnys or the Parrys or the Arbuthnots, all leading businessmen of the time. And all of them were steamer agents with shipping connections. But none of the Binnys or the Parrys (nor any non family Director / Partner of either firm) fit in terms of age or family. And I have gone through the books on both firms. There was Herbert Nelson, a Parry partner of the same period and age as our 3 suspects but his features are different from those of the man in the portrait and, moreover, he always wore a full beard. James Ouchterlony (1809 - 75), a prominent businessman and planter of the period, could have fitted the bill. But I have been able to ascertain from an informed source with access to his papers that, in the period in question, he was firmly esconced in his vast estate in the Nilgiri hills. Moreover he too wore a flowing beard. But these Arbuthnots I mentioned do fit. In terms of age, periods of residence in the city and family details.

                                                                             Below : James Ouchterlony (photo courtesy of Dr John Roberts)

Archibald Francis Arbuthnot & Wm Urquhart Arbuthnot

AF (1804 - 79) was resident in Madras at least up to 1845. The websites of Arbuthnot Latham in UK (a company still going strong) and Kittybrewster (the family online group named after the suburb in Aberdeen, Scotland) state that he was a Director of Arbuthnot Latham, London from 1846. It is possible, though not likely, that he took that Directorship whilst continuing to live in Madras post 1845. The Highland Society register for 1856 lists him as a member of its Madras chapter in that year but this may or may not be correct. The other details do fit on the whole , such as his age, the ages of his children, specially the apparent age of the boy in the drawing, and so on. So he is one likely candidate for the subject of the painting.

WU (1807 - 74) also seems to be a likely candidate. His age fits and he was certainly a resident in Madras during the years in question, 1849 to 53. I see from the Vizag gazetteer that he left the Madras civil service in 1846 and joined the family firm of Arbuthnot & Co in Madras. And he was resident in the city at least up to 1857, as the Madras Almanac for that year lists him as a resident. WU was certainly a person of eminence in the city, taking up Chairmanship of the Chamber of Commerce in 1850. Wm U, in the 1860s, also served as a Member of the Council for India. His family composition, specially the ages of his children, does fit. But the fact that his wife had delivered in England as late as in June 1853 could make it somewhat less likely, though not impossible, that she was back in Madras in September of that year to sit for her portrait (dated September 1853).

Their Families


AF had 13 children, one or two of whom died in infancy. Why, then, is only one boy portrayed with his mother? Possibly because the older boys were already at school in England. I was able to verify, from the Visitation of England & Wales, Vol 20, that the older boys were indeed in Eton and Harrow at the time (and perhaps the older girls were also at school in England).

And, from the Visitation, a series about the pedigreed and armorial families in England & Wales, it could be deduced that the boy in the second painting might have been Robert George Arbuthnot (born May 1843) who matriculated from Eton only in 1861. So he, a 10 year old, was still in Madras with the parents and hence his appearance in the portrait of 1853. Just a conjecture this because boys were invariably packed off to boarding schools in England by the age of 10 if not 8. It would have been very unusual, and unlikely, for a 10 year old to be based at home in Madras.

Also, if AF's period of residence in Madras ended in 1845 he may not be our man at all. Moreover, the Company Secretary at Arbuthnot Latham as well as Sir Wm Reierson Arbuthnot, Bt (the present day leader or Ustad of the present day clan, as it were), both of whom were contacted, think he was back in England by 1846.


WU had 8 children, of whom 6 survived infancy, and the age of one of them fits for the 1853 portrait. The lad in question might be the second boy, and fourth offspring, Frederick George Arbuthnot (born Aug, 1845 and about 8 years old in 1853).

It is again very likely that the older boy, William Henry, and the the two elder sisters were already in school in England. The other 3 children were too young, varying in age from about 4 years to 3 months, to be included in the drawing. That would account for the presence in the drawing of only Frederick George (who himself may have been about to be dispatched to boarding school in England).

The fact that Mrs W U could still have been in confinement in England, as mentioned above, needs to be considered but this difficulty is more apparent than real. We will return to this a little later.

Who were the Arbuthnots of Madras?
The Arbuthnots, a succession of whom who resided in Madras through the 19th Century, were an old Scottish family of Kincardineshire and Aberdeenshire whose antecedents can be traced back to the 13th century. One line of the lineage was conferred a Viscountcy in 1641. The Viscount’s line spell their name Arbuthnott, with two t’s, whereas all other Arbuthnots use only one t. This distinction, as between the one L and two L Llamas, is notable but not really important. What is in a name after all?

Our Arbuthnots of Madras are descended from Robert of Haddo Rattray who established a successful banking business in Edinburgh in the late 18th century. He was also socially prominent and the Secretary to the Board of Trustees, an official appointment which came to him. Robert’s eldest son, William, became Provost of Edinburgh and, in that capacity, entertained George IV at dinner in 1822. The Monarch, having fed and imbibed well, bid him to walk around the dining table without support. This William was easily able to accomplish and then knelt before the King. Legend has it that the Sovereign said “Arise, Sir William”. This impromptu conferral of an Honour was then formalized in due course and a Baronetcy was awarded to William Arbuthnot of Haddo.

One of the brothers of the 1st Baronet, George (1772 – 1843) the fifth son of Robert of Haddo Rattray, began his career as Deputy Secretary to the Governor of Ceylon but soon resigned his appointment and came to Madras in 1802, joining the firm of Lautour & Co as a partner.  George Arbuthnot remained at Madras, and the firm of Lautour and Co grew and prospered. The youngest partner soon found himself at the head of the business and the name of the firm was changed to Arbuthnot and Co. He retired from the business in 1823 and settled in Coworth Park, Berkshire, England.

His place in the Madras firm was successively taken by his nephews, the sons of his elder brother Sir William, and, later, by his own sons and, still later, by the sons of his nephews. Thus the firm continued in Madras until about 1907. Arbuthnot & Co prospered and grew throughout the 19th century and, by 1850, was a pre-eminent mercantile and banking house in the south of India.

Moreover, the Arbuthnots, prosperous and pedigreed, were well connected, whether back home in England or even in Madras. In England their connections included the Coutts family, leading bankers. In the latter city, there were several other Arbuthnots from collateral lines, almost all of them in important positions. There were Alexander A, a senior civil servant, Gen George Bingham Arbuthnot of the Madras Army and many others contemporary with those who ran the Madras firm. In fact, it will be correct to say that our Arbuthnots were the socially pre-eminent personae in the city and the Presidency, big fish in the comparatively small pond or backwater that was the Madras of the 19th Century.

All this was to end in ignominy in the year 1907 when the firm went bankrupt. The then managing partner, George Gough Arbuthnot (son of our Archibald Francis) was jailed for a year or so on grounds of fraud and embezzlement. This was not strictly correct, in my reading of the case. It was just that GG went in for a series of speculative investments in Latin America. None of them came to any good and his only crime seems to have been to yield to the first of the four enemies : Hope, Fear, Greed and Panic. He was likely hoping for an uplift in the firm's fortunes and trying to keep the lid on until then. But this is not the place to enter in to the details of that story.

But the name lives on in the world of banking and finance. The disaster in India did not seem to affect either the fortunes of Arbuthnot Latham in London nor the lifestyles of the family. For a brief account of Arbuthnot Latham and its position in the premier league of accepting houses or merchant banks, go to : The writer of this piece, David Lascelles, has also recently published a book on the history of the firm.

The Location or Setting for the Portraits

So the Arbuthnots, AF or WU and their families, are the most likely sitters in these portraits. A further reason to take note of is the apparent location in these two portraits. The first portrait is presumably taken in the Arbuthnot offices in Bentinck's building which stood right on the sea front, because the "Roads" and the steamer are visible through the window. Later, the firm built its own office building right next to Bentinck's, about 1860. Here is a watercolour drawing of c. 1860 - 70, showing the Arbuthnot building. I am more than reasonably sure that this drawing was also done by Simon Fonceca (or, less likely, by his brother John Joseph who was also a first rate artist). I stick my neck out thanks to the notion that years of squinting at watercolours and prints help me spot the stylistic similarities as well as those relating to the palette in a drawing.

Below is another view of the same Arbuthnot building, almost certainly taken in November1861, this one having been drawn by William Simpson. It is the handsome three storeyed building on the right extreme, followed by the Sea Customs and Port Authority. Note how closely it corresponds to the Fonceca drawing to the right. Also, the proximity to the sea and the roadsteads. Bentinck's building was to the right of Arbuthnots, outside the frame, as it were. We know that Simpson arrived in Madras on the 13th November 1861 and must have landed almost directly in front of Arbuthnot's. He spent only a very short time in the city and it is reasonably certain that this view was taken some time in November 1861. And the painting shows the newly constructed building, finished perhaps a year earlier.

Below is a view of the "Madras Roads" from the first or second floor of Bentinck's or, perhaps, of Arbuthnot's next door (about 1885). A word or two about Bentinck's will be in order.It was opened in 1798 to provide office space for the merchants who had to move out of Fort St George following the relocation of the Sea Customs out of the fort. Bentinck's was, therefore, erected close to the new Customs House opposite the Madras Harbour. The buildings, naturally enough, became home to many merchants, all British. The merchants finally moved out by about 1850 - 60, but the Supreme Court and, later, the High Court functioned there until about 1890. Thereafter, Bentinck's housed the Madras Collectorate until its demolition in about 1990.

The perspective of the ocean through the window in the drawing (see below right) is identical to that in the photograph at left.

 Clearly, what is seen in the first portrait is a view from the first or second floor of Bentinck's Building where the Arbuthnot offices were housed in the 1840s and 50s. The Parry offices, a kilometre further to the south on the same road, would not have had this view. And Binny's, still standing, is on the street behind the ocean front with the sea view obscured by other structures.

Likewise, the location of the second portrait. Although it will not be aparent from this low res image, I enlarged it on a basic photo editor and found there is a suggestion of a river outside the window. I think that is a typical Adyar river scene (which, again, I can spot even in a hazy drawing the same as with the "Roads"). And both AF and WU lived in the Adyar area of Madras, as did most of the Arbuthnots, per the Madras Alamanac listings over the years.

So, the "internal" evidence for the sitter being an Arbuthnot stacks up very well - the ages of the two possible sitters, the steamer connection, the locations of the drawings and the family details (and the whereabouts of the older kids). The period of residence less so for AF (as there is no evidence for his presence in Madras post 1845 except what the unreliable Highland Society listing states) but it is perfect for Wm U.

The "Insert" of the First Portrait into the Second

And then there is a particular difficulty to do with the insertion of the first portrait in the second, framed on the wall. A "semiotic" issue this.

There were two possibilities or portraiture conventions which were considered but the first of them does not fit the AF and WU attributions (nor any Binny or Parry partner of the period) :

1. The subject had died and the insert is to signify this. But both AF and WU were active during the years in question. None of the senior Arbuthnots nor any Binny nor a Parry partner had died in Madras in this period. And what was the family doing in Madras long after the head had died (they are not in mourning dress assuming it was also customary in Madras then)? It would have been very unusual for them to have remained in India for more than a few months after the head of the family had died. Even more so to have their portrait taken in such circumstances. Nor is there any indication that the artist, Fonceca, visited England and drew the wife and boy there.

2. The insert only signifies temporary but long absence. This does fit the case if AF/WU were away in 1853. I can't find any evidence for this either way. All the available listings of arrivals and departures were scoured, the FIBIS (Families in British India Society) site being especially useful. However, it is very much the case that not all such details were listed by the periodicals and journals of those days.

I think there is also a third explanation, a simple one. This being that the head of the family decided not to sit for the portrait (after all he had had himself drawn a few years earlier) and the insert was only to establish a visual affinity between the two pics. After all, it would have been natural for the first portrait, taken a few years earlier, to be on the wall and the artist, as much as the family, would certainly have wanted to include it in the second drawing. For example, a similar visual rapport between the two paintings is also established in the attire of the boy which reflects that of his father. But, clearly, D Eath Esq had certainly not intervened between 1849 and 1853, we know that for a fact.

The third Arbuthnot, briefly considered : John Alves

At this stage in the "ratiocination", I stumbled on a third Arbuthnot sibling, John Alves (1802 - 75). He was the second of the seven sons of the first Baronet, Sir William Arbuthnot of Haddo (1766 - 1829). He too had been in Madras, managing the firm's affairs, and was in fact the first President of the Madras Chamber of Commerce in 1836, an office which Wm U also subsequently held. I was sure he had returned to England by 1840 and settled in Coworth Park in Berkshire, having seen enough documentary evidence for that. So I had ruled him out as the sitter in the first portrait.

But I then came across the following photograph of JA and his wife Mary, dating from about 1860 - 62 :

There seems to be a more than strong resemblance in the cases of both JA and Mary in this photo when compared to the two portraits (see below right). JA's attire in the photo also seemed suggestive. So, now I had three Arbuthnots to deal with and JA and his wife had become the front runners. But there were serious difficulties in closing on JA as the subject of the first painting.

Firstly, John Alves Arbuthnot had left Madras for good by about 1840. There was no doubt whatever about that since there are extensive records of his permanent residence in England after that date. Secondly, none of the couple's boys fitted, in terms of age, the one in the second drawing. The two older boys were respectively 20 and 17 in September 1853 and the third was not yet seven.

Also, and this could be diagnostic in a real sense, it is clear that the lady in the portrait has blond or light hair whereas Mary Arbuthnot, as the photo clearly shows, had dark hair. So this confirmed that John Alves may be ruled out as the sitter in the first portrait. Back to the overwhelming question. And to Archibald Francis and Wm Urquhart.

The Search for Photographs

What I needed, badly, were photographs of these two Arbuthnots, Archibald Francis and William Urquhart. These could not be found online nor in any books about the Arbuthnot families. Sir William  (who runs the family website, Kittybrewster) wrote to say he had none in his possession either. He was also good enough to contact the Company Secretary at Arbuthnot Latham, an investment management firm that is still active in London but they too had no photos of the two in their archives. But there were photographs of a couple of other Arbuthnots that helped in a way.

First, Sir William Arbuthnot (1766 - 1829), 1st Baronet (and father of our three "Madras"

Next, George Clerk Arbuthnot (1803 - 76), second son of the Baronet and sibling to these three "Madras" Arbuthnots, Archibald Francis, Wm Urquhart and John Alves. George Clerk himself spent some time in Calcutta although mostly based in Liverpool. He was the moving spirit behind the Calcutta firm of Gllanders Arbuthnot, which is still in business, and made a huge fortune in business. This is an 1860's photo.

Sir William A (1st Baronet)

It was clear that the Arbuthnots of this family shared a few common traits such as a prominent nose and premature grey hair.

Something born out by further images of John Alves that I had found online. First the youthful, beak nosed JA, youthful but with hair markedly flecked with grey).

And the same John Alves, years later (don't fail to note the slightly wan, wistful expression in all his three photos reproduced here).

                                               George Clerk Arbuthnot

Not much to go by but, still, I felt I was getting somewhere. It seemed more than likely, read with the evidence of the Madras "Roads" view through the window and the location of Bentinck's building, that the beak nosed, grey haired sitter in the first portrait was an Arbuthnot, either AF or Wm U. But which one?

A Youthful (but Greying) John Alves Arbuthnot

To know for certain, one had to establish the respective dates of residence in Madras of Archibald Francis and Wm Urquhart. The most obvious source for this is the Madras Almanac & Intelligencer, published annually from 1799 to almost the beginning of the next century. But, the only volumes that I could access online were the one for 1853 (which incorporates the info as at end of 1852), 1861 and so on. Nothing else from the relevant period, 1825 - 1855. This was proving difficult as I really needed to look up the volumes of the Almanac in the British Library. Easier said than done.

                                                      John Alves Arbuthnot (in middle age)

Though I visit England a few times yearly, there is seldom time too dive in to the library. Moreover I don't know what happened to my old, very old, reading ticket. Then help arrived from a very friendly, interested and helpful source. This being Beverly Hallam who is Research Officer at FIBIS (Families in British India Society). I had made a brief posting on the FIBIS site about these two portraits which caught her attention and Beverly very kindly volunteered to look up, in the British Library, the Madras Almanac volumes for the years in question. Which she did in a matter of a day or so. It simply would not have been easy for me, without Beverly's help, to close this inquiry. 

The Madras Almanac Listings

Thanks to Beverly, I was able to establish that JA had, indeed, left Madras by 1840 and AF by 1846 from which year Wm U took over the baton at Arbuthnot & Co. Beverly’s compilation ran up to 1852 but I had access to the Almanacs for 1853 and 1857 which show Wm U in continued residence in Madras. Now it became certain that our man in the first portrait must be William Urquhart Arbuthnot. And it followed that those in the second portrait must be his wife Eliza Jane (1815 – 92)) and second son, Frederick George (1845 – 1910).

Eliza Jane Arbuthnot's Confinement

What about the fact that Eliza Jane delivered a boy on the 2nd June 1853 in England (as gleaned from the Visitation of England & Wales, Vol 20)? Would she have been back in Madras in a little over 3 months to be able to sit for the portrait? This took me into the realm of post-partum confinement of women in mid 19th century Engalnd as well as the average length of steamer sailings to India.

Until 1840, trips to the Orient (India or China) were done under sail and would take 5 months at best. Then Thomas Waghorn developped a passenger route to India which combined steamer passages with land legs. In 1850, using his route, it was possible to go from England to Madras in 40 days: taking a train to Brindisi - at the heel of Italy, sailing to Egypt, going overland to Suez before taking another boat to India.

Before 1830 passengers bound for the East had no alternative to circumnavigating Africa. In that year the East India Company pioneered the Red Sea route with a small steamer, built in India with engines imported from England, called the Hugh Lindsay. From 1835 the mails for India were sent through the Middle East rather than around the Cape, and in 1837, the Company started a steam packet service between Bombay and Suez with the paddlers Berenice and Atalanta. These early steamers were not equal to the task of maintaining their timetables throughout the monsoon, but the average journey time from India to Britain, and in the reverse direction, was reduced from six months to less than two.

The connection across the Middle East was suitable only for passengers and mail. There was transit by barge on the Mahmoudieh Canal from the Mediterranean port of Alexandria to Cairo followed by an awkward trip by horse-drawn wagon 84 miles across the desert from Cairo to Suez, down the Nile in the Jack O'Lantern, a tiny paddle steamer. The whole journey was first described as the Steam Route; later, and more generally, it became known as the Overland Route.

By 1843, the P & O had opened a regular steamer service from Suez to Calcutta via Ceylon and Madras. The obstacles were considerable: steam coal from New South Wales had to be shipped to the Indian Ocean via the Cape, and by the 1850s, P & O alone employed some 170 sailing colliers for the purpose. Coal was stocked at Aden, roughly midway on the 3,000-mile voyage between Suez and Bombay; up to a third of the journey time was taken up in coaling the ship.

But, by 1853, a journey from Engalnd to Madras could easily be accomplished in 4 to 6 weeks. Allowing about 5 weeks each for her postnatal confinement and the steamer journey, Eliza Jane would have found herself back in Madras by mid August of 1853, well in time to sit for a portrait done in September of that year.

A Mid-term Appraisal

So far, so good. Taking stock, I could see that :

1. These were portraits of Madras based people. That much was apparent from the artist’s signature and the sea side location of the first portrait (with the “Madras Roads” visible at close quarters).

2. The subject of the first portrait was evidently an Arbuthnot. The location of the office building was diagnostic (because the Parrys or the Binnys did not have offices with a view of the “Roads”). Moreover, the Parry and Binny partners of the day did not fit in terms of age and, where known, appearance. Family details also did not match in the case of any Binny or Parry of the period (or were unavailable though this did not affect the attribution because of the location of their offices and the photographs available).

3. From the details in the Madras Almanac for the years in question, it was also clear that the man in the first portrait could only be William Urquhart Arbuthnot. Archibald Francis and John Alves had left the city before well before 1849.

4. It followed that the people in the second portrait were WU’s wife, Eliza Jane, and s econd son, Frederick George.

5. And, for what it was worth, the family resemblances in the photos of John Alves, the 1st Baronet and George Clerk helped.

But, was this good enough? Was it merely “the well documented anecdote set firmly in a ramified context”, a self fulfilling prophecy, in that I had fixed on the Arbuthnot name and had “constructed” a defence of my theory? Someone could, with reason, say that the sitter could well have been anyone else, say an official of the Bank of Madras.

I realized that I had not come up with any evidence to connect the man in the portrait directly to an Arbuthnot nor to any specific person. I had not done enough to have Wm Urquhart Arbuthnot, like Prufrock, “formulated, sprawling on a pin, …. pinned and wriggling on the wall”. In other words I needed "internal evidence" from the painting itself, more direct, incontrovertible evidence for the attribution of the portrait. Either that or I had to drop my notions and give up the quest for the identity of the man in the drawing.

When the portraits arrived late last month I ripped the frames out to look for any inscriptions on the verso which could help establish the IDs of the sitters. But inscriptions or notations there were NONE.

 It was then, after much staring and squinting, and blinking, at the drawings, that my "gaze" returned to the Lilly scrolls.

 The Evidence of the Lilly Scrolls

 Take a look at the motif on the table cloth in the first drawing.

I had wondered, since seeing the online thumbnails, if they could be a family motif or some sort of insignia. However, Sir William, the webmaster of the family site thought they signified nothing and were merely drawn for effect. Sir William's opinion put paid to that notion of mine though I had a niggling feeling that the Baronet might not have looked closely at, nor considered fully, this highly convoluted scroll pattern. But I did give up that line of inquiry until I ran in to the final road block mentioned above, the need to connect the some aspect of the paintings to an Arbuthnot.

More gazing at the second portrait showed that it too had more scroll patterns discretely strewn about. I noticed that these were all lilliaceous patterns in all their convolutions, ramifications and expressions. All of them discretely interwoven along with other motifs in each of the fabrics shown above. Examples of Lilly scroll patterns on the internet affirmed this suspicion.

On the stool (below, left) :                                                                                                                                                      

I have circled in red the Lilliaceous motifs on the back rest of the lady's chair, further below left. 

And, quite without expecting to find anything further, the shawl draped over the sitter's left arm revealed more Lilly patterns! See below, right.

There was no mistaking these motifs for any other kind of flower or scroll.

They were all Lillies, variously drawn or expressed, as examples of such Lilly scrolls online corresponded with each one of them.

This was quite extraordinary.

Surely these were not random patterns drawn by the artist, as Sir William felt? A Lilly motif on the table cloth of the first portrait and a further three in the second portrait could not be a coincidence.

Were the artist and the family bringing in some form of "allusiveness"? It certainly seemed so. Back to the question of family motifs and arms.

The Arbuthnot Coats of Arms

I took another, close look at the Arbuthnot coat of arms.

There were three Arbuthnot lines entitled to arms, these being the Viscountcy of Arbuthnott (two 't's please), the oldest line and a 1641 creation, the Baronetcy of the Arbuthnots of Haddo or Edinburgh, the line of William Urquhart and an 1822 creation, and, finally, the Baronetcy of the Arbuthnots of Kittybrewster, the line of Sir William and a 1964 creation.All three are collateral lines.

The latter two coats of arms clearly took their inspiration from the 1641 creation. All three, therefore, incorporate a peacock crest, usually a very angry looking, left facing bird, AND all three embody Lilly scrolls.

I place these Coats of Arms below :

The Viscountcy of 1641 (Below)

The Baronetcy of Edinburgh (1822) : Right

We can see that each of them is adorned with an essentially similar scroll pattern which is unmistakeably Lilly. Look just below the peacock in each crest. So this was where those Lilly patterns on the paintings came from!! We shall go shortly in to the why and wherefore of this but first note that the peacocks in the arms are facing left. Meanwhile, a plainer and older version of the Edinburgh arms at left below, followed at right by the Kittybrewster one :

There we are. The Lilly scrolls were an integral part of the different Arbuthnot arms and the Madras Arbuthnots clearly seemed to enjoy using them in "allusion", either as a private sign of identity or as a little private joke, if not both. This possibility was reinforced when I chanced on the following item auctioned in Bonhams in October 2011.

The Bonhams Tea Caddy

I extract from Bonhams' catalogue listing for the item (underlining and highlights mine) :

 "A late 18th/early 19th century Indian-Export carved pierced rosewood armorial tea caddy 

Of rectangular form with canted angles, profusely carved throughout with scrolling foliage, the top with a solid quatrefoil centred by an armorial with motto 'Innocent and True', each side with a solid oval panel depicting an animal, on short splayed feet, 28cm wide, 18cm deep, 15cm high (11" wide, 7" deep, 5.5" high). 


The carved arms are for Arbuthnot, a Scottish family with a viscounty and baronetcy among the family's distinctions. The arms on this caddy are evidently arms for a non-titled person of that name and the motto placed in the English, rather than Scottish configuration. 

This export caddy may have belonged to a member of the Arbuthnot family of Coworth Park, Ascot, Berkshire who had strong colonial connections. George Arbuthnot (1772-1843) was a Scottish Colonel who lived at Coworth Park with the family of his nephew and son-in-law John Alves Arbuthnot (1802-1875), a director of the London Assurance Company and of the London Colonial Bank. Coworth Park was then inherited by his son William Arbuthnot (1833-1896) who spent his formative years in India working for the family bank, Arbuthnot and Co which was founded in Madras in 1810.

Some Close-ups below of the tea caddy :

The Lilly stencil patterns as well as the Lilly flower motif can be made out on the image at left. The one at right shows, at the bottom of the escutcheon or shield, the motto of the Arbuthnot Baronets of Edinburgh, "Innocent & True", some letters of which can be made out (this is what the Lot Notes above refer to as the "English" configuration since, in the Scottish manner, the motto is always placed at the top).

It is hardly likely that George Arbuthnot, founder of the firm and brother of the 1st Baronet, would have used the motif of a new title earned by his elder brother.  John Alves Arbuthnot, on the other hand, had every reason to sport the family arms, newly awarded, complete with Lilly motif on such personal possessions.And the use of the Lilly scrolls to decorate the caddy is of a piece with the use of the Lilly paterns on the portraits. Obviously, the family took some pride in sporting the newly gained arms or an element of the same, such as the Lilly.

Now for a look at the standard or commonplace Lilly stencil pattern. You can see that it accords with the stencils carved on the tea caddy, as does the floral motif, below right, with the flower pattern on that caddy :

Some other standard pattern Lilly motifs which accord with those on the paintings :

The one on the left is similar to that on the stool in the second portrait and the one on the right is similar to the motif on the lady's shawl. It is interesting that the Fleur de Lys Lilly pattern at bottom centre of the image on left above is also reprised at top centre of the stool's pattern! And if you go back to the plain version of the Edinburgh Arbuthnot arms shown further above, the scrolls on it match with the ones in the first portrait (table cloth) and those on the Lady's chair.

The Definitive Attribution

At long last, the case stood established. That the sitters in the portraits were an Arbuthnot family of Madras was apparent from the view of the Madras Roads and from the Fonceca signature. That the family was that of Wm Urquhart Arbuthnot was established from his period of residence in Madras, which accorded with the dates on the portraits. And Wm U's family composition provided further corroboration, in particular the ages of the various children and their probable residence in boarding schools in England as compared to Frederick George A who, at age 8, was the likely boy in the second painting. The subtle incorporation of the Lilly scrolls in both paintings, subtle in that they are not evident at first sight, provided, once what they stood for was understood, an incontrovertible link with the Arbuthnots of Haddo / Edinburgh the family with the Madras connection.

The use, by John Alves Arbuthnot, of the Lilly stencil pattern on the Bonhams Tea Caddy provides final corroboration of the family's habit of sporting some element of their, newly acquired, arms on personal possessions and pictures.

Some "Armigerous" Issues Considered

Did any one notice that I have circled in blue what appears to be a squiggle on the table cloth in the first painting? If you look closely, it is a peacock and is placed at the top of the motif, a suggestion of a crest for the motif.

But why is the peacock right oriented, instead of leftwards as in the family arms? Because, in the strictest sense, none of our Madras Arbuthnots, neither Wm U nor John Alves, were "Armigers". Coats of arms are granted to one person only and descend to one person only. An armiger is one who is entitled, by descent, to use the arms granted to the first holder. The crest is part of a coat of arms (an "achievement") and, unless one is the armigerous heir (that is, an armiger or "owner" by primogeniture in the English or Scottish tradition), it is only permissible or legal to use one with the consent of the owner or armiger. The form in such cases is to use some variation, such as a belt and buckle to encircle the arms or, less formally, to reverse some of the motifs (as with stripes in an American tie). The Madras family, including Wm U and John Alves, being sons of the first Baronet the grant of such consent may be taken as a matter of course. But some variations had to be there.

An Unresolved Issue : The Locket

I also took notice of a locket round the Lady's neck. Closer examination showed that it displayed a miniature of a young girl, a teenager. Who could this be? It was apparent that this was not a mourning locket which is seldom, if ever, a see through one, as in this case. In any case, the couple had not lost any teen aged child. The only conclusion I can reach, then, is that the locket shows one of her two daughters who must have been away at school in England, possibly the older one, Eliza Taylor born March 1937 (and therefore a little over 16 in September, 1853). Perhaps, the miniatures of the other girl was inside the clasp. We shall never know.

So this is one allusion that is not decipherable, albeit not material to the attribution of the sitters in the portraits.

Simon Fonceca

Smug pride at this minor triumph, in having deduced the identities of the sitters in the drawings, was as nothing compared to the pleasure of having acquired these exceedingly fine pair of sheets by Simon Fonceca, drawings of documentary value by a first rate artist. That too, an artist that Madras could rightly call its own.

This genre of drawings and paintings which interest me profoundly could be called British & European drawings of India, ranging from the 18th to the early 20th century. Most such works were executed by the noted visiting artists such as the Daniells or Henry Salt. A large body of such work drawn by resident Europeans, such as Francis Swain Ward or Elisha Trapaud and many, many others, also exists. But there were only a very few resident, local artists of note - those who were domiciled here instead of merely being posted in the country for a long number of years - who have contributed to the corpus. Madras, alone of the four big metros, can number two such families, comprising 5 first rate artists in total, of domiciled artists. Bombay had Gonsalves and, less certainly, Mrs Belnos, Delhi and Calcutta, as far as I know, none that were noteworthy.

The Gantz family of Madras consisted of  3 such artists, John (1772 - 1853) and his sons Justinian (1802 - 62) and Julius Walter (1816 - 75). Their work is too well known and so highly rated that I do not have to add any more details. Except that, although there have been suggestions of an Austrian extraction, Gantz seems to be an old English name. I think they were English and we know they ran a printing press in Madras, also bringing out a newspaper, the Mail.

The Foncecas - there were two of them, our Simon and his younger brother John Joseph - on the other hand seem to have been Anglo Indian, that is Eurasian. They were obviously of Portuguese extraction and we know that Simon Fonceca lived in Santhome and is buried in the Basilica there. He died in 1870. We also know that John Joseph Fonceca (1817 - 95) was the younger of the two, meaning Simon should have been about 55 or 60 when he died.

Other than my pair of watercolours, there are few original works by Simon Fonceca which figured in auctions over the last 20 years. There are two that I know of, one of them being A Bungalow in A River Landscape :

The location for this is not known but the year is thought to be 1856. Which brings me to the second drawing - for which I don't have an image but hope to get hold of a scan soon - which is General William Atkinson with His Wife and Family in the Grounds at Kamptee, Madras, dated 1856. Kamptee is nowhere near Madras but is a military cantonment near Nagpur in central India.

Note the similarity in choice of palette.

Now for a fresh look at the watercolour of Arbuthnots office building which I attribute to Simon Fonceca. You will see that, besides the Union Jack, there are a few other flags on the building, two of which are the Danish flag and its marine version :

Now, the Danish standards are atop the building because J. Vans Agnew, an Arbuthnot partner at the time, was the Danish Consul for Madras. Clearly Simon Fonceca emphasised signs and allusions in his drawings (if you see the drawing of Wm Simpson, further above, you will not see such flags albeit Vans Agnew continued to be a partner of the firm and the Danish Consul in 1861). Simon Fonceca was a more prolific artist than the limited, known inventory of his oeuvre suggests. He published in 1853 a book of lithographs, after his own drawings, Sketches in India Chiefly from Nature (mainly portraits of the various occupations). An example :

This is said to be an extremely rare volume. However, a couple of examples came up not long ago in auctions at Christies and Bonhams. There are a few known examples of the work of Simon's brother, John Joseph Fonceca, of which, one below :

That is Govt House (the Governor's mansion wrongly listed as Guindy Lodge but actually the one (demolished a couple of years ago) on Govt Estate Mount Road with the adjacent Banqueting Hall obscured, on purpose I think, by vegetation, drawn in 1861.

Winding Down

You must know now that my song is sung. And an exceeding long one it has been, the point almost certainly belaboured and overwritten. I know could have condensed all of the above in to one terse sentence, such as, "A pair of portraits of Wm U Arbuthnot and his family, drawn by Simon Fonceca, a Madras artist, the sitters identified by references to various documentary sources including the internal evidence of some motifs in the drawings which allude to the family arms".

That is really all there is to it, right?! But, in determining identities of the sitters, the fun is in the journey more than the arrival, in the blow by blow narration of the pilgrim's progress. Then there was the context and also all the nuances and ramifications.As much as I enjoyed writing the post I enjoyed still more the process of discovery or finding out.

I will leave it at that but not before a last look at the portraits, now reframed in first class teak wood (liberated from the tatty plastic frames they were in) :


Chekkutty N.P said...

Dear VN,

Very interesting post--I am happy you spend so much of time and energy on the annals of old Madras, something on which I am also deeply interested-- though not the city but its periphery, the old Malabar part of the presidency. Looking forward to more of your insights.


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