Bevan Petman’s contribution to Pakistani art lives on decades after his death
veing at the Bevan Petman’s exhibition at Mohatta Palace Museum is like being in a hall full of mirrors. Except the surfaces do not reflect one’s features or immediate surroundings, but different faces and distant periods. Comprising of portraits of women, children and a few men, it brings out a world that is lost yet loved; admired not for its nostalgic attraction but for something more complex.
Hal Bevan Petman was a unique painter. Born in Gloucestershire, England (1894) “to parents who had a history of service in India, he was schooled at Clifton College, a private school in a wealthy suburb just outside Bristol”. After his studies at the Slade School of Art, London, he left for India in 1921, and “shuttled between Lahore, Delhi and Simla”, finally settling in Lahore in 1940. On Partition, he decided to live in Rawalpindi, where he died and was laid to rest in 1980.
The exhibition Staying On: The Art of Hal Bevan Petman is a way to honour the painter’s contribution to this country. On surface, his portraits, figures and other compositions can be described as illustrative and hence dismissed, and categorised as commissioned and subsequently considered commercial. In reality, these contain a lot more than mere depictions of the elegant, pretty and powerful people of a newly founded nation. Some of his portraits, even though they were assigned by patrons, betray his love for the people of his adopted country. Interestingly his male models and some children are in European clothes, but his female figures are clad in traditional dress of this region, mainly saris, kurtas and dupattas, added with necklaces, earrings, rings and other jewellery pieces.
As for a man hailing from the upper crest of local society, English dress is a foreign yet familiar fashion. For Petman, observing and portraying women in vernacular costumes would have been a special venture since he was an individual, both an ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ at the same time. A desi gora, he also, represented through his personality and painting an era – the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s – that has vanished from our cultural life. A world which is missed for its politeness, pleasure and plurality; characterised by the co-existence of diverse ethnicities, faiths, openness in behaviour, dress, and social activities of those who were not even part of elite.
But Petman portrayed the elite: those who were able to afford him. There could be criticism of his choice of subjects, notwithstanding that he was a society painter, ready to serve those who had the means to get themselves painted. This reminds one of Nadine Gordimer’s reply to a question about who does she write for: “Those who buy my books!”
Ijazul Hassan in Painting in Pakistan comments on him: “Petman was an extremely accomplished painter and could produce good works whenever he wanted. But, he spent most of his time doing commissions for his patrons, in a manner which they liked and deserved”.
A desi gora, he also, represented through his personality and painting an era – the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s – that has vanished from our cultural life. A world missed for its politeness, pleasure and plurality; characterised by the co-existence of diverse ethnicities.
So at the exhibition curated by Nasreen Askari and Romano Karim Yusuf, that opened in December 2019 and ends in June 2020, you come across paintings of people who are still significant, such as Saira Irshad, Samina Ibrahim, Scherry Haq, Sahabzada Yaqub Ali Khan, Amber Haroon Saigol, Pia Chinoy and several others. Faces that, borrowing a phrase from T S Eliot, “had the look of flowers that are looked at”.
In these paintings mostly of women, Petman captures the glow of skin, softness of fabric, and glittering jewellery in a few strokes. His mastery is more evident when he paints children’s portraits: his rendering is deft and his brush mark urgent, often blending tones on the surface. Whereas in depicting mature models, he appears to be careful and calculated, probably the looseness of brush stroke depends on the fact that children have no, direct, pressure on him to match them with their ideal identity. These paintings not only bring back Pakistan’s buried art history, they also rekindle the long forgotten practice of image-making — retouching a negative film at a photographer’s studio as well as colouring a black and white photograph. In that age, the photographer worked as a painter too. Thus when we come across a painter like Petman, and his bright heir Saeed Akhtar, we are not surprised if they faithfully focus on faces and features, occasionally adding on to what nature has bestowed to their models.
Petman also improved his subjects. One cannot match the model with the canvas — since the exhibition includes works from 1930 to 1980 — but one may enjoy their independent worth as works of art. This is more evident when he moves to other, less demanding, subjects such as war scenes, self-portrait, landscape and a prized horse. In the exhibition three works especially stand out, two canvases portraying soldiers from Bahawalpur with radio and truck (1950), and painting of Savim, “General Syed Shahid Hamid’s favourite horse”. In these works, Petman reveals his tremendous talent — of a keen observer and sensitive painter. Tall and dark figures of army men against a barren background and machinery are made monumental with a selected range of colours and sensitive handling of brush. Same is true for the form of a majestic horse in greenery.
One presumes these works too were commissioned but here Petman proves to be a painter of great quality, which somehow is lacking in heavy subjects such as portrait of Jinnah (1954), of Amir of Bahawalpur Sir Sadiq Mohammed Abbasi V, and Lady Oliveen Jamila Abbasi (c 1952-53), and battle scenes from 1965 and 1971. War imagery appears typical, in which the artist must have used his imagination. Similarly, his landscapes of Punjabi fields with a few folks look like a conventional depiction of a regular pastoral setting.
On the other hand, faced with a model sitting in front of him, the painter within Petman is resurrected, who loves to translate physicality into the flatness of canvas, no matter if it’s a beautiful woman, his own face, or a view of Lahore’s Badshahi Mosque — on display at the Lahore Museum). The artist seems more interested in the mirror, the eternity of paint, rather than what is reflected; because what is reproduced keeps shifting with the change of perspective — inside the studio of Hal Bevan Petman, and outside in the passage of time. But his art remains eternal.