This portrait miniature would appear to be the only extant example by the Scottish artist Charles Smith, whose painting career ran, geographically at least, closely alongside that of Johann Zoffany (1733-1810). A politically outspoken, adventurer-artist, Smith travelled widely throughout India under the protection of his country-man, the Governor-General, John Macpherson. Macpherson, whose arrival in 1785, two years after Smith, virtually guaranteed work for him, introduced the artist to the Nawabs of areas far removed from central British rule. Although at present the Indian sitter in this portrait is unidentified, his stance and clothing suggest that he was an official of high rank. Smith himself could not have been better connected in terms of patronage in India – many of his relatives were Company Directors or held political positions. This was also useful in obtaining payments from the Nawabs, who were notoriously slow payers.
It seems that, like Robert Home, Smith was able to transfer his painting skills from oil to watercolour. Portrait miniatures were popular in India, not deteriorating in the climate like oil paintings. Their size also chimed comfortably with the Indian tradition of miniature painting. Smith spent some time in Madras, where Ozias Humphry noted that he charged 75 pagodas for a bracelet-sized miniature (and proportionately more for larger examples). His miniature painting may have been honed further by his observation of Humphry’s skills, when both men obtained the commission to paint (Smith in oils) the Nawab of Oudh. Whilst Humphry complained that his fees were not settled, Smith boasted of returning to England in 1788/89 with £20,000 in his pocket, calling himself ‘Painter to the Great Moghul’.
Smith returned to India again in 1800, arriving in Lucknow, where the present work may have been painted in 1806. His name remains on the India Registers until 1811, giving his profession as ‘portrait painter’. During this period, Smith would have faced competition from both Robert Home (1752-1834) and George Chinnery (1774-1852), who were painting miniatures and oils in Calcutta. Few, if any, of Smith’s portraits survive from his second stint in India, a fate which Mildred Archer ascribes to the Mutiny. The present portrait is therefore not only a survival from a period when many European works of art perished, but also an extremely rare, if not unique, example of Smith’s work in miniature.
Smith left India for good in 1811, continuing his painting career until he died in his native Scotland in 1824.