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Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match (c.1784–1786) is a significant artwork, made by the German-born, eighteenth-century painter Johann Zoffany. It has occupied a symbolic presence from the moment it was commissioned to its 1994 acquisition into the national collection. It currently occupies space in a time where the histories of whose experiences are included/excluded are being reconsidered and revised by museums.

Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match

Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match c.1784–6

Johann Zoffany (1733–1810)

Tate

Historian David Olusoga, in his book Civilisations: First Contact/The Cult of Progress (2018), dedicates an entire chapter, titled 'Acts of Empire', to the analysis of this painting, framing it within the power dynamics, motivations and romanticisation of European exploit and enterprise in its brutal extractionist rule over India and its peoples.

Olusoga draws on the painting to unpick these crucial contexts within such a work, yet otherwise there has been a consistency of tone in how this painting has been interpreted, discussed and displayed since its creation over two centuries ago. Even as recently as 2018, this painting has been framed within a narrative that embodies the very colonial values held through its original commission.

Asaf-ud-Daula, Nawab of Oudh (1775–1797)

Asaf-ud-Daula, Nawab of Oudh (1775–1797) 1784

Johann Zoffany (1733–1810)

British Library

The painting shows a cockfight being played out between Colonel John Mordaunt with and in the court of Asaf-ud-Daula, Nawab of Oudh in Lucknow. Cockfights were the pitting of two cockerels, with wagers and bets being put on by a fawning audience. They were as popular in the streets of London as they were in many Indian districts during the eighteenth century.

In the painting, the two men are surrounded by various figures, both European and Indian. Each cluster of figures presents smaller points of drama. There are crowds of Indians stretching into the back of the painting, looking on and conversing. They wear turbans, topis and saris. The furthest character, an Indian elephant, has been reduced to the size of a cockerel.

Johan Joseph Zoffany

Johan Joseph Zoffany 1761

Johann Zoffany (1733–1810)

National Portrait Gallery, London

To the foreground, European figures emerge amongst Indians. They are the figures who are the only ones postured upright or seated on chairs and stools. Zoffany himself appears in the crowd, to the far right of the painting under a green wreath, with a bored expression. Perhaps this mood reflects his own feelings at being in India. Zoffany was forced to travel to India to try and restore his reputation through commissions from governors of the East India Company, after he fell out of favour with the royal family. 

Warren Hastings

Warren Hastings 1783–1784

Johann Zoffany (1733–1810)

Yale Center for British Art

The painting was commissioned by Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of India between 1774 and 1785. Hastings strategised and administered rule over India, whilst being one of the many European elites to have attempted to cultivate a connection to Indian culture. Many like Hastings studied Urdu poetry and Sanskrit legal codes. This concept of taking part in local customs is realised by Zoffany in this commission – from little details of attire to the very engagement of engaging in a shared activity, the cockfight.

Aesthetically, the form and structure of Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match is influenced by Mughal miniatures – a visual art that flourished within Mughal rule in parts of India – in its story-like depiction of multiple figures on a dramatic small scale. The taking part extended beyond adopting customs and was seen to include 'taking' Indian mistresses, which both Hastings and Zoffany did. Hastings himself was at this cockfight, which was a real event, though he is not included in the painting.

The period in which the painting is set was at the cusp of greater British expansion in India. Engagement with Indian culture decreased towards the end of the eighteenth century, when stricter authority from the East India Company was established. Despite visualising a time when Europeans took part in cultural practices from India, the painting also represents a time where violence and European superiority was paramount through the East India Company's expansion over the country. Under Hasting's tenure, the undermining of various regions' economy was rife, even contributing to famines that killed an estimated 10 million Indian people.

A Battle between British and Indians

A Battle between British and Indians

unknown artist

Wellcome Collection

Zoffany's painting became popular from the moment it was revealed. Many versions were produced, both by Zoffany himself and other artists, all creating slightly altered replications of this court scene. Another version was created as a gift for the Nawab of Oudh, who ruled over Lucknow, where this painting is set. The Nawab was known for prioritising British interests over those of his people. His version of the painting was said to have included fewer characters.

The Nawab's copy of this work was destroyed in the 1857 Indian attempt for independence, or as it is often called in history books, the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Other versions that remain of this painting contain slight changes in power dynamics. For instance, in a version by an Indian artist in the British Library collection, Mordaunt is seen at an angle, while the Nawab stood straight. These variations allow us to reflect on ways in which power is represented – and even how false power is presented.

The motivations of Hasting's reasoning for commissioning this work, as Olusoga draws out, is within this duality of context: the European presence, in this specific time within India, was embodying a mindset that the orientalist taking part in the 'local cultures' is to be celebrated, without reflection on taking control. What is most curious, then, is how this painting has been consistently framed to represent an image of British rule in India that is euthanised of power dynamics, and where the coming together of cultures is romantically celebrated. This framing has been present throughout the twentieth century, and even as recent as 2018, which can be seen in both the acquisition of this work into the national collection and its interpretation on display at Tate Britain.

In the early 1990s, Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match was in a private collection and was sold at an auction to another private collector outside the United Kingdom, despite strong interest in acquiring it for the nation's collection. The case was then made to object to its export on the fact that the painting is 'far and away the single most important visual document of Anglo-Indian history', as written in an application to the National Art Collections Fund.

A campaign to block the export gained traction, with The Telegraph running a headline in the arts section on the issue, titled 'A piece of British India under threat'. The campaign was successful, the export was blocked by the government, and in 1994 Tate purchased the artwork for a fraction of the cost that it was being sold at private auction – all on the basis that this painting was a record of British India too valuable to leave the nation. This narrative had been entrenched within art history. Historians such as Mary Webster suggested Zoffany as the painter best placed in capturing 'the vivacity of Anglo-Indian life at the brilliant and dissipated court of Oudh'. Apparently, no other painter could capture the 'Indian' with such care and attention in their work.

The first description that was given to the painting by Tate, upon its acquisition confirmation, emphasised that the painting depicted a time and place where 'Indians and Europeans mingled on equal terms'. It was acquired on the fact that it represents a memory of Empire based on the taking part and not the taking control. This emphasis, the very same emphasis that motivated Warren Hastings' commission of the piece in the eighteenth century, was reformatted to highlight equality between Europeans and their colonised subjects – to the extent that it justified a block of export and purchase into the national collection. This emphasis was then embedded in the way the painting has been framed and discussed, until recent years.

This is a section from the online description of the painting that was displayed on the Tate website until its removal in February 2018:

'At Lucknow, Indians and Europeans enjoyed social equality and personal friendship. Many Europeans had Indian wives, or bibis, and children. The central figures of the Lucknow court are portrayed here: Colonel Antoine Polier (in a red coat, standing under the awning), a Swiss officer who was engineer to the Nawab and possessor of several bibis and a number of children; John Wombwell (seated to the right holding a hookah), the East India Company's paymaster at Lucknow; and below them (in uniform, seated on the dais) the French adventurer Claud Martin'.

Whilst emphasising 'equality' and 'personal friendship' between 'Indians and Europeans', the text describes a Swiss officer who is the 'possessor' of Indian mistresses and children. This is a striking contradiction of language, representative of the foregrounding of taking part in relation to the taking control – a view that has institutional confidence that possessing women and children can sit within the framing of 'social equality'.

Further to this, the 2018 in-gallery interpretation stated that cockfighting was 'seen as cruel' in Britain, whilst 'in colonial India the "normal" rules of morality did not apply' – therefore creating a narrative that the British were so invested in the taking part that they compromised their own ethics to engage with people of lesser morals. Many historical sources highlight cockfighting to be a popular activity in cities in England during this period.

A Pair of Fighting Cocks

A Pair of Fighting Cocks 18th C

British (English) School

National Trust, Hartwell House

These framings have been erased from the gallery and the website since 2018, after visitors and staff of colour voiced critique. The descriptions were amended and now sit somewhere closer to the historical analysis Olusoga foregrounds – where the power and motivations of European colonial rule, and the inequalities it held for those being ruled, as essential contexts with which to understand the painting.

Many artworks in our public collection still sit in an unreflective framing, from a singular perspective. Zoffany's picture, and its changing interpretation and presentation, demonstrate that questioning authoritative descriptors results in a richer, more accurate and expansive understanding of a painting, and the histories that not just commissioned it, but justified its entry into the national collection. The questioning of the authority of framings within public collections should never be discouraged.

Hassan Vawda, Collaborative Doctorate Student, Tate & Goldsmiths (2020–2024)