Exceptionally fine and very rare, this pair of silver gilt pea hens are some of the most unusual and striking rose water sprinklers or gulab pash we have ever seen. Peacocks are the national bird of India. The more subtly coloured female peahen has a dull brown plumage, her natural ornamentation being restricted to a prominent crest and green neck feathers. Here the silversmith has enhanced nature with a striking display of craftsmanship of very high quality.
Living mainly on the ground or in open forest land, the omnivorous peafowl live by foraging in small groups for grain, berries and little creatures, retreating into the forest for safety when not feeding. Elegantly presented as a pair which has survived together, these rosewater sprinklers are reminiscent of such a foraging group.
These peahens appear to break with an earlier tradition of more highly stylised avian subjects in Indian metalwork, often in the form of aquamaniles, lamps and incense burners, mostly executed in brass. For examples of such pieces, see Zebrowski (ch. 5).
The neck and head of each bird detaches, screwing off clockwise in the Indian manner, and facilitating a different positioning of the heads as required. Each bird carries the typical head crest, while their necks and wings are deeply repoussed and chased with a range of floral, foliate and avian designs, perhaps representing birds in a forest, a traditional subject in Mughal and Persian painting. The pieces stand unaided on three toed feet, while the rear of each bird is further decorated with a cone of clearly defined feathers. The crests, legs and feet all show signs of previous gilding. Each beak has a single hole through which rosewater may be sprinkled. Whilst we have seen more traditionally shaped gulab pash decorated with figural peafowl elsewhere, both as bird forms and as rosewater sprinklers, these would appear to be unique.
With the rose a beloved cultivar of the Mughals, rosewater was used in courtly rituals, to welcome guests after travel, in religious practices, and at weddings and similarly important occasions.
These birds were acquired in India towards the end of the C19th and held in the property of an English family thereafter, until coming to us in 2008 through a London dealer. This said, the pieces appear to be significantly older than this date suggests. Representations of birds, including peahens, are frequent in Mughal textiles and miniature paintings from the C16th and 17th onwards. Among the earliest uses on silverware of motifs similar to those of our pieces is a C17th Goan Portuguese jug featured in Terlinden (p.113). Similar in decorative conception is a partly gilt silver flask from North India dated to the mid C17th in Zebrowski (p.39). Also close in style to our piece are the inlaid enamel birds of a late C18th silver huqqa bowl featured in both Michel (p.251) and Zebrowski (p.85). Michel attributes the piece to Lucknow, Zebrowski more broadly to North India.
An alternative attribution for the pea hens might be to Rajasthan. Rajasthan under the Rajputs maintained a semi-autonomous political relationship by turns with the Mughals and then with the British. Peafowl were no strangers to its arts, with parties of foraging birds apparent in a number of royal paintings from Jodhpur (Diamond, Cats. 24, 25, 27 and 28), while Zebrowski features an early C18th enamelled gold huqqa from Mewar (p.63-64) on which crested birds fly between extended foliate and floral designs, in the company of angels. A lesser, undated Rajasthani example is shown in Pathak, (p.16), again featuring birds and foliate designs as part of a forest hunting scene.
References and sources:
Diamond, D. and others, Garden and Cosmos - The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur, (Washington D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2008; London: Thames & Hudson, 2008).
Michel, G., The Majesty of Mughal Decoration - The Art and Architecture of Islamic India, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007).
Pathak, S. K., Indian Silver, (New Delhi: Roli Books, 2008).
Terlinden, C., Mughal Silver Magnificence, (XVI-XIXth C.), ([n.p.]: Antalga, 1987).
Zebrowski, M., Gold, Silver and Bronze from Mughal India, (London: Alexandria Press, 1997).
Provenance: The UK art market
Catalogue number: GNC9