This is a wonderful portrait by the Bradford-born artist William Rothenstein featuring a three-quarter length man in a turban. The picture follows conventions of portraiture, with its focus on the man’s facial features and high-status dress, as he stoically stands alone in front of a plain background.
A most interesting portrait, this painting represents a relatively unknown figure. Interestingly, this practice was increasingly done by Rothenstein during his visit to India in late 1910, where the artist concentrated not on influential individuals but on the people that he met on the street.
This work was created the same year as Rothenstein’s well-known ‘The Doll’s House’, often considered as the artist’s most important work. This year the artist also co-founded the Carfax Gallery and married his wife, Alice Knewstub, a formed actress and daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Walter Knewstub, with whom he would have four children with.
We believe that the sitter is a cadre from the 15th Bengal Native Infantry in the British Indian Army. The majority of those whom served in this regiment were sikhs from Ludhiana. The red coat with darker front and trimmings was the notable uniform for this regiment, with a belt that tightened the clothing at the waist. The regiment was created in 1846 as a regiment of foot soldiers raised by the British East India Company. The unit operated under the Bengal Army of Bengal Presidency until 1895 but remained in active service until 1922. The unit saw considerable action on the North West Frontier including the Malakand Field Force of 1897-1898 and fought in the 2nd Afghan War (1878 – 1880).
The sitter is wearing a type of gol pagh turban. Throughout the colonial era there was a trend towards a more compact, symmetric and neater turban. It should be noted that there was a large variation of turbans between different regiments including different size, style, and ornaments although all had a clearly defined middle. There was in fact a huge trickle down effect from the military, in terms of the triangular turban styles becoming popular among various colonial ear Sikhs, and this would have its own variants depending on regional and cultural styles.
It is almost certain that this portrait was painted in London and it was not unheard of for active Indian soldiers to spend time here. Indeed, two years earlier, in 1897, a sizeable collection of Indian soldiers came to England for the purpose of the Diamond Jubilee.
There is one further possibility of who the sitter may be – a household servant in a Maharajas’ household (as seen in the picture below). Maharajas, were the princely rulers of India and played an important role within a social and historical context as they were patrons of the arts, both in India and Europe.
Rothenstein was the fifth of six children born into a German-Jewish family in Bradford, following his father’s decision to emigrate from Germany to Bradford to work in the expanding textile industry.
He entered the Slade School of Art aged 16 where he was taught by Alphonse Legros, an important teacher in the British etching revival which influenced Rothenstein. The following year he attended the Académie Julian in Paris, where he met and was encouraged by the likes of James McNeill Whistler, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Oscar Wilde, Walter Sickert, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Roger Fry.
On his return to England, Rothenstein had acquired a reputation as a talented artist. He received a commission from the publisher John Lane to produce a volume of lithographic portraits of Oxford personalities, Oxford Characters, to coincide with Max Beerbohm’s Caricatures of Twenty-Five Gentlemen, both of which were published in 1896. The success of his witty Oxford Characters lead to further volumes, the most notable of which is English Portraits 1898. This volume included portraits of George Gissing, Robert Bridges, A. W. Pinero, Cunninghame Graham, Grant Allen, William Archer, Henry James and Thomas Hardy (a later portrait of the author Thomas Hardy is currently for sale with Philip Mould & Company.)
In 1898-1899 he co-founded the Carfax Gallery (or Carfax & Co), which became closely associated with artists such as Charles Conder and Augustus John, and exhibited the work of Augustus Rodin, whose growing reputation in England owed much to his friendship with Rothenstein.
Determined and hardworking, Rothenstein made a name for himself as a social. In 1910, Rothenstein was outraged at a statement made by Sir George Birdwood, former curator of the Government Museum in Bombay, whilst chairing the Indian Section of the annual meeting at the Royal Society of Arts. Birdwood declared that there was no fine arts in India and that ‘the figure of the Buddha was no more spiritual than a boiled suet pudding’, and at this public declaration Rothenstein was angered and founded an India Society to educate British citizens in Indian arts; he visited India the following winter. His interest in Indian art led to changes in his own painting, exchanging his light and delicate touch for a heavier and richer style.
Rothenstein continued to push the boundaries of British art and experimented in composition by capturing Jewish religious life in east London, persuading the Jews of Spitalfields Great Synagogue to give him access to sketch and paint them during prayer. He produced eight substantial paintings of this Jewish community, three of which are currently unaccounted for.
In 1917, Rothenstein was appointed Official War Artist and became known for his barren landscapes of the destruction at Flanders, featuring smouldering tree stumps and smoky horizons. From this position Rothenstein strongly and successfully urged the appointment of Paul Nash to the war artist scheme, who later became one of the most important and highly regarded war artists of all time.
Rothenstein is now best known for his portraits of famous individuals and his war paintings. He died in 1945 at his home in Gloucestershire, where he had lived with his wife for over thirty years.