HARKING BACK: Unique art wealth of Lahore and its Hungarian origin

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn April 3, 2016

The real wealth of a nation, among other parameters, is the abundance of its art collections. The perceived glory of London, New York, Paris and other world capitals really rests on the quality of its art collections. Do you realise just how wealthy Lahore is?

Of all the art paintings that exist in Lahore, probably none can match the sheer majesty of nine amazing pieces by the Hungarian master Agoston Schoefft (1809-1888) that form part of the Princess Bamba Collection in the Lahore Fort. In money terms their value might be a trillion dollars, but for the people of Lahore their true value lies in the history that surrounds these exquisite paintings. This amazing collection was acquired after the death in March 1957 of Princess Bamba Sutherland, last surviving daughter of the last maharajah of Punjab, Maharajah Duleep Singh.

Princess Bamba Jindan was married to Dr. Colonel Sutherland, a British Army doctor, who was posted in the King Edward Medical College of Lahore. With his posting the princess returned to the land of her ancestors to live at 104-A Model Town, which is where she died. She was buried at the Christian Graveyard on Jail Road. Just one amazing pleasant fact and that being that some mysterious person, every morning, leaves a fresh red rose on her grave. Why this happens and who is this mystery person, of this there are no clues. But then for a beautiful royal princess of Lahore, that is the minimum that should be done.

Now back to her collection. Her father Maharajah Duleep Singh had purchased this set of painting from the artist after he saw them in 1855 in an exhibition in Vienna. When the artist came to London in 1857 he, as one source tells us, purchased other paintings of a similar nature. He even invited Queen Victoria to see his collection and presented one which today hangs inside Buckingham Palace.

My attention was drawn to these painting because over the last one week, the current ambassador of Hungry to Pakistan, Mr. Istvan Szabo, has been busy in Lahore worrying about the condition of this collection. This is not surprising because the Hungarian master painter Schoefft is Hungary’s declared ‘national asset’, and his Bamba Collection in Lahore is considered, by art experts the world over, as one of the finest set of ‘related’ paintings in the world.

Let us dwell on three matters. Why is there so much concern now about the collection? Is the collection being kept in a reasonable condition? What are the plans for the future of this collection? But first about Ágoston Schoefft. The lure of the wealth of the Indian sub-continent especially that of Punjab, brought this artist to Bombay (Mumbai) in 1838. Trained in the Vienna school which still does excel in landscape and portrait paintings, he was soon hired by wealthy merchants and royalty. Ultimately he moved to the Indian capital Delhi where he was hired by Mughal emperor Bahadar Shah Zafar. A stunning portrait of the emperor is among the collection at the Lahore Fort.

Schoefft came to Lahore in November 1841 and stayed for a year in the house of Dr. Martin Honigberger in Tehsil Bazaar. Dr. Honigberger was himself a Hungarian and physician to the maharajah of the Lahore Darbar. Both of them, as one account puts it, enjoyed talking in their mother tongue. A detailed account of this visit exists in the memoirs of Dr. Honigberger, the royal physician present when Maharajah Ranjit Singh died, as he also was when Nau Nihal Singh was killed by rocks falling in a mysterious accident at Roshnai Gate.

During his stay in Lahore Schoefft managed to see hundreds of sketches of different characters of Punjab, both past and present, and from this accumulated collection he returned home and produced his stunning set of paintings. The real masterpiece is titled ‘The Court of Lahore’. A massive painting in which exists almost every historical character of Punjab starting from Maharajah Ranjit Singh to his commanders and Sardars and foreign military advisers, civilian advisers and foreign and local physicians, is his masterpiece. It is, in one place, a complete portrayal, and amazingly accurate one at that, of ‘who’s who’ in the Lahore Darbar.

Besides the equally stunning portrait of Bahadar Shah Zafar, there is one of the maharajah listening to the Guru Granth at Amritsar. Then there is a portrait of Maharajah Sher Singh as well as other such portraits and scenes. From the famous 1855 Exhibition at Vienna to the Lahore Fort has been a journey of twists and turns. But once perched in the gallery at the fort these paintings have faced a number of problems. It would be in place to commend the Lahore Walled City Authority to take up the condition of these rare paintings and to plan a programme to save a few affected pieces from further decay.

The Hungarian ambassador has managed to finance expertise from his country to give a detailed report on what needs to be done. The condition of the gallery where they are displayed needs special attention. Issues like light, humidity, dust and other pollutants need to be controlled. The glass protection spaces lack proper hermetic sealing. Also a serious threat is the constant fluctuation in the temperature condition. It seems that the paintings closest to the doors have suffered the greatest damage, and one speaks not in alarming terms but in relative terms.

There are other issues like paint flaking, paint loss, discolouring of varnish, of canvas ‘cupping’ and other such matters. Also the appearance of spots on the major portraits needs to be tackled. One could go on and on, but what is encouraging is that a scientific programme of possible reversal, and control is in place. A Hungarian art historian, Dr. Zoltan Dragon, has compiled a complete report for our relevant authorities to follow up on.

Agoston Schoefft toured the whole of Europe with his exhibition and finally he decided to settle in London. It was there that Maharajah Duleep Singh commissioned him to paint portraits of the Royal Punjabi Family. A few paintings of that period are also part of the Bamba Collection.

But then like the great painter Cezanne, he also had an eccentric streak. For some time he shifted to the USA and even went to Mexico. He returned home and became mentally ill, spending his last days in a mental home. A sad end to a great life of creativity.


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