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Rare Imperial work attributed to Mughal Emperor's great court artist soars to £ 42,000 at auction
Rediscovered 17th century painting thought to depict Shah Jahan and his tragic empress, the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. Photo: Courtesy of Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers.

STANSTED MOUNTFITCHET .- A painting attributed to one of the greatest court artists of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan has soared to £42,000 at auction after being discovered in a private collection in Suffolk.

Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers of Stansted Mountfitchet in Essex, who offered the c.1630-40 work in their December 5 Country House Sale with an estimate of £10,000-15,000, say there is a strong chance that the extremely fine watercolour, highlighted in gold, actually depicts Shah Jahan himself, along with his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, for whom he built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum following her tragically early death in 1631.

The painting has been in the same collection since 1846, when a handwritten document by an expert in Arabic and Persian manuscripts was pasted the to back.

Dated 18th July 1846, the document by R. E. Lofft describes the painting and interprets its inscription, and it also includes the opinion of H. H. Wilson, a prominent Sanskrit scholar and the librarian at East India House in London at the time.

An important and rare painting, it depicts a Mughal prince seated with his consort in a palace chamber. The later inscription in the lower border describes the scene as “a picture of Shah Jahan in the time of youth…” and names the artist as Govardhan, one of the leading Mughal royal painters of the first half of the 17th century. A short inscription at the lower left of the painted area appears to confirm this attribution. It reads “…dhan”, the second half of the name Govardhan. It is not clear why only the final letters of the name survive in this inscription, but it may simply be due to localised loss of pigment and subsequent retouching, of which there is evidence at the lower left corner.

The painter Govardhan, one of the greatest imperial artists of the Mughal period, was son of the royal artist Bhawani Das and was born at court. He began work in the royal atelier at the end of Akbar’s reign in the last years of the 16th century and continued through Jahangir’s reign and most of Shah Jahan’s, until about 1645. His mature works show a strong interest in portraiture and a penetrating psychological insight. His favourite themes were scenes of holy men and intimate scenes of princes and their consorts, such as the present work.

The style of the painting is very close to that of Govardhan, in particular the subdued, brownish palette, the precisely drawn facial features of the two figures, the romance and palpable intimacy of the scene, and the candid gaze that the princess directs outwards towards the viewer. There are several works signed by or attributed to Govardhan that provide comparisons, of which the following are the most relevant: a scene of a prince (possibly Parviz) and his consort on a terrace, a scene of Jahangir celebrating Holi in the women’s quarters, and a scene of a gathering of princes in a garden.

In terms of the general style and subject matter, there are several further works of the 1630s and ’40s that relate to the present painting, including a scene of Jahangir with Sultan Khurram and Nur Jahan.

Shah Jahan, Mughal emperor from 1628 to 1658, was a great patron of the arts. His most famous commission was the Taj Mahal, built to house the tomb of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631, but his reign also produced a flowering of other arts such as painting, textiles and jewellery. The lack of facial hair on the male figure in the present work indicates an age of perhaps 14 to 16 years. If the figure does indeed represent Shah Jahan, who was born in 1592, the scene may represent his engagement to Mumtaz Mahal (Arjumand Banu Begam), which took place in 1607-8 when he was 15 (they were married five years later in 1612). The style of the painting indicates a date of production of about 1630 to 1640, and it is conceivable that this painting was produced for Shah Jahan in the aftermath of Mumtaz Mahal’s death in 1631 as a retrospective celebration of their loving union.

It is worth noting, however, that the prince depicted here also bears a strong resemblance to Dara Shikoh, Shah Jahan’s favourite son. It is possible that the later owner who wrote the inscription in the lower border mistook Shah Jahan for his son, who bore a strong facial resemblance to his father. Dara Shikoh was born in 1615, and if he was indeed the subject of this picture, then it would appear to show him at the age of 15 or thereabouts (the lack of facial hair again suggests this when compared to other portraits of him).

The hexagonal dais on which the royal couple sit in the present work is unusual, as is the shape of the carpet surrounding it, but it is interesting to note a Mughal carpet fragment of circa 1650 of similar shape in the Cincinnati Art Museum.

The miniature painting measures 23.8 x 14.2cm, with a visible area of 29.5 x 19.5cm.

Sworders director John Black said: “It’s an important picture because it is ascribed to a man who was one of the great artists of the first half of the 17th century. He worked in the Imperial court all his life and was active from around 1600 to 1650, a period that was arguably the zenith of the classical period of Mughal art.”

Mr Black described the picture as the “perfect storm” of subject matter, artistic skill and provenance.

“The people who would have commissioned it, the fact that it almost certainly depicts an emperor or crown prince, and the equally important 19th century commentary from two leading scholars of the day on the subject make this a very rare find indeed.

“These sort of pictures are fairly rare anyway. There are some in museum collections, but for one with this sort of backstory to turn up like this outside London or New York is extremely unusual. Its subtle intensity and the focus on the two central figures make this a very attractive proposition for any serious collector.”

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