Fraser Album

Commissioned between 1815-1820, the Fraser Album is considered a defining work of the Company School of painting depicting the people of India.

Villagers Grinding Corn (Page from the Fraser Album), Company School, Delhi, India, c. 1820, Opaque watercolour on paper.

Featuring the work of Indian artists and commissioned by James Baillie Fraser and William Fraser between 1815 and 1820, the Fraser Album consists of over ninety watercolour paintings depicting the people of India and is considered a defining work of the Company School of painting.

The Fraser brothers were born in Inverness, Scotland. William Fraser began his career in 1799 as a trainee political officer with the British East India Company in Bengal. He was later posted to Delhi, first as assistant to the British Resident at Delhi and later, as the Commissioner of Delhi. In 1813, James Fraser arrived in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on a commercial venture and subsequently moved to Delhi in 1815. The same year, the brothers began commissioning local artists to paint portraits of locals in India, primarily the working classes, such as servants and traders, and military personnel employed by both the British and the Gurkhas. In 1816, James returned to Calcutta but continued his correspondence with William to commission more paintings; as a skilled painter himself, James saw the commercial potential of these scenes and portraits and hoped to generate an income through exhibiting, printing and selling them.

Four Recruits in White Dhotis (Page from the Fraser Album), c. 1810–1820; 25 x 37.8 cm.

Commissioned over a period of five years, the album presents a wide range of people in Delhi, including portraits of the emperor and his court — attendants, dancing girls, musicians, merchants, mendicants and villagers. It also records the architectural landscape of the city in detail. Rural scenes from the time William spent in Hansi, Haryana, figure prominently in the album. Many of the portraits in Delhi, including commissions of Queen Victoria, were made by Ghulam Ali Khan and his circle. Other artists who enjoyed popularity among the British were Ghulam Hussain Khan, whose paintings were exhibited at the Punjab Exhibition in 1864, and Jivan Ram, who accompanied the then Governor-General of India to Rupur, Punjab, in 1831, where he made a portrait of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Shah Inayat Allah of Sind with His Musician Makkhu and His Attendant Shaykh Qiyam al-Din (Page from the Fraser Album), Company Painting, Delhi, India, c. 1820; Opaque watercolour on paper; 30.6 x 41.4 cm.

The group of paintings which comprise the Fraser Album today were discovered amongst the Fraser Papers in 1979. The papers offer detailed information about the commissioned artists, the sites and scenes they sought to depict, as well as the motivations of the brothers — such as the 1815 drawings of Gurkha soldiers that were commissioned by James to use them as models and figures in landscape drawings that he intended to publish as aquatints. The album marks a shift in the painting culture of Delhi which, until then, recorded only courtly subjects rendered in a formalised manner. In contrast, the expanse of the Fraser Album across the courtly and the quotidian, the rural and the urban, gave prominence to more common subjects such as soldiers, ascetics, pastoralists, entertainers and the like.

This article first appeared in the MAP Academy Encyclopedia of Art. 

The MAP Academy is a non-profit online platform consisting of an Encyclopedia of Art, Courses and a Blog, that encourages knowledge building and engagement with the visual arts and histories of South Asia. Our team of researchers, editors, writers and creatives are united by a shared goal of creating more equitable resources for the study of art histories from the region.

Published: 28 Aug 2022


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