In the late eighteenth century, Lucknow was at the height of its Golden Age. Mughal Delhi, its nearest rival, had been looted and burned by successive waves of invaders and now lay wrecked and ruined. Delhi’s artists and poets and painters had little option but to flee to the flamboyant, newly rich city to the east.
There they sought the patronage of a dynasty of nawabs who had the means to patronise artists with a generosity that soon became legendary. Lucknow’s singers and Kathak dancers were admired as the most gorgeously accomplished; its cuisine and architecture celebrated as the most flamboyantly baroque; its poets much celebrated, if a little gushy, for the more austere taste of Ghalib in Delhi.
At the artistic and financial centre of this world lay Claude Martin, the enigmatic self-made French buccaneer-businessman from Lyon, who went on to leave a legacy for the three schools—in Lucknow, Calcutta and Lyons—which still bear his name. Martin combined the lifestyle of a Mughal prince with the interests of an Enlightenment aesthete: he maintained an astronomical observatory, experimented with map making, air pumps and botany, hot air balloons and even bladder surgery. He also built a palace-mausoleum, named Constantia, where Palladian arcades rise to Mughal copulas. Here, Martin made one of the most influential commissions of his age.
Sometime in the 1770s, Claude Martin imported no less than 17,000 sheets of European watercolour paper and employed a team of Lucknavi master artists to paint a series of natural history pictures. The artists had clearly trained in the Mughal style and used Mughal stone-based pigments, but working on European paper and having been shown as models European natural history images—probably the Comte de Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle des Oiseux—they gave birth to a new...