Mary Impey

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The Impey family in Calcutta, India in 1783, by Johann Zoffany. Mary's daughter, Marian Impey, is shown dancing to Indian music.
A Dwarf Flying Squirrel hanging from a Kuru Creeper, from the Impey Album, Shaikh Zayn al-Din, c. 1780, 20 7/8 in. x 29 17/32 in. (53 cm x 75 cm)

Mary Impey (2 March 1749 – 20 February 1818) was an English natural historian and patron of the arts in Bengal. The wife of Elijah Impey, the Chief Justice of Bengal, she established a menagerie in Calcutta and commissioned Indian artists to paint the various creatures.


Born Mary Reade in Oxfordshire, she was the eldest of the three children of John and Harriet Reade.[1] In 1768, at Hammersmith parish church (Fulham North Side) then just outside London, she married a thirty-six-year-old barrister, Elijah Impey, and over the next five years bore him four children. In 1773, Elijah Impey was made chief justice of Fort William in Bengal and the couple moved to India, leaving the children with their father's brother in Hammersmith. In 1775, having settled in Fort William, Impey started a collection of native birds and animals on the extensive gardens of the estate, which had formerly been that of Henry Vansittart, governor of Bengal from 1760 to 1764.


Beginning in 1777, Impey hired local artists to paint the various birds, animals and native plants, life-sized where possible, and in natural surrounds. The collection, often known as the Impey Album, is an important example of Company style painting. She also kept extensive notes about habitat and behaviour, which were of great use to later biologists such as John Latham in his work on Indian birds. The three artists who are known were Sheikh Zain al-Din, Bhavani Das, and Ram Das.[2] More than half the over 300 paintings[2] made were of birds. The collection was dispersed in an auction in 1810, and several pieces are in various museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,[2] with 3 in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London,[3] and 18 in the Radcliffe Science Library of the University of Oxford.[4] The pictures given to the Radcliffe Science Library are now on loan to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.[5] Between October 2012 and April 2013 the paintings were exhibited at the Ashmolean as part of an exhibition entitled "Lady Impey's Indian Bird Paintings".[6]


Between 1775 and 1783, Impey bore four more children, three of whom survived to return with them to England when her husband was impeached. She bore one more child back in England. Her husband died in 1809 and she died in 1818 in Newick Park, near Lewes, East Sussex, and both were buried in Hammersmith parish church.

The Himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus) was also named Impeyan pheasant, in her honour. A portrait of her made by Thomas Gainsborough sold for 2800 guineas at a Christies auction in 1904.[7] The portrait is now in Furman University.


  1. ^ John Reade (1721–1773) was the 5th Baronet of Reade.
  2. ^ a b c Ekhtiar, Maryam D., ed. (2011). Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 401. ISBN 978-1-58839-434-7.
  3. ^ "V&A collections database: Impey". Victoria and Albert Museum.
  4. ^ Cannon-Brookes
  5. ^ Harle, James C. (1987). Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum. p. 84. ISBN 9780907849520.
  6. ^ "Ashmolean − Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art. Lady Impey's Indian Bird Paintings". Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. 2013. Retrieved 2016-11-23.
  7. ^ "Prices for old masters". Edinburgh Evening News. 9 May 1904. p. 2 – via British Newspaper Archive. (Subscription required (help)).


External links[edit]

  • Exhibition of "Lady Impey’s Indian Bird Paintings" at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (until 14th Apr 2013)
  • "Memoirs of Sir Elijah Impey: Knt., First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature, at Fort William, Bengal; with Anecdotes of Warren Hastings, Sir Philip Francis, Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, Esq., and Other Contemporaries; Comp. from Authentic Documents, in Refutation of the Calumnies of the Right Hon. Thomas Babington Macaulay" (Google eBook), Simpkin, Marshall, and Company, 1846