When I went to India, I came back with a couple of silk rugs and my most treasured collection of Ganesha statues. Shame I didn’t know any Maharajas, as I might have returned with some souvenirs the likes of which you have never seen. That is, until now. In a new exhibition, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, is parading some magnificent pieces of Indian craftsmanship seen for the first time in 130 years: Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India 1875–6. If an exhibition were a peacock feather, this would be it. This bling is rare, dazzling, and sublimely splendid.
Queen Victoria sent her son, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII, on a four-month tour of the subcontinent in 1875. Two-thirds of India was then controlled by the British Raj, and one-third was ruled by locals. Albert Edward “Bertie” exchanged gifts with over 90 of these Indian rulers, covering 10,000 miles by ship, rail and elephant and returning to England with a spectacular collection of some 2000 pieces.
He recognised the significance of these gifts, arranging for the objects to head straight into the Victoria and Albert Museum (then known as the South Kensington Museum). This was followed by exhibitions in Paris, Copenhagen and across the UK. Between 1876 and 1883 more than 2.5 million people in Britain saw the collection. The popularity of Indian craftmanship as a result of these exhibitions encouraged British firms to manufacture Indian objects. Shops such as Liberty of London would start selling Indian wares.
The Prince’s first stop was Bombay where he met with the crew that would join him on his four-month trek. These included the Times journalist William Howard Russell, who diarised, and artist Sydney Prior Hall who painted and sketched the illustrious tour.
This exquisite peacock barge inkstand was presented to the Prince by the Maharaja of Benares. It’s studded in diamonds, pearls, sapphires and rubies. The inkstand was modelled on one of the Maharaja’s barges used for touring the Prince, and it consists of 19 separate components. Russell would describe the barge trip as “passing through banks of gold.”
Many of the gifts received by the Prince of Wales were meant to showcase courtly customs in the Indian court. The peacock feather fans (left and right) played an important role in the Durbar (audience) custom at court. He who was being fanned was the most important person in the room. The ivory “sticks” were used by court bouncers to accept or reject those who sought an audience with the ruler.
Who needs a Fabergé egg when you can have this enamelled gold and diamond perfume holder, presented by Ram Singh II, Maharaja of Jaipur? This little beauty was five years in the making. It is decorated with Jaipur’s great palaces.
The bracelet at the centre of this impressive jewellery collection was a gift purchased by the Prince for his mother from a “boxwallah” peddler. It is believed he bartered for the present.
Adjacent to the Gifts exhibition is Splendours of the Subcontinent: Four Centuries of South Asian Paintings and Manuscripts, with over 150 pieces from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, The majority of these works are on public display for the first time.
One of a series of watercolours and gold paint depicting the dashavatara (circa 1800). These illustrated Hindu devotion to the god Vishnu and his ten earthly incarnations, or avatars.
Queen Victoria took a great interest in South Asian culture, acquiring many books and manuscripts. She would go on to study Hindustani with her secretary, Abdul Karim, when she was in her seventies.
The Millar Learning Room
Make sure you pop in to the Millar Learning Room with the kids. The room has been designed by British contemporary artists, the Singh Twins, and is dressed to impress young minds for the duration of the exhibition.
Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India 1875–6 and Splendours of the Subcontinent: Four Centuries of South Asian Paintings and Manuscripts are on at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace from 8 June to 14 October 2018.
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