The Asian Openbill Stork 'Anastomus oscitans'
Sir Elijah Impey (1732-1809) and Lady Impey (1749-1818)
Their sale, Phillips, London, 21 May 1810
The Earls of Derby
Christie’s, London, 19 May, 1998, lot 91
This large watercolour of an Asian Openbill Stork is from the great natural history series painted for Sir Elijah and Lady Impey during the years 1777 to 1783, which is the earliest and finest of series of natural history illustrations made for British patrons in India.
Sir Elijah Impey was appointed first Chief Justice in Bengal in 1774 and moved with his wife Mary and their whole household to Calcutta, where he learnt Persian and collected manuscripts and miniature paintings while establishing the new legal system and courts of law in Bengal. They settled in the house and grounds that had previously belonged to Henry Vansittart, the governor-general of Bengal from 1760 to 1764, which included a large park, and it was here that Lady Impey situated her pioneering zoological and artistic activities. While simultaneously running a large household and caring for a growing family, she set about collecting exotic birds and animals in the garden of their Calcutta house, and from 1777 employed Shaykh Zayn al-Din, an artist from Patna who had been trained “in the lingering brilliance of the Mughal tradition” (Welch 1973, p.121), to record the flora and fauna in a naturalistic style appropriate for the progressive eighteenth-century appetite for scientific recording of new species (Carl Linnaeus himself was still alive when Lady Impey began her collecting and recording). By 1780 the menagerie and the project of recording the myriad animals and birds had grown greatly and Zayn al-Din was joined by two further artists, Bhawani Das and Ram Das, both also from Patna.
The technique used for this series, as well as the great majority of “Company School” works, was the European one of watercolour, and the portrayal was naturalistic and quasi-scientific. But the approach and execution was Indian, with close observation and exquisite rendering of detail creating a series of paintings that were mesmerising in their naturalistic brilliance. Lady Impey’s project continued until Sir Elijah was recalled to London in 1783, by which time 326 watercolours had been completed, of which 197 were birds.
The majority of the species represented in the series as a whole are native to the Indian subcontinent, and the accuracy of depiction, the fact that many were represented life-size and the extensive notes that Lady Impey made, constituted a very significant archival record of the flora and fauna of India. Indeed, both the paintings and her notes were very useful to other naturalists, such as the ornithologist John Latham (d.1837), and were often the earliest European records of Indian species.
The Asian Openbill Stork (Anastomus oscitans) is a resident of the Indian Subcontinent, its range stretching as far east as Myanmar, Cambodia and Southern Vietnam. Its natural habitat is inland wetlands, marshes and flooded fields. Their main food is molluscs and they are skilled in extracting snails from their shells.