The disastrous paintings of Richard Greenbury
Richard Greenbury was an artist and decorator of furniture in early 17th century London. In the 1620s, he received two important painting commissions from the East India Company. Both documented incidents of treachery and suffering.
The first commission showed an odious moment of horror on the Indonesian island of Ambon. In this faraway place, the East India Company was exporting spices alongside a larger, more established Dutch trading station. In 1623, the Dutch tortured to death ten Englishmen at Ambon, claiming that they were going to invade the Dutch fort. News of this event sparked a diplomatic incident in Europe. In London, the East India Company published a pamphlet telling its side of the story, titled A True Relation of the Unjust, Cruell and Barbarous Proceedings against the English at Amboyna.
Frontispiece of the East India Company’s pamphlet, A True Relation of the Unjust, Cruell and Barbarous Proceedings against the English at Amboyna. The illustration on the left might have been the basis for Richard Greenbury’s painting. (British Library, T39923)
Richard Greenbury’s painting of the event, titled 'The Atrocities at Amboyna', was so graphic that the Company had to ask him to repaint part of it. Crowds flocked to the painter’s studio to see it before it was finished. One woman, purportedly a widow of one of the massacred Englishmen, fainted when she saw it. It stirred such outrage that London’s Dutch citizens had to appeal to the Privy Council of King Charles I for protection from the furious public. In February 1625 the completed painting went on display inside the East India Company’s headquarters, but only two weeks later, it was removed by order of the king and never seen again. It was most likely destroyed by order of the Privy Council. Reluctant to pay for a vanished painting, the East India Company eventually gave Greenbury less than half the amount of money he expected to receive.
Portrait of Naq’d Ali Beg by Richard Greenbury (British Library, Foster 23)
The Company then gave Greenbury another commission. This time, it wanted a pair of portraits of Naq’d Ali Beg, a trade ambassador from the court of Shah Abbas of Persia. Unfortunately, this exotic young man’s stay in London was fraught with scandals, and he was ordered by King Charles I to return to the court of Shah Abbas. Unable to bear the embassy’s failure, Naq’d Ali Beg committed suicide during the journey back to Persia in 1627. Even though the East India Company contributed to the Persian ambassador’s disgrace, Greenbury’s portrait was displayed inside its headquarters in London. Today, that same painting is part of the British Library’s permanent collections.
The disastrous subject matter of Greenbury’s paintings highlights the instability and sloppy diplomacy that the East India Company somehow survived in the 17th century. One hundred years later, a new, relatively stable United East India Company emerged. By the late 18th century it was a systemic part of Britain’s economy and a prolific corporate patron of British art.
Art Historian specialising in South Asia
East India Company. A True Relation of the Unjust, Cruell and Barbarous Proceedings against the English at Amboyna. London: Nathaniel Newberry, 1624.
Howes, Jennifer. 'Chaos to Confidence'. Chapter one in Howes, J. The Art of a Corporation: The East India Company as Patron and Collector, 1600-1860. New Delhi: Routledge, April 2023.