121. Colonel Claude Martin’s Cobra

Lucknow, Awadh, India, circa 1775–1785
Size: 47.7 × 37.5 cm
Watercolour on paper

The black Indian cobra (Naja Naja) is shown twice in movement, with studies of its skull and fangs; numbered ‘609’ in Nasta’liq in the lower-left corner.

Colonel Claude Martin (1735–1800) was the first European to seriously catalogue India’s flora and fauna. The original collection comprised 658 birds, 600 plants, 606 reptiles and a number of drawings of mammals. It in turn provided the inspiration for others, notably the Marquis of Wellesley at Barrackpore outside Calcutta, and Dr. Francis Buchanan at the East India Company’s botanical garden at Sibpur. Sir Elijah Impey was Chief Justice of Bengal, and with his wife Mary commissioned 197 studies of birds by three artists from Patna between 1174 and 1782. These beautiful paintings are quite different in style from Martin’s, and it has been suggested that they were influenced by contemporary Chinese textiles. The format that Martin chose was closer to the Comte de Buffon’s Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, published in ten volumes between 1771 and 1786. Impey visited Martin in 1781–2, and it seems likely that it was this visit that provided the inspiration for Martin’s natural history project.

When Claude Martin arrived in Lucknow in 1775 to take up his appointment as Superintendent of the Lucknow Arsenal for the Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, he was already rich, famous and very well-connected. He had left Europe in 1751, never to return, settling initially in Pondicherry. By 1760, having taken a dim view of French prospects in India, he deserted to the English to join their ‘Free French Company’. Lucknow was ‘the most dissolute and extravagant of the native courts that were independent of British rule in late eighteenth century India’. Martin built two magnificent palaces and filled them with works of art. He had extensive connections with the world of artists, collectors and dealers – Townley, Hamilton and the Society of Dilettanti in London, for example – and welcomed numerous artists, such as Zoffany, the Daniells and Thomas Longcroft, from whom he commissioned paintings. He amassed a huge library, scientific instruments, fossils, minerals and stuffed animals, antiquities and curiosities. He loved the louche life around him, and the riotous assembly of Europeans in the court around Asaf-ud-Daula. The latter seems to have appreciated Martin more than Martin appreciated him: he wrote scathingly about the Nawab in letters to his friends.

When Martin died in 1800, he bequeathed his fortune to found institutions for educating children at Lucknow, Calcutta and Lyon. The paintings he commissioned are rare, because during the Indian Mutiny in 1857, the palaces of Lucknow were sacked, and most of the folios destroyed.