An Indian Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi)
Perching momentarily on a phalsa tree branch, this exquisitely flammeous paradise-flycatcher displays the mastery of Shaikh Zayn Al-Din’s painterly technique and encapsulates his sensitivity towards the natural world.
Through Zayn Al-Din’s close observations of nature, his compositions evoke a visual poetry between flora and fauna. As the phalsa tree’s turquoise-green leaves radiate outward, a gentle dip in its branch echoes the curve of the bird’s chest, and the inky blue berries reflect the feathers encircling a watchful eye. The bird’s plumage has been artfully rendered in exceptional detail, with individual feathers outlined by minute strokes. Exquisitely rich pigments enliven the rufous wings and greenish black tones iridesce across the head and crest. As the bird’s attentive gaze casts directly outwards, its body is braced with a latent energy. In capturing a bird seconds away from flight with such representational verité, Zayn Al-Din demonstrates his innate connection to the natural world.
A native species to Asia, the paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi) hunts insects in the understorey of the dense forest canopy. The subadult males have vivid flame-coloured wings, long tail feathers and a ring of blue around their eyes. The phalsa tree is highly regarded in ayurvedic medicine, the root may be used to treat rheumatism, the leaves form poultices and the berries possess astringent and stomachic properties.
A pioneering natural historian, Lady Impey created a menagerie of animals at her home in Calcutta. She commissioned several local artists to record native bird, plant and animal species between 1777 and 1782. The finest of these works featured in the acclaimed Impey Album, comprising 197 studies of birds, 76 of fish, 28 of reptiles, 17 beasts and 8 of flowers. The Persian inscription on the current work ‘Darakht ban falsa, Shah Bulbul’ has been translated into English on the reverse as ‘Falsa Tree with King’s Nightingale’. Inaccuracies in transliteration occur, as ‘falsa’ in Persian would be written as ‘phalsa’ and the English appears as a literal translation of the Persian. However, the titles refer to the local Bengali names, which would have been more commonly employed at the time.
Shaikh Zayn Al-Din was the most accomplished of the Impey Album artists. Having worked at the atelier of the Murshidabad court of the Nawab of Bengal, his paintings displayed the sensitive calligraphic strokes and adept refinement of a classically trained Mughal artist. Under the patronage of Lady Impey, Shaikh Zayn was required to produce more realistic, larger format paintings with greater emphasis on perspective and shading. It is likely he was shown examples of this in illustrated natural history publications from the Impey’s library. Combining typical European ‘bird on a branch’ imagery with Mughal elements such as increasing layers of paint to achieve lustrous colour, Zayn Al-Din reveals his true mastery of both genres.
Not only were the Impey Album paintings aesthetically beautiful, they were amongst the earliest images of many of the species depicted, causing great excitement amongst ornithologists upon the family’s return to London in 1783. The works also provide a valuable record of medicinal plants whose properties may still be of benefit.
The recent discovery of Sir Elijah Impey’s stamp on the back of this work is worthy of particular mention. The Impey Album was sold at Phillips, London, 21 May 1810 and subsequently dispersed. Examples from the album are currently held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Binney Collection in San Diego, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Radcliffe Science Library in Oxford. The exciting discovery of the present work enables its reassertion into one of the most revered and important collections of Company School painting.
Today this work stands as testament to shared passions: to those of a woman whose dedication to collecting has informed our present understanding of Indian flora and fauna, and to those of an artist whose paintings capture the true majesty of the natural world with exquisite sentiment.
Hermionede De Almeida and George H Gilpin. 2006. Indian Renaissance: British Romantic Art and the Prospect of India. London: Routledge.
Mildred Archer. 1992. Company Paintings: Indian Paintings of the British Period. London: Victoria and Albert Museum.
Stuart Cary Welch. 1978. Room for Wonder: Indian Painting During the British Period 1760-1880. New York: American Federation of Arts.