We might think that an album measuring a metre in length would be a cumbersome thing to travel with, but it would probably be made less difficult if you had “100 boats, 87 elephants, 355 camels, 1,033 bullocks, and more than 3,000 attendants” to assist you. Lady Maria Nugent (1771-1834) owned an album that contained 25 beautifully illustrated drawings of the Taj Mahal and surrounding buildings in Agra and which is now in the British Library.
On visiting Agra in 1812, she stated her intent to commission the set, ‘‘I mean to have drawings of every thing – the beautiful Taaje in particular”. Many of the drawings were folded to fit inside the original album. For conservation reasons, the album was unbound and the drawings were flattened and individually mounted.
In 1812, Lady Maria Nugent undertook a tour across northern India, surrounded by the retinue mentioned above. She was accompanying her husband, Sir George Nugent (1757-1849), who had been appointed commander-in-chief by the East India Company in 1811. While in post, his yearly salary totalled £20,000, amounting to the second highest-paying position in the British Empire at the time.
Lady Nugent was not a novice traveller; she had previously lived in Jamaica, where her husband served as governor from 1801 to 1806. She is known primarily for the travel writings she penned during these voyages, especially those documenting her stay in Jamaica, which have been critically studied for her views on race, gender and slavery.
While in India, Lady Nugent amassed a huge collection of art. It would seem, however, that one of her acquaintances was not impressed by the drawings she commissioned of the Taj Mahal. In a letter to her close friend Lady Temple, Lady Nugent writes “I had a letter from her [Lady Hood] today dated Agra. She is delighted with that Place and bids me burn my Drawings of the Taje as no pencil can ever represent anything half so beautiful”.
Notwithstanding Lady Hood’s assessment, the drawings reveal a careful understanding of both the architecture and ornamentation of Mughal buildings. The watercolour of the mausoleum of I’timad al-Daula meticulously records the intricate marble screens and colourful inlay work found on the outer walls of the building. Despite their level of detail, the works might not have been drawn from direct observation.
As art historian JP Losty notes, Indian artists often worked from existing drawings; he suggests one or two artists would have drawn the buildings from life, likely creating multiple copies, with following artists working from these earlier examples. Although many architectural drawings of Agra have survived, the names of very few artists working in this genre are known today, the most celebrated being Latif (fl. 1820s), who is mentioned in Fanny Parks’s Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque. For a set of Latif’s drawings at the library, see Add Or 1791-1808.
The artist behind Lady Nugent’s drawings is unfortunately unidentified, but was likely a draughtsman working in Agra, whose patronage – like many others – had shifted from the Mughal courts to the East India Company. It is possible that multiple artists contributed to the set, as there is a range of watermarks across the folios (Whatman, Russel & Co, Hayes & Wise; 1790-1805).
Some of the earliest British residents in Agra were Company engineers, who began employing Indian artists in mapmaking and architectural draughtsmanship. By 1825, standardised sets of the monuments of Agra, produced on smaller sheets of low-quality paper, would become staples of the tourist trade (Archer 1972, 169). For an example, see the postcard-sized watercolours that Lady Florentia Sale used to illustrate her personal notebook when residing in Agra from 1832 to 1833: Mss Eur B360.
The drawings collected by Lady Nugent, however, are of a different nature and exceptionally large. Some of the folios record the prices paid, and at Rs 15 to Rs 30 per drawing, they would have been an expensive commission.
Seventeen of the 25 drawings are inscribed with the prices paid, with five of those inscriptions bearing initials. The cataloguing suggests that these are likely the initials of the agent Lady Nugent used for the commission. Although the library’s cataloguing initially transcribed the initials as “R.R”, close inspection reveals that they are actually inscribed “P.P”. This can clearly be seen when comparing the “P.P” initials to the way the “R” in rupees is written. This new information leads us to a potential avenue for uncovering the identity behind the “P.P” initials.
A comparable collection of drawings depicting the monuments in Agra can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum: Fifteen drawings of Mughal architecture and ornamental detail on Mughal monuments at Agra. | Unknown | V&A Explore The Collections. These were commissioned by a Colonel Pownoll Phipps, Superintendent of Building in the Lower Provinces from 1816 to 1822.
Interestingly, Lady Nugent’s journal records her meeting a Captain Phipps a few days after leaving Agra. We can be certain that she is referring to the Pownoll Phipps of the V&A album, as Lady Nugent mentions his imminent marriage to his second wife, Sophia Matilda Arnold (1785-1828). At the time of their meeting in 1812, Phipps was stationed in Agra as Fort-Adjutant and Barrack-Master and had been made Captain in the army two years prior.
Two other artworks from Lady Nugent’s collection can be found at the library (Add Or 2595 and Add Or 2600) and a further 15 paintings have surfaced at auction over the last 60 years, with many more described in her journals. For most recent sale of artworks from Lady Nugent’s collection, including a portrait she commissioned of herself, see the Bonhams Islamic and Indian Art Sale, 11 June 2020: Bonhams : Islamic and Indian Art.
Her most extensive commission, however, remains the set of views in Agra. She chose to present this very album to her relative, Richard Temple, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Chandos (1776–1839), upon her return to England. Lady Nugent’s gift is recorded in a companion volume, listing all the inscriptions present on the Taj Mahal. A flyleaf tucked at the back of the manuscript contains a handwritten excerpt of Lady Nugent’s journal with a dedication at the top reading, “Extract from a journal written by Lady Nugent by whom these drawings were given to the Marquis of Buckingham.”
Throughout her journal, Lady Nugent expresses her intentions to gift her entire collection to her children. It is curious then that the Agra album was not also destined for them. The Duke of Buckingham (known as the Marquess of Buckingham in 1813) was one of the Nugents’ closest friends and acted as a guardian to their children while they were in India. He was also the son of Sir George Nugent’s most influential connection, his patron and benefactor, George Nugent-Temple-Grenville, 1st Marquess of Buckingham (1753–1813).
It was through the 1st Marquess of Buckingham’s influence that Sir George Nugent was appointed as governor of Jamaica and commander-in-chief in India (Cohen 2014, xvii). Lady Nugent’s album of drawings is therefore, in a sense, a thank you gift, used to solidify her and her husband’s personal network.
Gift-giving seems to have played an important role in Lady Nugent’s collecting practices. Throughout her stay in India, she is receiving gifts of drawings from both Indian dignitaries and East India Company officials. For instance, the Nawab of Awadh, Saadat Ali Khan II (1798-1814), sends Lady Nugent four drawings for her collection, and in turn, she gifts him a Coalport porcelain dessert service.
Her journal also describes gifts in the form of foods, jewellery, gemstones, hookahs, muslins, shawls, flowers. Many of these gifts were presented during official visits to Indian dignitaries, where she participated in gift-giving rituals that had their roots in the Mughal courts and which were later co-opted by the East India Company. While she could keep the gifts of foods, the jewels and items of value were to be returned to the East India Company treasury, where they were either re-gifted to other Indian dignitaries or sold to fund other gifts.
Her collecting practices therefore evidence her participation in the movement of objects from the public and private spheres of empire, and illustrate how the exchange of goods could create and solidify networks both on a personal level, and along imperial lines.
This article first appeared on British Library’s blog Untold Lives.