Struck by a Duck

Yesterday I went into the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to look for something that proved to be less interesting than I'd expected. But as I wandered into the Mughal India section I saw this duck painting across the room, and had to take a closer look.


It's one of several bird paintings by a Mughal artist called Shaikh Zain ud-Din, who apparently lived in Calcutta in the 1780s. He was commissioned by Lady Mary Impey, who moved to Bengal with her husband Elijah when he became a Chief Justice there. Interested in natural history, she appointed artists to paint various creatures, including those in her own menagerie.


In the Ashmolean, this Male Nukta or Comb Duck is one of four paintings by Shaik Zain ud-Din, who is described there as the most gifted of the artists employed by Lady Impey. All four are engaging and endearing, but it was the duck that caught and held my attention.


This reproduction really doesn't do it justice, though you can see the realism of the pose, the heavy tread of webbed feet and the intent gaze on (probably) something interesting to eat. The original - gouache on paper - shows the texture and iridescence of the plumage, the plump featheriness, the purposeful, busy duckishness. Almost you can feel what it would be like to stroke those back feathers and feel their firm springiness, or to pick the bird up and feel its weight and the sway of its neck as it turns to look at you.


I like the thought of Shaikh Zain ud-Din watching this duck so closely, observing its behaviour, and focusing closely on his painting. His nose must have been positioned precisely where mine was as I looked. He must have worked and paused and stood back to assess, wondering if he had captured the essence of this duck, and surely - justifiably - he felt pleased that he had. There must have been a moment when he put down his brush and thought, "Yes, that's it. Got it." Maybe he was anxious that his patron should approve, and surely she did. And also there's the duck itself - this duck that lived and pecked and bred and died almost two hundred and fifty years ago, full of life and presence in an Oxford museum today. That freshness of vision has survived into the twenty-first century.  


It's the week of the Manchester bombings. (This week, too, with far less press coverage, eleven refugees drowned in the Aegean Sea.) In response an acquaintance posted this Tennessee Williams quotation on Facebook, and it was widely shared:


"The world is violent and mercurial - it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love - love for each other and the love we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love."


Those words were in my mind as I looked at Shaikh Zain ud-Din's characterful duck. Art and love. The giving of devoted attention, which is perhaps what love is. Art, love and lives that have somehow reached across the centuries and across continents.