The Baird Jewels and Archive (19 September 2003)

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Date of Auction: 19th September 2003

Unsold

Estimate: £6,000 - £7,000

The important and contemporary Seringapatam watercolour miniature portrait of Major-General David Baird, 1799

Pen-and-ink and watercolour on laid paper, the original paper having been reinforced by a contemporary paper backing, 8.25ins. x 7ins., with a gilded card mount, framed and glazed. Glued to the reverse of the framing board, a label indicating the loan of this item to the “Royal Military Exhibition, Chelsea, London.”

Depicting David Baird full length, drawn sabre in his right hand and gesturing with his left, his scarlet jacket open and his left, booted foot upon a low rock, his head capped with a fur-crested light infantry cap, turned to his right. In a contemporary hand on the right edge of the paper, the inscription ‘Major General David Baird in the attitude of mounting the breach at the assault of Seringapatam on the 4th May 1799’.

Signed, at the bottom left corner,

‘Drawn by S. Andrews’
(Samuel Andrews, Ireland 1767-Patna 1807)
£6000-7000

Footnote

This is, beyond doubt, the most important depiction of David Baird to have been discovered in recent years. The majority of portraits of Baird show him later in life and in carefully arranged heroic poses: in those cases, the years have inevitably lent weight to his features and girth to his waist and the artists concerned been less interested in the fine detail than in portraying the General’s undoubted gravitas. Even in almost contemporary engravings of the assault upon Seringapatam, Baird is often depicted in tight fitting, parade-ground uniform and far fuller in the face and body than was clearly the case in May 1799 in Mysore.

This portrait, in which the facial detail is minutely rendered as only a miniaturist of Andrews’s talent could render it, is of the greatest possible importance to historians, both of military costume and of art. It is clear that Andrews was able to capture Baird in the clothing that he wore at the assault and, although the uniform detail is only sketched in by comparison with that of Baird’s face, what is shown is an accurate contemporary depiction of the clothing that officers wore on such occasions in India at the end of the eighteenth century. This is hot-weather campaigning dress: soft leather Hessian boots with small, screw-in spurs, close fitting kid breeches, shirt and stock, white vest, crimson netted sash, a short scarlet jacket worn unbuttoned from the throat and on his head a curly-brimmed, tall-crowned and bearskin crested light infantry cap in reinforced beaver fur and with an upright feather plume. All this uniform provided protection combined with ease of movement, while at the same time not compromising his rank as an officer. The fact that he is depicted with a sabre is likewise of significance. This is a fighting sword that owed much in its design to the influence of the Orient. Scholars of British military swords will recognise it as the preferred close-combat weapon of the British officer in the late eighteenth century: non-regulation in 1799 but highly effective nonetheless, sabres were increasingly to be carried by British officers on campaign for the next twenty years.

The portrait has, apart from the face, a sketchy look about it, as if - as may well have been the case - Andrews was intending to join the ranks of those artists speculatively designing and painting grand canvasses depicting the attack on Seringapatam. Andrews was fortunate in being in India in May 1799, as was Thomas Hickey (1741-1824). Hickey executed two drawings of Baird’s head in September 1799 (now in the collections of His Grace The Duke of Wellington, K.G., at Stratfield Saye): the facial details of those bear very close comparison with those in this watercolour miniature. Hickey was planning a series of grand battle-pieces that were never executed and so sketched its protagonists in preparation. More sketches by Andrews of soldiers who had been at Seringapatam will need to be identified before a strong case can be made for their being preparatory sketches for a battle-piece but, in the meantime, this sketch must be recorded as an evocative image of the very greatest iconographic and historical importance.

Samuel Andrews was a follower of John Smart, one of the finest of late eighteenth century miniaturists, and, indeed, he moved into Smart’s recently vacated house in Madras in 1795, three years after having arrived in the Presidency. His work is frequently confused with that of Smart and, by 1799, he had sufficiently established himself in both Madras and Calcutta to be painting miniatures of eminent Britons. His work is, though, generally of the conventional oval miniature variety, in watercolour and
en grisaille, and so this watercolour image of Baird represents a hitherto unrecorded departure for Smart into the realms of full-length portraiture. Examples of Andrew’s conventional miniatures exist in several national British collections, notably those of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Army Museum.

It is probable that this exquisite and important miniature portrait has not been seen on public view for more than a century. The exhibition label pasted to its reverse confirms that it was lent to the Royal Military Exhibition that took place, in aid of the Church of England’s Soldiers’ Institutes, between May and August 1890 and which occupied the majority of the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea between the hospital and the Chelsea Embankment. The catalogue of the exhibition reveals, on page 48, that this portrait, lent by a Miss Lilburn, constituted item 681 in Division V, Part II (1797-1807) of the exhibition. Its movements between August 1890 and its becoming the property of the vendors in this sale are unknown but it is implied, from the presence of another label pasted to the reverse of the frame board, that it may once have been the property of A. J. Forbes-Leith. This gentleman was Alexander John Forbes-Leith of Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire (1847-1925), whom was created 1st Baron Leith of Fyvie in 1905.

Stephen Wood, M.A., F.S.A.

References

Archer, M.,
India and British Portraiture (London, New York, India and Pakistan, 1979), p. 396

Buddle, A., with Rohatgi, P., and Brown, I. G.,
The Tiger and the Thistle: Tipu Sultan and the Scots in India 1760-1800 (Edinburgh, 1999)

Foskett, D.,
Miniatures: Dictionary and Guide (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1987), p. 480