Tipu Sultan: Painting of British Defeat in India Sold for 6.25 Crore


London: A painting capturing the momentous victory in the battle of Indian rulers over British East India Company troops in 1780 has sold at auction in London.

Sotheby’s accepted a bid of £500,000 ($658,000) for the painting.

It shows Hyder Ali, the sultan of the kingdom of Mysore, and his son, Tipu, defeating Company forces in the famed Battle of Pollilur.

Tipu, known as the “Tiger of Mysore”, became the Company’s fiercest foe until he was defeated and killed in 1799.

Historian William Dalrymple has described the painting of what unfolded in Pollilur as “arguably the greatest Indian picture of the defeat of colonialism that survives”.

Dalrymple, whose book, The Anarchy, documents the rise of the East India Company in the 18th Century, has called it “the most crushing defeat” and one that “nearly ended British rule in India”.

Tipu, who got his first command at Pollilur, “turned the tide” against the British, Dalrymple told the BBC.

Scenes from the battle were first commissioned by Tipu himself in 1784. They were painted on the walls and frescoes of his palace – Daria Daulat Bagh – in Srirangapatnam, then the capital of Mysore in southern India.

Some of these scenes were also painted at least twice on paper using ink and gouache pigments.

One of those paintings was sold at auction in 2010 and acquired by the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar. It was brought to England by Colonel John William Freese, who was in Srirangapatnam after Tipu’s defeat. His family handed it down over generations before selling it in 1978 to a private collector, who sold it in 2010.

The origin of the second painting, which Sotheby’s is now auctioning, is less clear. Given how similar it is to the one acquired by Freese, it’s assumed to have also been brought to England by a British officer.

It first appeared at auction in the early 1980s, Benedict Carter of Sotheby’s said. “But we don’t know what happened to it in the 100 years before that.” It has only been briefly displayed before, in 1990 and 1999, leaving it in a “pretty remarkable state”, he said.

The painting depicts – in vivid, triumphant and gory detail – what happened on the morning of 7 September 1780.

Tipu ambushed Company forces led by Colonel William Bailie near a village named Pollilur not far from Madras (now Chennai), a major British trading outpost at the time. By the time Haider Ali arrived with reinforcements, the “work had been pretty much done”, William Dalrymple says.

The 32ft-long painting, which stretches across 10 sheets of paper, shows Tipu atop an elephant while overseeing his troops. Towards the other end of the painting, his cavalry is attacking Company forces on both sides as they form a square around an injured Bailie, who is in a palanquin.

In a note on the work on the Sotheby’s website, Dalrymple writes, “The painting extends over ten large sheets of paper, nearly thirty-two feet (978.5 cm) long, and focuses in on the moment when the Company’s ammunition tumbril explodes, breaking the British square, while Tipu’s cavalry advances from left and right, “like waves of an angry sea”, according to the contemporary Mughal historian Ghulam Husain Khan. The pink-cheeked and rather effeminate-looking Company troops wait fearfully for the impact of the Mysore charge, as the gallant and thickly moustachioed Mysore lancers close in for the kill.”

In November 2021, one of the eight tiger heads that adorned the throne of Tipu Sultan came for auction at a price of £1.5 million. The UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has temporarily blocked its export, saying that the throne finial is closely connected with British history, and hopes that a buyer can be found in the UK.

Items from Tipu Sultan’s armoury were auctioned for around £107,000 in March 2019. It included a silver-mounted 20-bore flintlock gun and bayonet that went under the hammer for £60,000. In the same year, in June, Christie’s sold Tipu Sultan’s “Magic Box” for $495,000.

In 2015, a collection of Tipu’s arms and armour was sold at Bonhams Islamic and Indian art sale for a total of more than £6million. The 30 items in the auction come from a single collection.