This painting by Amrita Sher-Gil was made at the behest of Maharaja Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla and is meant to be a portrait of ‘Windsor Lad’, one of the most famous racehorses of the 20th century.
Maharaja Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla was a known collector of contemporary art during his reign (1915-1948) and owned work by several artists including Narayan Shridhar Bendre. He also established an art school named ‘Rajpipla Chitrashala’ in his Rajpipla State to encourage painters.
Windsor Lad, owned by the Maharaja, won the coveted Epsom Derby of England, the blue riband of the turf, on 6th June 1934. Expertly ridden by Charlie Smirke, Windsor Lad sensationally outran the hitherto unbeaten hot favourite Colombo. Maharaja Vijaysinhji thereby completed a hat-trick of Derbys, his horses Tipster and Embargo having won the first-ever Indian Derby (1919) and Irish Derby (1926) respectively.
Weeks after the Derby triumph, Martin Benson, owner of Beechhouse Stud, near Newmarket, and founder of Douglas Stuart Ltd., the biggest firm of racetrack bookmakers in the world, made an attractive offer to the Maharaja to buy Windsor Lad. Maharaja Vijaysinhji agreed to let his prized colt go, on condition that he would continue to be trained by Marcus Marsh. The same year of 1934, Windsor Lad went on to win the St. Leger, the third leg of the Triple Crown, at Doncaster.
Michael Seth-Smith paid tribute to the champion horse in the January 19, 1984 edition of Country Life, calling him “…..one of the greatest thoroughbreds of the past sixty years,” elaborating, “He had beaten two very good colts, Easton and Colombo, at Epsom, much to the undisguised delight of his owner, The Maharajah of Rajpipla.”
The Maharaja commissioned this painting of his favourite horse in 1940 after he saw the Lucknow exhibition of Amrita Sher-Gil’s work. The connection between Sher-Gil and the Rajpipla family is further documented in a Bombay Art Society invitation where the Maharaja spoke about Sher-Gil at their awards function in 1942.
It would have been well-known art connoisseur, lawyer, and Indian Air Force officer, Karl Khandalavala, who got her this commission. According to the famous artist Vivan Sundaram, whose mother Indira was sister of Amrita Sher-Gil, she wrote to Karl Khandalavala and others asking to help her get patronage. Khandalavala was well-connected and a friend of the Maharaja of Rajpipla, being part of the racing circuit and living in the same neighbourhood in Bombay.
Born in 1913 in Budapest, Amrita Sher-Gil grew up in a cultured and intellectual family. Her mother was a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer and her father an Indian Sikh aristocrat and scholar. She lived in Hungary, India and Paris and due to her bi-racial and bi-cultural upbringing, and her constant travels between India and Europe, her work comes across as an immersion, absorption and very detailed understanding of the aesthetic styles and traditions of both the East and the West.
Amrita Sher-Gil is considered one of India’s most important early modernist painters. In December 1976, India declared her a national treasure with regard to her ‘artistic and aesthetic value’ and prohibited the export of her paintings outside the country. Sher-Gil’s constant travels resulted in her meeting and engaging with people of great artistic and intellectual temperament. Her natural talent, education and observations made during her stay in Europe enabled her to start a dialogue with the then veterans of modern Indian art, such as Karl Khandalavala, and allowed her to create for herself a very significant position in the history of modern Indian art.
She wrote several essays on art and penned several letters to her family and friends vocalising expansively her thoughts and vision on the form and image she felt modern Indian Art must acquire. She thus played a vital role in the articulation of twentieth-century Indian art and was a seminal influence on generations of Indian artists.
In November 1937, Sher-Gil’s first solo exhibition was held at Faletti’s Hotel in Lahore. This was the critically acclaimed, Paintings by Amrita Sher-Gil. A landmark exhibition of Sher-Gil’s highly avant-garde body of work, it fundamentally changed the manner in which the populace at the time viewed contemporary art. Sher-Gil’s art was seen as a breath of fresh air and the show received endless praise both from critics and guests alike. During the 1920s and 30s, Lahore was a cultural hub where artists, writers and intellectuals gathered.
On a trip to India in 1938, when she stayed at her father’s family’s home in Saraya, in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, we first see paintings of animals emerge in her artistic corpus. Red Clay Elephant, Elephants Bathing in a Green Pool and Three Bullock Carts all denote this significant shift in her subject matter that had largely consisted of landscapes, still-lifes and portraits. At the end of 1939, Sher-Gil returned to Saraya for the last time.
In early 1940, she sketched and painted Horse and Groom with a similar aqua-green background. When she was approached by the Maharaja of Rajpipla for this commission, she re-interpreted the composition, using the same background colour and then included the figure of the horse – Windsor Lad.
There are a very limited number of works made by Sher-Gil before her sudden and untimely demise at the age of 28. In all, 172 paintings have been documented and this work, made in 1940 was one of the last paintings she made before her death in 1941. This current lot is the only known commissioned work of an animal that Sher-Gil made. Only one other painting of a horse has been recorded, making this subject incredibly rare in her oeuvre and adding to the desirability of this work. It assumes greater significance in view of the fact that Sher-Gil had refined her style throughout her years of painting and this period is considered to be the epitome of her practice.
After the demise of Maharaja Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla in April 1951, this painting of Windsor Lad was acquired by a private Indian collector.
The painting was set for auction on 15th November 2019 at Mumbai for an estimated price of Rupees 4.5 crores to Rupees 6 crores, but was withdrawn at the last moment.
It is a National Art Treasure under Indian Law and is subject to restrictions, including those applicable under the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972.
(Details of Amrita Sher-Gil and the painting courtesy Sotheby’s auction notice).