Asian and African studies blog

07 August 2014

James Skinner's Tazkirat al-Umara now digitised

James Skinner (1778–1841) was one of the leading patrons of Delhi artists in the second quarter of the 19th century.  The son of a Scottish soldier father and Rajput mother, Skinner was a born soldier and leader of men, but was denied a place in the East India Company’s armies on account of his birth; he became a mercenary working for the Marathas who controlled Delhi at the end of the 18th century.  With the outbreak of war between the East India Company and the Marathas in 1803, he took advantage (as did others in similar circumstances) of the Company’s offer to come over to its side.  In February 1803, from the men who followed him, he founded a regiment of irregular cavalry, Skinner’s Horse, known as the ‘Yellow Boys’ on account of the men’s yellow surcoats, the first irregular regiment of cavalry in the East India Company’s army.  He raised a second regiment of Yellow Boys to assist the Company’s forces at the beginning of the war with Nepal in 1814.  It rankled with Skinner that he felt unacknowledged by the Company, which he had done so much to help, until the Governor-General Lord Moira in January 1815, when they met at Skinner’s base in Hansi, gave him the rank of honorary Lt. Col. with precedence over lower ranked gazetted officers (Hastings 1858, vol. 2, pp. 293-5).

Colonel James Skinner, attributed to Ghulam Murtaza Khan, Delhi, 1830.  19 x 12.5 cm (British Library Add.27254, f. 4r)

Skinner’s patronage of Delhi artists doubtless began on account of his friendship with the Fraser brothers, the commissioners of the Fraser Album of paintings from 1815-19 (see Archer and Falk 1989).  Skinner’s major commissions include the paintings in his album put together in the 1820s (British Library, Losty and Roy 2012 pp. 222-5), the three large watercolours he commissioned from Ghulam ‘Ali Khan in 1827-8 showing his regiments and his estate at Hansi and another two in 1836 marking his newly built church of St. James in Delhi (National Army Museum, see Dalrymple and Sharma 2012, nos. 58-60, and Losty 2012, figs. 102-3), and those illustrating his writings on castes and rulers (British Library and elsewhere).  This is a significant body of work that marks Skinner as the most important patron of the time in Delhi.  For overviews of Skinner’s patronage and literary compositions, see Losty and Roy 2012, pp. 222-8, and Dalrymple and Sharma 2012, pp. 32-9.

Skinner was a well-educated man and although his English was from all accounts never very good, his Persian was excellent.  This post is concerned with the newly digitised manuscript of one of the two texts that he wrote in that language.  His Tazkirat al-Umara (Add.27254, ‘Biographies of the Nobles’) deals with the history of the princely families of Rajasthan, Haryana and the Punjab, tracing their descent and including a portrait of the present head of the family (Rieu 1879, vol. 1, pp. 302-3).  The British Library’s copy is dated 1830 with 38 paintings and begins with a dedication (f.3v) in four baits of Persian verses to Skinner’s friend Sir John Malcolm (1769-1833), who had just retired as Governor of Bombay, together with an impression of Skinner’s seal with his titles Nasir al-Dawlah Kirnil Jams Iskinar Bahadur Ghalib Jang (‘Defender of the State, Colonel James Skinner, Lord, Victorious in War’) and the date 1830.  These were the Mughal titles which were given on 3 May 1830 to Skinner by the Emperor Akbar II and which are repeated beneath the portrait of Skinner himself on the facing page. 

Dedicatory verses to Sir John Malcolm, with Skinner’s Persian seal (British Library Add.27254, f. 3v)

The manuscript is beautifully bound and presented and rarely for an Indian manuscript is decorated round the fore-edge, top and bottom of the text block with decorations. 

Add.27254 foredge painting
Decorations on the top of text block (British Library Add.27254)

Another illustrated copy of the same work has a different verse dedication to one Watkin, again on a page with Skinner’s seal, and is now in the Chester Beatty Library (Leach 1996, no. 7.133, p. 726-41).  This is also dated 1830 and has 37 portraits listed but actually contains only 33 and does not include a portrait of Skinner.  Watkin is presumably the J. Watkins whose signature is on a flyleaf and is probably Lt. Col. James Watkins, who retired from the Bengal Army in 1838.  His regiment was based at Ludhiana during the 1830s and he must often have passed through Delhi or Hansi.  Another copy dated 1836 has recently appeared from the famous manuscript and early book collection of the Yates, Thompson and Bright families (Christie’s, London, 16 July 2014, lot 39).  This has 39 paintings; it lacks the opening portrait of Skinner, but has one of the Malcolm version’s double portraits in two separate paintings, and also has a portrait of Raja Balwant Singh of Bharatpur at the end, who is not noticed in the 1830 manuscripts.  The portraits are very much the same in each of these three versions except that the other two sometimes lack the beautiful architectural backgrounds of the Malcolm version or are in mirror reverse.  Unillustrated versions also exist (e.g. BL Add.24051, dated 15 April 1830).  The paintings would seem to have been added to existing copies of the text when needed for gifts.  The scribe of the Yates-Thompson-Bright version, Muhammad Bakhsh, is very possibly the unnamed scribe of the British Library version.

The paintings come from different stylistic backgrounds, some being new versions of older Rajput paintings in that style, others being newly minted in the latest style of Delhi.  The portrait of Skinner himself (above) is in this latter style.  Seated in a black japanned chair placed on a carpet and nearly full face, he wears the uniform of the colonel of his regiment as well as his CB star given him by Lord Moira in 1815.  It may be attributed with some confidence to Ghulam Murtaza Khan, to whom Skinner wrote in 1834 commissioning a portrait and describing the artist as the ‘counterpart of Mani and Bihzad’ (Losty and Roy 2012, p.227).

The iconography of Skinner’s portrait is somewhat different from the others.  The opening Rajput portrait (f. 8v), of Maharana Jawan Singh of Udaipur (reg. 1828-38), is more typical of the Delhi manner:  it shows the subject seated on a carpet smoking a hookah with bolsters and cushions behind him and a young attendant fanning him, with a background view out to a terrace and a garden (ibid., fig. 162).  This is very different from the sort of portraiture practised at this time at the Udaipur court.  The portrait of Raja Kalyan Singh of Kishangarh is similarly treated, but this is easier to explain.

Raja Kalyan Singh of Kishangarh (b.1794, reg. 1798-1832, d. 1839).  Delhi, c. 1830.  20 x 13 cm (British Library Add.27254, f. 63v)

Kalyan Singh succeeded as a minor in 1798, but after he came of age was unable to resolve disputes with his nobles and fled to Delhi where he spent most of his time.  Here he seems to be in his 30s and has obviously been portrayed taken from the life during his self-imposed exile in Delhi.  Here the artist has combined a beautifully detailed Mughal pavilion with a typically European curtain swag derived from the type of portraits done by British artists in India.  Many of the Rajput nobility, at least those who were not too far from Delhi, would seem to have maintained houses in the city and hence could be portrayed in contemporary fashion.  

Maharaja Jagat Singh II of Jaipur (reg. 1803-18).  Delhi, c. 1830.  2- x 13 cm (British Library Add.27254, f. 68v)

Typical of the more old-fashioned Rajput portrait (including those of Jodhpur and Bikaner) is that of Maharaja Jagat Singh II of Jaipur, showing him standing in profile, his jama flaring out at the hem, and holding a long sword.  Several of these portraits are of rulers already deceased in 1830, but in this case Jagat Singh had a posthumous son, Jai Singh III, born in 1819, so that perhaps portraits of so young a prince were not readily available.  Skinner follows his account of Jaipur with notices of fifteen of its thikanas or tributary states, an area of research yet to be tapped.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Punjab (reg. 1799-1839).  Delhi, 1830.  20 x 13 cm (British Library Add.27254, f. 176v)

Skinner’s text includes accounts of all the contemporary Sikh rulers, beginning of course with Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself.  By 1830, his appearance was well known and our Delhi artist has been able to produce a good likeness of him, albeit playing down somewhat his blind left eye.  He is seated on a hexagonal gold throne which may be an attempt to render the Maharaja’s actual golden throne now in the V&A.  This has the shape of two octagonal tiers of lotus petals, the traditional seat of Hindu deities, which our artist has perhaps attempted to suggest by portraying Ranjit Singh seated in one of the traditional postures of Hindu deitiesInstead of the divine attributes, he bears instead those of a warrior – sword, dagger, shield, bow and arrows.  Otherwise the setting is that of a refined Delhi interior with a view to the terrace and curtain swags.

Maharaja Karam Singh of Patiala (reg. 1813-45).  Delhi, 1830.  20 x 13 cm (British Library Add.27254, f. 197v)

Other Sikh rulers described in Skinner’s text include those of the major Cis-Sutlej states Patiala, Jind, Nabha and Kapurthala, all of which accepted British suzerainty in 1809 rather than risk be swallowed up in Ranjit Singh’s still expanding empire.  Karam Singh ruled the largest territory of the Cis-Sutlej chiefs as suggested perhaps by his large and sprawling person in this portrait.  As if to contain him, the artist closes the vista with an arcaded wall behind him.  Karam Singh was very helpful to the British in the Anglo-Nepal war of 1814-15 and received in reward a large tract of the Himalayan foothills below Simla.

Whereas the history of the major Sikh princely states is well known, many of the small ones disappeared in the first half of the 19th century.  These include all those established in what is now northern Haryana, which in British India were in the Punjab districts of Ambala and Karnal.  James Skinner notices several of these small Sikh states, which were his neighbours to the north from his base in Hansi, including Kaithal, Kalsia, Radaur, Ladwa, Jagadhri and Buria along with portraits of the incumbent rulers.  These small states were founded in 1763 after Sikh warriors fled south across the Sutlej to escape the carnage wrought on the Punjab proper by Ahmad Shah Durrani.  When the land around Delhi was parcelled out after the British victory over the Marathas in 1803-05, these small rulers like their larger neighbouring ones were confirmed in their status and privileges, reinforced again in 1809.

Bhai Uday Singh of Kaithal (reg. 1819-43).  Delhi, 1830.  20 x 13 cm (British Library Add.27254, f. 204v)

Bhai Uday Singh (reg. 1819-43), as with others of the rulers of Haryana and the Punjab, appears to have been painted from the life, as the melancholy ruler sits amidst his cushions, a magnificent Kashmir shawl round his waist, holding his sword upright with his katar and shield on the rug beside him between two stylized vases of flowers.  The artist has absorbed enough of European portraiture to depict the carpets in perspective and to provide a standard column, but he also provides other more mysterious uprights and diagonals of undisclosed purpose.  Horizontal bands of saturated colour set off the whiteness of the Bhai’s gown.  Perhaps the Bhai’s apparent melancholy is owing to his childless state, since after his death in 1843 his state lapsed to the British.

Rani of the late Rup Singh of Radaur.  Delhi, 1830.  20 x 13 cm (British Library Add.27254, f. 227v)

One of the most striking of the pictures is the only female portrait in the manuscript.  Radaur is one of the small former Sikh states in the Ambala district, but its history is as yet very obscure.  Nonetheless, the Delhi artist has lavished his invention on the widow’s portrait, showing her seated in a richly ornamented window arch in the zenana with a bed behind her, and producing a sumptuous array of colours in the lower part of the painting contrasting with the cool grey of the decorated plaster work above.

Skinner ends his survey of princely families with four states under Muslim rule.  Two of these, Farrukhnagar and Dujana, are just west of Delhi and were established like Jhajjar (Losty and Roy 2012, pp.230-2) from land grants to Afghan military chiefs helpful to the British 1803-05.  The portrait of Nawab Zabita Khan, who held land round Rania now in western Haryana (ibid., fig. 163), is the only one in Skinner’s manuscript which is based on a portrait from the Fraser Album. 

Nawab Dalil Khan of Bahawalpur.  Delhi, 1830.  20 x 13 cm (British Library Add.27254, f. 262v)

Skinner concludes with the large state of Bahawalpur on the left bank of the Sutlej and Indus, although the portrait of the ruler labelled Nawab Dalil Khan is enigmatic.  The ruler should have been either Nawab Sadiq Khan II (reg. 1809-26) or Bahawal Khan III (reg. 1809-52).  The portrait’s composition seems based on one from earlier in the 18th century, but no Nawab Dalil Khan seems known from that time.  The text of the Tazkira has never been published or translated and its on-line digitisation will surely be welcome not just to admirers of late Mughal Delhi but also to historians of early 19th century India. Follow these links for the online digitised version and a complete description of the manuscript and illustrations.

Further reading:

Archer, M., and Falk, T., India Revealed:  the Art and Adventures of James and William Fraser 1801-35, Cassell, London, 1989
Dalrymple, W., and Sharma, Y., Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857, Asia Society, New York, 2012
Hastings, 1st Marquess of, The Private Journal of the Marquess of Hastings, K.G., ed. by the Marchioness of Bute, London, 1858
Leach, L.Y., Mughal and Other Indian Paintings in the Chester Beatty Library, Scorpion Cavendish, London, 1995
Losty, J.P., Delhi: Red Fort to Raisina, Lustre Press Roli Books, New Delhi. 2012
Losty, J.P., and Roy, M., Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library, British Library, London, 2012
Rieu, Charles, Catalogue of the Persian Manuscripts in the British Museum, London, 1879-83
McBurney, N.G., The 1836 Tazkirat al-umara of Colonel Skinner, London, Bernard Quaritch Ltd, 2014. 2 vols with 49 colour illustrations

J.P. Losty, Curator of Visual Arts (Emeritus)


The link to the full online digitised version produces a runtime error in both Firefox and Internet Explorer. In fact the link itself is an error message (

Michael Robertson


Reply from Editor: Thanks for letting us know. I have now corrected it.

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