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April 2020 – Sir Elijah Impey

Image credit: Group Portrait of Sir Elijah and Lady Impey, c. 1783-1784, © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Inv. no. 445 (1986.11)

In the Wallace Collection’s current exhibition, ‘Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company’, there is a room devoted to the exquisite natural history studies made for Sir Elijah Impey and his wife, Lady Mary Impey, by Indian artists. The collection is known as the ‘Impey album’ and the works were commissioned during Impey’s time as Chief Justice of the Bengal Supreme Court. The painting above depicts the Impey family, with a band of Indian musicians, at their home in Calcutta. On arrival they had taken a large house with a spacious garden, and Lady Impey had established a garden menagerie.

Sir Elijah Impey had been sent out to Bengal following the East India Regulating Act of 1773. The act brought the East India Company under the partial control of the Crown. It established the Bengal Supreme Court and Impey was appointed Chief Justice. Warren Hastings, a contemporary of Impey when he was at Westminster School in 1740, was appointed Governor-General.

Sir Elijah Impey was also a member of Lincoln’s Inn, having been admitted on 8 November 1751 and called to the Bar on 23 November 1756. His admission entry reads ‘Elijah Impey son of Elijah Impey of the Haymarket, soapmaker, gentleman.’

Elijah Impey's admission entry, 8 November 1751

Following his call to the Bar, Elijah Impey practised for 17 years on the western circuit. He married Mary Reade in 1768 and she joined him in Calcutta when he left in 1774. He was knighted prior to leaving for Calcutta.

The Impeys appear to have taken advantage of the cultural opportunities offered to them during their time in India. They took a serious interest in India, learning Persian and collecting Persian manuscripts and paintings. It was Lady Impey, however, who was the driving force behind the Impey album commission. She had an extensive menagerie of birds and animals which became the main subjects of the commissions. Lady Impey acted as a collaborative patron by overseeing and helping to choose the subjects of the works. She was meticulous in labelling and dating the drawings, leaving space for the artist to sign their name in Persian. The series totalled 326 natural history studies, which were undertaken between 1777-1783.

An Orange-Headed Ground Thrush and a Death's-Head Moth on a Purple Ebony Orchid Branch, 1778 Shaikh Zain al–Din, from the Impey Album, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1783 Sir Elijah Impey was recalled to England to answer proceedings arising from the controversial trial and hanging of Raja Nandakumar. In 1787 Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of India, was impeached and put on trial in England. Sir Elijah Impey was also impeached but this was dropped in 1788. The trial against Hastings commenced in 1788. It proved a lengthy process, with Hastings being finally acquitted in 1795.  The trial inevitably produced an abundance of paperwork and the Inn’s Library holds a 58 volume set of the papers relating to the impeachment of Hastings and Impey in its manuscripts collection.

Folios from the Library's manuscript collection volumes of the trial of Hastings and Impey

The Wallace Collection is currently closed temporarily, in response to Public Health England’s latest advice about the impact of COVID-19 (Coronavirus). The exhibition ‘Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company’ was due to run until the 19 April. If it is still on show when the museum re-opens it is worth a visit. It offers a fascinating look at the works of the Indian master painters as well as providing an insight into the life of Sir Elijah Impey, and his wife Lady Mary Impey, and their time in India.