30 October 2018 5:30pm-7:00pm
M2 Boardroom, Grand Parade
University of Brighton


“Her Lady’s Room: Portrait of a Lady in Colonial Calcutta”

Dr. Hawon Ku (Seoul National University (South Korea) SOAS (UK))


While Lady Impey is well known for her collection of paintings depicting India flora and fauna, this paper begins with a painting of a different subject matter. Surrounded by a number of servants engrossed in various tasks, a white woman sits in the center on a stool with a hat in her hands: the painting is often titled “Mrs. Impey examines a hat”, or “Lady Impey supervises her household.” Commonly thought to be a work of Zain al-Din, one of the painters who left several paintings for the Impey Collection, the work is seldom discussed; if at all, it is mentioned as representing the colonial superiority of the white woman, or the depiction of ‘native races’ according to types and occupations.

However, the painting itself is quite an anomaly, considering the subject matter of Company paintings during this period. Company paintings, or those of the “Company School”, denote those commissioned to Indian painters by the employees of the East India Company; painters from Thanjavur, Calcutta, and later Delhi, were employed to produce paintings of Indian architecture or festivals, portraits of various castes, or in the case of Lord and Lady Impey, native flora and fauna. This painting, in that it depicts the Western mansion or garden house of the period, with details of the furniture and the bedroom beyond the open door, is particular in its documentary character. Was it simply a depiction of the current life of Lady Mary Impey, a souvenir to take back home as a record of her sojourn in India? Or can we read it as a self-representation of an industrious and moral woman, in comparison to the often satirized military or Company wives of the colonies? By examining the painting as well as records of colonial Calcutta, I argue that Lady Impey intended to present herself as a pseudo-independent, determined woman, exerting to carve out her space within the patriarchal and hostile environment through depicting full control over her own dominion, the Home.


Dr. Hawon Ku is an art historian with a special interest in the visual cultures of early modern and colonial South Asia. She is Associate Professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations, Seoul National University, and is currently affiliated as Visiting Scholar within the Department of Religions, History and Philosophy, SOAS. Hawon’s research interests encompass eighteenth to twentieth-century cultural histories of South Asia. Her work on Jaina temples and paintings during the nineteenth century has examined the links between Western concepts of religion and law and the shift in patronage and self-identity at Shatrunjaya, a pilgrimage site in western India. Her research on colonial colleges and universities explores how British education was implanted within the colonial state as well as how the colonial state governed and controlled visual representations of such institutions. In addition, her interest in education has led to research in the depiction of UNESCO World Heritages in Indian history textbooks.


All welcome