Dr Ursula Weekes is an independent art historian based in London, specializing in the art and material culture of the Mughal Empire. She is a writer, speaker, and teacher, and is currently finishing a book titled Mughal Court Painting in India for Reaktion Books.
Abu’l Hasan, Jahangir Embracing Shah Abbas, c. 1615-16, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, 23.8 x 15.4 cm, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.,
We talk to Ursula about her journey to discovering a love for Mughal heritage, the importance of the Mughal period to Islamic art history and how discovering Mughal heritage from the past can help us develop the future of Islamic art and culture.
You are an independent art historian, teaching in various university, museum and school settings. When did you develop an interest in Mughal arts, culture and heritage?
I developed a love for all Indian art and culture, not just the Mughals, when I lived in Delhi from 2004 to 2010. It is a wonderful and humbling experience to live in a completely different culture, and I loved the opportunity to visit archaeological sites and to study collections in India.
When we moved from London to India in 2004, I had recently finished my PhD on fifteenth-century print culture in Northern Europe at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and had published my first book, Early Engravers and their Public (Turnhout, 2004). It was a big decision to change the focus of my research to the Mughals, but I was honoured to be awarded a Commonwealth Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. My research project focused on the reception of European prints in the Imperial Mughal painting workshop. European engravings and woodcuts, as well as paintings, were brought in large numbers to India by Jesuit missionaries, merchant adventurers and diplomatic envoys in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Mughal artists were incredibly inventive in the way they appropriated symbols, techniques and concepts from European art, while retaining their own inner artistic vision. Sometimes the engravings were actually pasted into Mughal albums.
Kesu Das, Pensive Woman, dated 1588, with a border of European engravings, Gulshan Album, Gulistan Palace Library, Tehran, Ms 1663, p. 98. Photo: Gulistan Palace Library.
For the first two years of my postdoc, I was based at the National Museum Institute in Delhi and thereafter at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Most academics spend their career developing themes from their PhD, so it was a big challenge to get up to speed in Mughal studies and to learn Hindi and Persian. I used to go for Persian lessons in Old Delhi with the inimitable Dr SM Yunus Jaffery. To get there I took a cycle rickshaw through narrow lanes, past at least one beautiful old haveli that housed about twenty buffalo. I loved teaching MA courses on Mughal and Renaissance painting at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Teaching is always an incredibly dynamic experience, which fosters my love for Mughal art and culture as I learn so much from engaging with students.
Can you tell us about your forthcoming book Mughal Court Painting in India?
I was commissioned by Reaktion Books in 2018 to write a general book on Mughal painting, titled Mughal Court Painting in India. It is aimed at educated general readers and students and also has fresh material and analysis for specialists.
The book focuses on the classic period of Mughal art in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from Babur to Aurangzeb. It begins with two chapters on historical contexts, the first on Mughal networks and the second on artists, patrons and viewers. The second section of the book takes themes in Mughal art and traces their development. These include the emperor’s image, history & mythology, portraiture, landscape & nature, pleasure, ascetics & angels, madonnas & messiahs.
I still have some writing to do and quite a bit of editing, but I hope it may be published by the end of 2022.
As an art historian, what first sparked your passion for art history?
I always loved visiting the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford where I grew up. My father is an eminent medieval historian, and my mother was a classics teacher, so as a child our conversations at mealtimes were always interesting and often about art. My father had to escape Prague in 1939 at the age of three, and by chance our next-door neighbours were also emigrés from Berlin. As they had left Germany earlier in the 1930s, they had been able to bring out their art collection which included works by Cézanne, Toulouse Lautrec and Max Liebermann and these hung on the walls of their modest Oxford home. So, art was all around me. When I was young, we would visit my grandfather in Vienna, and I remember the huge paintings by Pieter Bruegel in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. They were mesmerising to a seven-year-old. I also loved Velázquez’s portrait of the Spanish Infanta Maria Teresa and envied her magnificent blue dress.
Diego Velazquez, The Spanish Infanta in a Blue Dress, 1659, 1.27 x 1.07 m, oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo: Wikimedia
What is your favourite archaeological site related to the Mughal Empire?
It seems impossible to answer that question without mentioning the Taj Mahal. To see it emerge from the pre-dawn mist and gradually turn pink and then golden with the rising sun against a blue sky is an experience one can never forget. I love how the four minarets are like giant pegs, pinning down a cloud-like building which otherwise would float ethereally to heaven!
Taj Mahal seen through Gulmohar flowers, photographed in 2007. Photo: Ursula Weekes.
I also love the whole complex of archaeological sites at Humayun’s Tomb. It is close to where we lived in Delhi and we would go there often. My favourite lesser-known part is the fascinating Arab serai to the south west of Humayun’s tomb. The main quadrangle has small rooms built into the perimeter walls for merchants and travellers. According to an architectural inscription recorded in the nineteenth century but now destroyed, it was founded by the ‘Heavenly magnifying Nawab Begum’ in 1578-9. Traditionally the serai has be