During Robert Clive’s lifetime, the East India Company commissioned two portraits showing him as a hero. The first of these, a marble statue of Clive in Roman military costume, was installed in 1764 inside East India House, their headquarters in London. It was one of four marble portrait statues commissioned by the Company in 1760 of men dressed as Romans. These neo-classical statues showed the Company as the conqueror of a new Asian empire, with London at its centre.
Less than a decade later, Robert Clive’s reputation as a hero had collapsed. In the late 1760s he returned to Britain, bringing with him a staggering personal fortune that he had amassed in Bengal. Regarded as one of the richest men in Europe, he conspicuously bought properties in England and Wales, and spared no expense on rebuilding and furnishing these new residences. Clive’s spending spree coincided with reports of the Bengal Famine, a catastrophe that killed about 10 million people. The source of Clive’s fortune came under scrutiny and his character was aggressively criticised by the British public.
In May 1771, Town & Country, a satirical magazine, published a searing memoir of Robert Clive which named him “Nero Asiaticus”, who had “fleeced the Asiatics as much as he was able”. This alias compared him to the insane emperor who watched Rome burn to the ground. The comparison was derived from the marble statue of Robert Clive in Roman dress inside East India House.
Perhaps to heal his toxifying reputation, the East India Company commissioned Edward Penny, the Royal Academy’s first Professor of Painting, to create the second artwork of Robert Clive, this time showing him performing a heroic deed. Titled “Lord Clive explaining to the Nabob the situation of the invalids in India”, the painting shows him with the Nawab of Bengal, at the alleged moment when the East India Company’s Military Fund was founded.
In the background are the fund’s intended recipients. On the right is a group of needy soldiers and at the centre, a beautiful young widow sits, surrounded by children. The painting was completed in 1772 and exhibited in the Royal Academy’s annual show before being moved to East India House.
The Royal Academy’s annual shows were busy, popular public events. Edward Penny’s painting of Clive would have been seen by thousands of people. One of those people happened to be a cartoonist who worked for Town & Country magazine. The resulting cartoon, titled “The India Directors in the Suds’ (suds being a euphemism for excrement), was published later that same year. In place of the Nawab of Bengal and his entourage, it shows a procession of Indian ghosts who represent the Bengal Famine’s victims. A terrified Robert Clive is shown leaping backwards. Behind him, in place of the invalids and the widow, the East India Company’s directors stare at the scene.
Artworks like these demonstrate how the East India Company tried to cultivate a strong, positive reputation in London by commissioning artworks. However, such manoeuvring, particularly in Georgian London’s critical atmosphere, could also backfire.
This article first appeared on the British Library’s Untold Lives blog.