|Previously unrecognised but recently re-discovered this portrait of East India Company officer William Edmeades is an interesting addition to Robert Home’s oeuvre. As one of the most successful English portraitists working in India at the end of the eighteenth century, his evocative and coolly atmospheric portraits afford us a rare glimpse of life for the British in India in increasingly uncertain times.
William Edmeades was the second son of Henry Edmeades (1741-1820) of Nurstead Court, Kent and Anne Wigzell (1743-1776) of Greenwich. In September 1800 he married Elizabeth (1775-1836) youngest daughter and co-heiress of John Allen, of Hazells, Northfleet, Kent with whom he had four children. At fourteen he went to sea as a Midshipman on the ship `Hillsborough’. Later as a Captain in the Honourable East India Company’s marine service he notably saw action at the taking of the Cape of Good Hope in 1806 leading a brigade of company officers and sailors, his gallantry receiving the personal thanks of the overall commander General Sir David Baird. After his company service he settled at Nurstead, purchased by his father in 1767, and undertook various tasks such as remodeling the house as a fine Regency villa and improving the local church. A man of obvious humour and talent a page in his memoirs notes “Feats I could perform in my youthful days” and the invention of a patent illuminator for ships.
Edmeades first travelled to Madras in early 1792 as chief mate on the ship ‘Nottingham’ travelling on to Penang by July that year. Given the movements of Robert Home also at this time it is possible to approximately date this portrait to being finished between April and June 1792, around the time he also completed a portrait of the Indian Governor-General Earl Cornwallis. It is typical of Home’s unique portrait style that was to further develop in Calcutta and made his name as the pre-eminent Anglo-Indian painter.
The angle and relaxed posture of Edmeades is similar in composition to that of Anthony Lambert, another East India Company man, who sits by an identical table. (Archer, p313). When last on the art market in 1977 the picture was mistakenly thought to be by Wright of Derby, but understanding and appreciation of Home’s portrait practice has greatly advanced in the last thirty years enabling it now to be correctly attributed. By the time Lambert’s portrait was commissioned in 1797, Home was charging 1000 sicca rupees (£115), so we can suppose that an amount perhaps slightly less than this, but still a considerable sum, was made by Edmeades for the completion of this picture.
Robert Home entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1769 and began to exhibit regularly from 1780. Studying under Angelica Kauffman he worked in both Italy and Ireland before travelling to India in 1790, accompanying the army of General Cornwallis to Bangalore during the Third Anglo-Mysore War. This contact with the British military proved enduring and lucrative but by May 1795 it became clear that patronage in Madras was on the wane. In June he sailed for Calcutta and in no time at all established a successful portrait practice. In September he married and in October it was reported that he ‘was much employed, and has handsome prices, I hear’. This is confirmed by his sitters’ book, stored in the National Portrait Gallery, London. His standard charge was 500 sicca rupees (£60) for a head, and 2,000 rupees (£240) for a full-length portrait.
In addition to his commissions from wealthy East India Company civilians, Home painted several portraits of Marquis Wellesley, of Lord Minto (who succeeded him as Governor-General), and of the Marquis’s brother Arthur, later Duke of Wellington; he also portrayed a number of military commanders and high court judges. Among his patrons was the diarist William Hickey, who observed that in 1804 Home was ‘then deemed to be the best artist in Asia’. He was also an able draughtsman: his ‘Select Views in Mysore, the Country of Tippoo Sultan’ were published in London and Madras in 1794, and in Calcutta he made over two hundred watercolours of mammals, birds and reptiles.
In 1814 Robert Home left Calcutta for Lucknow, and became court painter to the Nawab (later King) Ghazi-ud-din Haidar of Oudh where he was employed not only in portraiture but in designing furniture, regalia and howdahs, receiving an annual salary of £2,000. When the King died in 1827 Home retired with his married daughter to a ‘handsome establishment’ at Cawnpore (Kanpur), his wife having past away ten years earlier. Regularly visited by some of his children he died in 1834 a wealthy man, having spent most of his long life in India.
Principal References: M. & P. Baker (Ed.): ‘The biographical memoirs of Captain William Edmeades, 1766-1852’, 2003; Mildred Archer, ‘India and British Portraiture 1770-1825’, London, 1979; Robert Home’s Accounts & Sitters Book, MS copy, National Portrait Gallery, London