Mary Impey and the Impeyan Pheasant

Mary Impey, born Mary Reade, was the daughter of Sir John Reade and Harriet Reade and the oldest of three children. She was born on 2 March 1749 in Oxfordshire, and, when she was nineteen, she married Sir Elijah Impey on 18 January 1768. He was a hard-working barrister, and after their marriage, the couple quietly resided in a house on Essex Street and the Strand. It was there that their four children were born.

Mary Impey by Thomas Gainsborough 1786, Public Domain

Mary Impey by Thomas Gainsborough 1786. Public domain.

Five years after their marriage, Elijah was considered “worthy of filling the new and important post of Chief Justice of Fort William, Calcutta.”[1] So, in the early part of April 1774, Elijah and Mary set sail on the “Anson” for India. Once there, to understand Indian culture, Mary became intrigued with the country’s flora and fauna and soon immersed herself in India’s natural history. Similar to the curiosity expressed by Governor-General Warren Hastings about India’s wildlife, Mary and Elijah’s curiosity was ignited and they established a private menagerie and aviary on their estate and filled them with unique animals and rare birds.

Mary Impey and Her Family in Calcutta

Impey family in Calcutta. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The animals became the impetus for Mary Impey to commission Mughal-trained artists to recreate the animals and birds housed there. As early as 1777, three artists — Ram Das, Bhawani Das, and Patna-born Shaikh Zain u-Din, who was and the most prolific of three — created awe-inspiring large-scale artworks. The artists drew plants, reptiles, and fish, but the majority of the artworks they created were birds. Delicate paintings include the Adjutant Stork, Common Crane, Demoiselle Crane, Great Flamingo, Sarus Crane, and Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo.

Impeyan Pheasant, Public Domain

Impeyan Pheasant. Public domain.

When the Impey’s returned to England, Mary Impey took with them over three hundred artworks, with more than half being paintings of birds. What distinguishes these paintings from others was the artists’ abilities to adapt the scale of the bird or animal to fit the Whatman paper available in India. In fact, some of the paintings contain the measurements of the species they depict.

One bird in the pheasant family introduced in the early 1800s by the Impey’s to England was named in Mary’s honor. It was known as the Impeyan Monal or Impeyan Pheasant but in India at the time it was called the “Bird of Gold.” Today it is known as the Himalayan Monal. This large bird — approximately 70 centimeters (27.5 inches) long with males weighing up to 2380 grams (5.2 lbs.) and females weighing 2150 (4.7 lbs.) — is the national bird of Nepal. One early twentieth century nature magazine described it stating:

“The Impeyan Pheasant … is noted for the wonderful color and metallic iridescence of the male’s plumage … The metallic luster of its plumage is so very marked that some authorities have been led to give this bird the specific name resplendens [sic] … while that of the female is much more sober.”[2]

Impeyan Pheasant, Public Domain

Impeyan Pheasant. Public domain.

Males of the species have ornamental green crests and their feathers have metallic hues of green, blue, violet, and bronze, along with a white rump that is particularly noticeably when in flight. Male tail feathers are also darker whereas female feathers are white and barred with red and black. Additionally, females have a noticeable white patch on their throat and a white strip on their tail.

One unfortunate incident marked the Impey’s residence in India. In 1775, Elijah presided over the trial of Maharaja Nandakumar, a man accused of forging a bond in an attempt to deprive a widow of more than half her inheritance. It was a contentious trial, and Nandakumar, also known as Nuncomar, brought accusations of peculation against Elijah and the Bengal governor-general Warren Hastings (who is also thought to be the father of Eliza de Feuillide). Nandakumar was ultimately found guilty of the crime and hung in 1775, but, in 1787, Elijah became subject to impeachment in the House of Commons. He was accused by Thomas Babington Macaulay, a British historian and Whig politician, of conspiring with Hastings to commit an unjust judicial murder by hanging Nandakumar.

It was a long drawn out trial and the investigation lasted years. Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, an English lawyer, judge and writer, thoroughly examined the issue and declared that “no man ever had, or could have, a fairer trial than Nuncomar, and that [Elijah] in particular behaved with absolute fairness and as much indulgence as was compatible with his duty.”[3] Elijah’s own son noted, “my father’s impeachment and ruin had been attempted upon no higher or purer motives, than those of personal malignity, and party rancour.”[4] However, despite Elijah’s innocence, the damage was done and it forever cast a stain upon the Impey name.

Elijah died in 1809 and Mary Impey survived him by nearly nine years, dying in 1818. After her death she was buried in the family vault next to her husband in Hammersmith. Soon after Mary’s death her children also erected a tablet in her memory with the following inscription:

“In the same vault, and close to his beloved remains, are deposited those of DAME MARY IMPEY, widow and relict of Sir Elijah Impey, Knt. To him she was a most faithful and affectionate wife, to their joint and numerous issues the tenderest of mothers. Pious to God, and benevolent to mankind, in reverence for religion, in diffusion of charity, in meekness of spirit, in singleness of heart, she lived and died a true Christian. Born on the 2nd of March, 1749, deceased on the 20th of February, 1818.”[5]

Unfortunately, the old church at Hammersmith was demolished in 1887 and all trace of the Impey vault lost. But the Impey name will never be forgotten because of the amazing artworks produced and because of the colorful Impeyan Pheasant named after Mary Impey.

Impeyan Pheasant, Public Domain

Impeyan Pheasant. Public domain.

References:

  • [1] Impey, Elijah Barwell, Memoirs of Sir Elijak Impey, 1846, p. 13.
  • [2] Birds & Nature Magazine, Vol. 13, 1903, p. 213.
  • [3] Buckingham, James Silk, The Athenaeum, 1885, p. 40.
  • [4] Impey, Elijah Barwell, p. vii.
  • [5] Lawson, Sir Charles Allen, etal., The Private Life of Warren Hastings, 1895, p. 198.

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