A picture which speaks eloquently of the Raj, linking Stowe in Buckinghamshire with Madras, painted by an Indian aristocrat of an English aristocrat, is set to attract wide interest at Bonhams’ next sale of Indian and Islamic Art in London on October 25.

In 1880 Raja Ravi Varma (India, 1848-1906), the leading Indian artist of his day, painted the image of the Maharaja of Travancore and his younger brother welcoming Richard Temple-Grenville, 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, Governor-General of Madras (1875-80), on his official visit to Trivandrum in 1880. The picture (measuring 106 x 146 cm.) is estimated to sell for £50,000-70,000.

As the most sought-after academic painter of colonial India who was an aristocrat himself, Ravi Varma was often invited to state occasions by British high officials and the Indian nobility, often recording their activities on his canvases.

Matthew Thomas of Bonhams’ Islamic and Indian Department comments: ‘This painting provides us with an almost intimate snapshot of the official contact between the British and the Indian princes Since the end of the last war, if not before, it has perhaps been orthodox to deride Varma’s work as rather kitsch and unaccomplished, both as a result of nationalist, anti-colonial feeling, and the opinions of Indian modernist painters, whose style and artistic intentions were naturally very different. But as in the case of British Victorian painters the subject matter and its handling can often blind us to their enormous technical facility..”

The history or provenance of this picture leads from Richard Temple-Grenville, 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos (1823-1889) to Baroness Kinloss, the Duke’s daughter (who owned part of the Stowe estate in 1894). It was then perhaps given to a local solicitor and town clerk by Baroness Kinloss; or otherwise given to Buckinghamshire County Council directly where it stayed in Castle House, Buckingham, the offices of Buckinghamshire County Council, from the 1920s until 1974 and from there to a private UK collection from 1974 when Castle House was bought by the present owner of the picture.

Richard Temple-Grenville, 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos (1823-1889), inherited the Stowe estate in Buckinghamshire from his father, the 2nd Duke, who had died bankrupt. The 3rd Duke, who had the longest running non-repetitive surname in the Guinness Book of Records (Richard Plantagenet Campbell Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville), attempted to restore the Buckingham name and fortunes.

He was determined in his efforts to return Stowe to its former glory and came back from Italy in 1865 with paintings, porcelain and other works of art. Queen Victoria was so impressed that she remarked to Disraeli that no one ‘more truly deserves re-institution in the ancient family seat than the Duke’. He was briefly Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1867-68. When Disraeli returned to office in 1874, the Duke was appointed Governor-General of Madras and arrived in India in 1875 with his three daughters, following his first wife’s death the previous year. Madras at the time was gripped by famine, which lasted until 1877, but its effects were greatly lessened by his much-valued administrative skills.

The artist Ravi Varma was born into an aristocratic family in Kerala and in his day was undoubtedly the most famous native Indian artist, a society figure and one of the ‘great and good’, almost in the manner of the great Victorian painters like Leighton and Alma-Tadema, with whom he can be compared in his professionalism and entrepreneurial spirit.

In his later career his work became hugely popular via lithographs of his images of Hindu deities, but earlier – at around the time of this painting – he was already being feted not only by Indian rulers like the Maharaja of Travancore and of Baroda, but by the English including Buckingham. Lord Curzon, the Viceroy from 1898 to 1905, called his works ‘a happy blend of Western technique and Indian subject and free from Oriental stiffness’, and on his visit to India in 1875-76 the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, took ‘great pleasure in [his] works’. The Maharaja of Travancore presented him with two of them.

Ravi Varma, despite his aristocratic background, had gone his own way, in which he was aided by the Maharaja, Ayilayam Tirunal, who was cultured and less hidebound than his predecessors, who tended to regard artists as little more than craftsmen. Varma’s early work came to the attention of R. Chisholm of the Madras Art School, who encouraged the Maharaja to put the works forward for the Madras Fine Arts Exhibition in 1873. Varma was awarded the Governor’s Gold Medal for Nair Lady at her Toilet (one of the paintings later presented to Edward VII).

With such a reputation it is natural that Varma would have come to the attention of Buckingham when he took over as Governor, and the Duke is known to have remarked on Varma’s great facility in portraiture, noting that a European painter for whom he had posed required eighteen sittings, while Varma produced immeasurably better work after far fewer.