Unfinished Business: Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon

According to the British Library in their recent exhibition Unfinished Business, the first woman to receive a Cambridge University degree was the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1948. The degree was an honorary award presented to Queen Elizabeth, as she was then, to mark the equal academic status for men and women. Unlike the women, for example, the Edinburgh Seven, who campaigned for this right, it appears she did very little to merit the award except being the most important woman in England. Yet, looking at her history, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon played a significant role as the wife of a king, followed by the mother of a queen. When she married into the royal family, she did not anticipate becoming a queen, but the actions of others changed the direction of her future. 

Portrait by Richard Stone, 1986

Born Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon on the 4th August 1900, Elizabeth was the ninth of ten children for Lord Glamis, Claude Bowes-Lyon (1855-1944) and Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck (1862-1938). The family belonged to the British nobility and, through her mother, Elizabeth’s family tree connected with Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), a former prime minister and leading political figure.

Elizabeth spent most of her childhood at either St Paul’s Walden, a village in Hertfordshire, and Glamis Castle in Scotland. Until the age of eight, a governess took charge of her education, after which she attended a school in London. At 13, Elizabeth passed the Oxford Local Examination with distinction. The outbreak of World War One, which Britain declared on her 14th birthday, hindered further education.

Despite being nobility, Elizabeth and her family did not hide from the horrors of war. Several of her brothers enlisted to fight, resulting in the death of Fergus (1889-1915), the eldest, during the Battle of Loos. Another brother, Michael, went missing in 1917, later to be found in a prisoner of war camp. Back home, Glamis Castle became a convalescent home for the wounded, which Elizabeth helped run. The soldiers loved her care and attention with one saying she ought to be “Hung, drawn, & quartered … Hung in diamonds, drawn in a coach and four, and quartered in the best house in the land.”

George VI in the uniform of a field marshal

As a British peer, Elizabeth’s father had close relations with the Royal Family. The Bowes-Lyon family frequented events attended by the King and his family. During some such event, the Duke of York, Prince Albert “Bertie” (1895-1952), the second son of George V (1865-1936) fell in love with the young Elizabeth and proposed marriage in 1921. Afraid such a relationship would result in “never, never again to be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to”, Elizabeth declined.

Bertie declared he would marry no other woman, which intrigued his mother, Queen Mary (1867-1953), who immediately visited Glamis Castle to see “the one girl who could make Bertie happy”. Mary approved of her son’s choice but did not deign to intervene since Elizabeth had found another man. For a brief time, Elizabeth courted James Stuart (1897-1971), the future Scottish politician, until he moved away for work.

In 1922, Albert’s sister, Princess Mary (1897-1965), asked Elizabeth to be one of her bridesmaids. The wedding prompted Albert to ask Elizabeth a second time if she would marry him. Again, Elizabeth said no. Undeterred, on 23rd January 1923, Albert drove to St Paul’s Warden, where Elizabeth was staying, to propose to Elizabeth for the third time. On this occasion, she said yes. They married at Westminster Abbey on 26th April 1923, where Elizabeth started the tradition of laying a bouquet on the grave of the unknown warrior. She did this in memory of her brother Fergus, whose body went missing after the Great War.

Portrait by Philip de László, 1925

Traditionally, princes were only allowed to marry princesses, but the royal family agreed the rule was outdated. Although Albert was not the heir to the throne, Elizabeth gained the titles “Her Royal Highness” and “Duchess of York” during the wedding ceremony. Following their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey in Surrey, Elizabeth and Albert visited Northern Ireland, before embarking on a tour of Africa in 1924. They toured the countries belonging to the British Empire but avoided Egypt following the assassination of the Governor-General.

In 1926, Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, also named Elizabeth. The family nicknamed the child Lilibet to differentiate her from her mother, who doted upon her. The following year, royal duties separated mother and child, which Elizabeth found “very miserable”. Prince Albert and Elizabeth needed to make a trip to Canberra, Australia to officially open Parliament House. The journey, which can now be completed by plane in 22 hours, took much longer by sea, stopping in Jamaica and Panama along the way. They also spent time in New Zealand before arriving at their destination for the opening ceremony on 9th May 1927.

Elizabeth in Queensland, 1927

After the ceremony, the royal couple spent time in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. During this time, they met many officials and members of the general public, many of whom they greeted with handshakes. On one day, Prince Albert met with over 2,000 Australian troops. After completing the successful trip, Elizabeth was glad to return home, albeit via Mauritius, Malta and Gibraltar. She loved to spend time with her daughter and on 21st August 1930, welcomed her second, Margaret Rose (1930-2002).

On 20th January 1936, George V passed away, making Albert’s eldest brother King Edward VIII (1894-1972). Since Edward had no wife or children, Albert became the next in line for the throne. Secretly, his father had prayed “that my eldest son will never marry and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.” It is not sure why the previous king said this, but he soon got his wish.

Within months of his father’s death, Edward announced his plans to marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson (1869-1986). As King, Edward had the right to choose who to marry, but Simpson had only recently divorced her first husband. The King of the United Kingdom was also the head of the Church of England, which banned divorcees from remarrying. Edward had a choice: abandon his marriage plans or abdicate in favour of Albert. He chose the latter.

Portrait by Sir Gerald Kelly.

Since birth, Edward had received an education suitable for the heir to the throne, but Albert had received no such training. With great reluctance, he took his place as King on 11th December 1936, using the regnal name of George VI. The coronation took place the following year on 12th May 1937, where George and Elizabeth were crowned King and Queen of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions. They also took on the titles of Emperor and Empress of India.

Albert and Elizabeth never planned to be the rulers of the United Kingdom. They did not have long to get used to the idea before embracing the role. As Queen consort, people expected Elizabeth to attend state visits and royal tours with her husband, including a trip to France in 1938 and Canada in 1939. During the latter visit, they also met with President Roosevelt (1882-1945) of the USA whose wife described Elizabeth as “perfect as a Queen, gracious, informed, saying the right thing & kind but a little self-consciously regal”.

The outbreak of the Second World War brought an end to their travels, but the royals did not shy away from public life. Elizabeth sponsored fifty authors to produce The Queen’s Book of the Red Cross, which helped raise money for the Red Cross. Authors included T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), A. A. Milne (1882-1956), Daphne du Maurier (1907-89), and Georgette Heyer (1902-74). 

Parliament advised Elizabeth to move away from London and send her children to Canada, but she refused. “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.” Instead, she visited the hospitals, bombsites and factories involved with the war. Initially, the crowds acted hostile towards the Queen because her expensive clothing alienated her from the suffering people. After Buckingham Palace suffered bomb damage during the Blitz, Elizabeth expressed that she felt “glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”

Whilst Princess Elizabeth and Margaret did not evacuate to Canada, they moved to Windsor Castle on the west side of London. Although they avoided the direct hits Buckingham Palace received in the capital, the castle’s windows shattered during bomb raids. King George and Elizabeth joined their children every evening, but they spent their days working from Buckingham Palace. Allegedly, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) considered Elizabeth “the most dangerous woman in Europe” due to her popularity and war work.

Southern Rhodesian stamp celebrating the 1947 royal tour of Southern Africa

After the war, royal life resumed for George and Elizabeth, beginning with a tour of South Africa in 1947. In 1948, the same year Elizabeth received an honorary Cambridge University degree, the couple planned to return to Australia and New Zealand, but the King became unwell. An operation helped improve the circulation in George’s right leg, but he remained unable to conduct the majority of his engagements. Elizabeth and her daughters attended many events on her husband’s behalf, but everyone hoped he would soon return to full health.

In 1951, George received a diagnosis of lung cancer. This put pressure on his wife and children who the public expected to fill his role whilst he underwent treatment. While he recuperated from a lung operation, his eldest daughter and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (b.1921), went on the royal tour of Australia and New Zealand in his place. The Prince and Princess set off in 1952, taking a detour through Africa. While they were in Kenya, Princess Elizabeth learned that her father had passed away in his sleep on 6th February 1952, making her Queen.

As a widow, Elizabeth gained the title Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, which many shortened to the “Queen Mother”. Devastated about the loss of her husband, Elizabeth retired to Scotland where she hid from the public. There she planned to stay, but the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965), convinced her to return to London and resume her public duties. To combat her grief, Elizabeth threw herself into the role of Queen Mother. She focused on helping with the preparations for her daughter’s coronation on 2nd June 1953. Later that year, Elizabeth visited the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland with her youngest daughter, where she lay the foundation stone of the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now the University of Zimbabwe). After this, she returned home to act as a Counsellor of State while the Queen toured the Commonwealth. Elizabeth also spent time looking after her grandchildren, Charles (b.1948) and Anne (b.1950).

Richard Stanley “Dick” Francis CBE

Elizabeth found she had just as many duties as Queen Mother than she did as Queen Consort, but she managed to find time to enjoy herself too. Elizabeth had an interest in horse racing and owned several racehorses. Between them, the horses won over 500 steeplechases. One of her most famous horses, Devon Loch, just lost out on first place at the 1956 Grand National with the jockey Dick Francis (1920-2010) when it collapsed before finishing the race. When Francis experienced another fall the next year, Elizabeth suggested that he retire.

After George VI passed away, Elizabeth and her daughter Margaret moved to Clarence House on The Mall in London. The house was designed by neoclassical architect John Nash (1752-1835) for William IV (1765-1837) and has remained a British royal residence ever since. Elizabeth frequently liked to go to Scotland in the summer, so purchased and oversaw the restoration of the Castle of Mey in Caithness. Officers used the castle as a rest home during the Second World War, but by the 1950s it had fallen into disrepair. Elizabeth paid for the restoration and decorated the rooms with paintings. As a keen art collector, Elizabeth purchased works by Claude Monet (1840-1926), Fabergé (1846-1920), and other artists from a similar era.

Royal tours continued to fill Elizabeth’s diary, but during the 1960s, many of these were postponed. In 1964, an emergency operation to remove her appendix delayed her trip to New Zealand, Australia and Fiji for two years. In 1966, she underwent more surgery after receiving a diagnosis of colon cancer. The operation was a success and Elizabeth continued her royal duties. In 1975, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-80) invited her to Iran, where she enjoyed speaking to everyone regardless of their social status, which bemused the Iranians. Between 1976 and 1984, Elizabeth made annual trips to France until another operation, this time for breast cancer, forced her to rest.

Elizabeth at Dover Castle

The public did not learn of the Queen Mother’s cancer scares until after her death, but they were aware of several fishbone incidents. In 1982, Elizabeth needed an emergency operation to remove a fishbone from her throat. She made a joke about it at the time, saying “the salmon have got their own back,” for she was a keen angler. The incident occurred again in 1986, although she avoided an operation, and once more in 1993.

On 4th August 1990, Elizabeth celebrated her 90th birthday. Much loved by the United Kingdom, they held a parade in her honour. Several organisations came together to put on the display, 300 of which she supported as a patron. Although she wished to remain active in the royal family, her ageing body made it hard to do as much as she did when younger. In 1995, Elizabeth needed a cataract operation and a hip replacement. Only her right hip was replaced on this occasion, but in 1998 she broke her left one during a fall.

In 2000, Elizabeth became one of the 0.02% to reach the age of 100. The country honoured her with another parade, far greater than the one for her 90th birthday. Rose petals dropped from the sky, 100 doves flew overhead, and the Red Arrows saluted her with red, white and blue smoke. Over 8000 people took part during the day, including Elizabeth’s favourite actor, Norman Wisdom (1915-2010).

“It’s been a wonderful evening, God bless you all and thank you.” Elizabeth showed her appreciation to the crowds at the end of the day with a short speech, but that was not the end of the centenary celebrations.

The Royal Bank of Scotland released commemorative £20 notes featuring Elizabeth’s image in honour of her 100th birthday. She was also guest of honour at a lunch held by the Guildhall, London. Jokes about Elizabeth enjoying her drink stem from this event. When George Carey (b.1935), the Archbishop of Canterbury picked up her wine glass instead of his own, Elizabeth shouted: “That’s mine!” Unfortunately, her centenary year ended with a broken collar bone after a fall in November.

Shortly before her 101st birthday, Elizabeth needed a blood transfusion for anaemia but insisted on greeting the crowds of well-wishers in person. She continued to partake in public engagements, including Remembrance Day and a reception at the Guildhall. Once again, she spent the winter recuperating from a fall, in which she broke her pelvis.

On 9th February 2002, Elizabeth’s youngest daughter Margaret suffered a fatal stroke. A few days later, the Queen Mother accidentally cut her arm while staying at Sandringham in Norfolk, which needed medical attention. Professionals advised her to stay home and rest, but she insisted on attending her daughter’s funeral. Elizabeth made the journey to London by helicopter and then in a car with blacked-out windows so that no one could see her in her frail state.

Elizabeth’s health deteriorated rapidly after Margaret’s death, so she retreated to the Royal Lodge, Windsor Great Park. She passed away in her sleep on 30th March 2002 with her surviving daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, by her side. The funeral took place on 9th April, and one million people filled the 23-mile route from Westminster to Windsor to watch the procession of the coffin, adorned with camellias from Elizabeth’s garden. As she had requested, the funeral wreath was laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, echoing the tradition she began on her wedding day. After the funeral, Elizabeth joined her husband and Margaret in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Mourning for the Queen Mother took place all over the world. She had made a big impression in all the countries she visited, particularly Canada and Australia, where memorial services were conducted. Elizabeth’s life may have vastly differed from the other women mentioned in the Unfinished Business exhibition, but her life was by no means easy. She never wanted to be part of the royal family, and she never expected to become Queen consort. Yet, these things happened, and she became the nation’s most popular member of the royal family. People loved Elizabeth for her charm and ability to stabilise the popularity of the monarchy, which had been shaky for centuries.

Elizabeth was like “a wave breaking on a rock, because although she is sweet and pretty and charming, she also has a basic streak of toughness and tenacity. … when a wave breaks on a rock, it showers and sparkles with a brilliant play of foam and droplets in the sun, yet beneath is really hard, tough rock, fused, in her case, from strong principles, physical courage and a sense of duty.”

Sir Hugh Casson

When Elizabeth married Albert, she expected she would “never, never again be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to.” In this, she was correct, but her biographers note she often expressed her views in private. Elizabeth “abhorred racial discrimination” and employed homosexuals to spite conservative ministers in the 1970s who advised her against it.

Bronze statue of Elizabeth on The Mall, London, overlooked by the statue of her husband King George VI

Despite her sweet nature, Elizabeth gained a reputation for her love of alcohol. Journalists estimated she drank 70 units per week and Elizabeth became the butt of jokes, although in a kind way. In satirical television shows, actresses often portrayed the Queen Mother as a perpetually tipsy character. Many well-known stars have played the part of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon on screen, most notably Helena Bonham-Carter (b.1966) in The King’s Speech (2010).

In 2009, a bronze statue of Elizabeth by Scottish sculptor Philip Jackson (b.1944) joined her husband’s memorial on The Mall. There is also a bas-relief of the couple in Toronto, Canada, at the entrance to the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) highway.

Many may envy the life of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who lived in relative comfort for over 100 years. Wealth and happiness often appear to go hand in hand, but a royal life is not always what it seems from the outside. Elizabeth had health problems that resulted in several operations, which is no different from many people in the United Kingdom. Whilst she had money, servants and luxuries, Elizabeth lived her life under public scrutiny. By marrying a prince, she needed to be mindful of the things she said. When Albert unexpectedly became King, Elizabeth’s duties doubled in number. Elizabeth had to think about how she looked at all times, adopting suitable facial expressions and demeanours every moment of the day.

Living for 100 years meant Elizabeth endured an untold amount of grief. She outlived both her husband and her youngest daughter. She experienced the loss of her nine siblings, some in war and some in old age, plus her parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and her husband’s family. At her death, only her sister-in-law, Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester (1901-2004) remained, who passed away age 102 a couple of years later.

As Queen Consort and Queen Mother, Elizabeth assisted and supported many organisations. As a patron, she provided funds to help them grow into or remain the successful companies they are today. Organisations include the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, the Marie Curie Memorial Foundation, the Scottish National Institution for the War Blinded and the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Thus it hath pleased Almighty God to take out of this transitory life unto His Divine Mercy the late Most High, Most Mighty and Most Excellent Princess Elizabeth, Queen Dowager and Queen Mother, Lady of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Lady of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Lady of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India, Grand Master and Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order upon whom had been conferred the Royal Victorian Chain, Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Dame Grand Cross of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, Relict of His Majesty King George the Sixth and Mother of Her Most Excellent Majesty Elizabeth The Second by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, whom may God preserve and bless with long life, health and honour and all worldly happiness.

The Styles and Titles of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth as read at her funeral on Tuesday 9th April 2002, Westminster Abbey

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur
Mary Wollstonecraft
Sylvia Pankhurst


If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Splendours of the Subcontinent

For over 400 years, Britain has had connections with the Indian subcontinent, beginning with the East India Company in 1600. After the trading company was dissolved in 1858, two-thirds of the subcontinent became part of the British Raj, a union of the London India Office, the British Indian Government and Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Through this connection, Britain became the owners of many Indian works of art, paintings and manuscripts, which are still part of the Royal Collection today.

Some of the manuscripts and artworks were given as diplomatic gifts to the British Sovereign, whereas, others were given to individual British officers visiting the subcontinent. Queen Victoria was the recipient of many of these offerings, as was King George V (1865-1936) in the 20th century.

Recently, the Royal Collection showed off the brilliance of its Indian collection of art in an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Splendours of the Subcontinent introduced the public to past relations with the Indian subcontinent and the style of art unique to Asia. Split into two halves, the exhibition examines Four Centuries of South Asian Paintings and Manuscripts and explores A Prince’s Tour of India. The latter reveals the diplomatic tour Queen Victoria’s eldest son took around the subcontinent, covering 21 regions and culminating in hundreds of artworks.

 

A PRINCE’S TOUR OF INDIA 1875-6

On 8th November 1875, Albert Edward (1841-1910), the Prince of Wales – later Edward VII – arrived in Bombay, starting off his four-month tour of the subcontinent. Travelling by boat, rail, or even elephant, the Prince visited over 90 Indian rulers or maharajas, presenting them with British jewellery, books and gifts and receiving local gifts of art in return.

628671-1472571731

Peacock barge inkstand 1870-76

The first object in the exhibition is an impressive peacock barge inkstand made of gold and decorated with rubies, sapphires, diamonds and pearls. This was given to Prince Albert as a memento of his trip down the River Ganges on one of the state barges that it replicates. Complete with oars, an anchor, flagpole and mast, the stand separates into nineteen pieces, revealing two inkwells, a pair of scissors, a penknife and two pen nibs.

The prow of the barge represents the state bird of India, the Indian peafowl or peacock, with its tail spread and inlaid with sapphires and diamonds.  On the opposite side, the stern takes the form of the head of a Makara, a dragon-like mythological creature associated with Hinduism. Birds and flowers decorate the deck and the mast is engraved with a dedication to the Prince of Wales, making it a personalised gift from Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh (1855-1931), the Maharaja of Benares.

Most of the gifts that Prince Albert received had been carefully thought out by the Indian rulers to ensure that they showed off the range of techniques and skills of their craftsmen as well as reflect the regions he visited. They expressed the culture and customs of the Indian population, which was becoming popular amongst Europeans at the time, since the 1851 Great Exhibition in London where Indian artwork was greatly admired.

A typical gift for royalty at the time was weaponry, particularly ceremonial swords and daggers. Presented by Ali Murad Khan I Talpur, Amir of Khairpur, Prince Albert received a foot-long sword made of fine watered crucible steel. This material gives the blade a unique rippled water-like pattern typical of bladesmiths in Iran, where it was most likely produced. The hilt, however, is more European in style and may even have been welded by a European metalworker. The hilt was engraved with a leaf-like pattern, decorated with diamonds, rubies and pearls, and finished off with a silk tassel that remarkably still remains attached to the pommel after 150 years. The scabbard is wooden, covered in deep-blue velvet with golden mounts and jewels arranged to look like flowers.

Royal CollectionThe Prince received a large number of swords, daggers and knives from all over the Indian subcontinent. This was probably of no surprise to him since he would also have been presenting gifts of this nature to the rulers he met. There were, however, a few more unusual presents.

Whilst in Jaipur, Prince Albert was presented with a silver astrolabe inscribed with the coordinates for Greenwich, the British centre of time-keeping. An astrolabe is a scientific instrument that can identify stars and planets as well as be used to navigate.

The significance of this gift was its connection to the city of Jaipur. Although astrolabes had been introduced to South Asia as early as the 14th century, it was during the reign of Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur (1688–1743) that the instrument became highly valued. The Maharaja was a keen astronomer, which led to the development of five observatories, one situated in Jaipur itself.

An intriguing gift, one that must have appealed to any children visiting the exhibition, was a set of eleven brass military figures. The Prince is thought to have received them whilst visiting Madras during the second month of his tour. They were originally part of a much larger set commissioned by the Raja of Peddapuram, Timma Razu (d.1796) but, after his death, the figures were separated, with many ending up in personal collections in both India and Britain. The figures reveal the many people and animals that made up the Indian military.

The majority of gifts the Prince received contained a remarkable amount of jewels and gemstones. In order to magnify their beauty, Indian craftsmen backed the stones with reflective foil, which enhanced their colour. The framework of the items was generally gold, either 22 or 24 carats. This showed the wealth and opulence of the rulers at the time.

Prince Albert received a lot of jewellery on his trip, however, the item the Royal Collection focused on was a piece he bought himself. Purchased from a peddler or boxwallah in Trichinopoly, the Prince of Wales presented his mother, Queen Victoria with a gold bangle on 24th May 1876 for her 57th birthday. “I received a number of lovely things. Arthur gave me a charming old Spanish fan from Seville & Bertie 2 beautiful Indian bracelets from Trinchinopoli & Jeypore.” [sic] (Queen Victoria’s journal)

The bangle looks rather large and heavy, made from gold and fashioned to look like the heads of several Makara (dragons). The two largest heads have been given rubies for eyes and a ruby-topped screw holds the hinged bracelet together. It is similar in style to that of Rococo, which had been introduced to Europe during the 18th century.

Many of the gifts, including jewellery, were purpose-made presents to welcome the Prince of Wales to India. One example is a red glass scallop-edged brooch decorated with a gold portrait of the Prince and Princess of Wales. This was presented to the future king by Ranjit Singh, Raja of Ratlam, along with a matching necklace.

Other presents the Prince brought home with him included a number of ornate address cases – boxes or pouches to keep the written welcome address he received at each location. Another box he was presented with was a small opium box, a traditional item in central India where the drug was harvested. The golden design was produced in a similar manner to the brooch received in Ratlam, however, this time it depicted Krishna, one of the Hindu gods.

Prince Albert departed from India on 13th March 1876, loaded down with the hundreds of gifts he had received. Knowing they were of extraordinary quality and design, he felt it right that the objects should be admired by the British public. Shortly after his return, the gifts went on display at the Indian Museum in South Kensington (now part of the Victoria and Albert Museum) where they were viewed by 30,000 in the first week. It is estimated that a total of 2.5 million people saw the gifts in Britain, with thousands more seeing them on tour in Copenhagen and Paris. The funds raised from the exhibitions were used to aid the construction of Aberdeen Art Gallery in Scotland.

FOUR CENTURIES OF SOUTH ASIAN PAINTINGS AND MANUSCRIPTS

Whereas the former half of the exhibition focused on objects accumulated in a four-month period, the second section spanned 400 years. Through the works of art collected by the British and Royal Family, a story about the relations with the subcontinent can be pieced together. The subcontinent, or South Asia, encompasses the area of five modern-day countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, however, at the time, it was usually referred to as India.

Many of the South Asian paintings and manuscripts in the Royal Collection date from the seventeenth century when the Mughals, a Muslim, Persian-speaking dynasty, were an Empire richer and stronger than any in Europe and ruled over the majority of the Indian subcontinent. Throughout their reign, they had contact with British monarchs, including Elizabeth I and Charles I but their Golden Age would not last forever.

Royal Collection Trust

The Public Reception of John Low (1788-1880) by Nasir-ud-Din Haidar, King of Oudh, 4 March 1834

The last Mughal emperor, Alamgir II died in 1707, sparking wars of succession and foreign invasion. At the same time, Britain’s East India Company was gaining fortune and strength, and, in 1765, the Empire surrendered the region of Bengal to the company. From here on, it was not long before the trading company’s power spread throughout South Asia.

One of the first artworks in this half of the exhibition was an oil painting by A Dufay de Casanova (active 1829-37) of the King of Awah on an elephant near the banks of the Gumti River on his way to meet East India Company Resident, Colonel John Low (1788–1880). Although this was not an artwork produced by natives of South Asia, it helps to put into context the events that tied Britain with India.

The manuscripts acquired from the Mughal Empire were all written by hand and many were also illuminated with delicate paintings. The majority were written in Persian, therefore, read from right to left as opposed to European books. The Royal Collection displayed manuscripts that contained lyrical poetry, many by the poet Hafiz of Shiraz (1325-90). These were written with the intention of being sung and were often performed in Mughal courts.

Illuminations or illustrations were produced with brush and ink on discoloured paper, for example, the miniature of a chameleon on a branch by Ustad Mansur (active c. 1600-20), the leading animal painter in one of the Mughal courts. The image is scientifically precise and, although small, is full of intricate detail, such as the minute scales along the body.

Interestingly, on display were artworks that resembled typical religious paintings from Europe. At times, the Quran and the Bible merge together, featuring the same characters but with slightly varying stories. Take, for example, the quote, “And also We made the son of Mary and his mother a sign to mankind, and gave them a shelter on a peaceful hillside watered by a fresh spring.” (Quran 23:50) Mary and Jesus are important in the Christian world as well as in Islam, therefore, it is unsurprising to see them in Islamic art. What is unexpected, however, is the artists’ decisions to copy western artworks, for instance, the reinterpretation by a Mughal artist of Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) engraving of the Virgin and Child (Madonna by the Tree, 1513). Unfortunately, the gallery did little to shed light on the artists’ intentions.

During the Georgian era, the British royal family received many letters and manuscripts from the Indian subcontinent. One of these was the impressive chronicle Padshahnama or Book of Emperors, which had been produced around 1656. Commissioned by the fifth Mughal emperor Shah-Jahan (1591-1666), the book is a propagandist celebration of his dynasty, with the objective of emphasising his politics and ideologies.

As those who were lucky enough to be at the gallery at the appointed time for the talk about the Padshahnama will know, the manuscript was once bound together as a book, only taken apart 25 years ago for conservation purposes. This made displaying individual sheets much easier in this exhibition because they could be framed and placed at eye level around the room.

Containing 44 illustrations in total, the Book of Emperors was completed by fourteen different court painters, however, the South Asian style of painting is consistent throughout. Each painting reveals a significant event during the reign of Emperor Shah-Jahan, for example, his coronation and his involvement with a lion hunt conducted on elephant-back.

It is almost impossible to remember everything that was displayed at the Queen’s Gallery exhibition due to the sheer size of the collection of work from the Indian subcontinent. Some objects and artworks stick in the mind more than others, for instance, the Miniature Holy Quran scroll that unravels to reveal all 114 chapters on the thin, narrow surface. This is thought to have been a gift to George IV in 1828 from Nawab of the Carnatic.

Other artworks include books, photographs, paintings and more manuscripts, particularly ones that focus on the Hindu religion that was and is so predominant in India. These tell various stories involving the many gods worshipped in Hinduism, for example, the avatars of Vishnu in the epic text Bhagavata Purana.

It is easy to forget the relations with Southern Asia that the British had in the past. When imagining works in the Royal Collection, people think of paintings of Kings and Queens or famous artworks purchased throughout Europe. The amount of art from South Asia is absolutely phenomenal and opens up a whole new world with foreign customs and beliefs.

Splendours of the Subcontinent allowed visitors to see into the lives of other people whose traditions seem exotic and fascinating in comparison to our daily experiences. This groundbreaking exhibition revealed a different part of British history as well as the history of India and their style and method of craftsmanship.

Although the exhibition has come to an end, Splendours of the Subcontinent revealed how vast the Royal Collection is and it entices us to discover what else it has hidden behind closed doors. Future exhibitions can be eagerly awaited and are unlikely to disappoint the British public and tourists in London.

The World’s Leading Museum of Art and Design

exhibition-road-va-courtyard-day-amanda-levete-architects

The Sackler Courtyard, Victoria and Albert Museum, Amanda Levete Architects (AL_A), 2017

The Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London, is regarded as the finest museum of art and design in the world. With over 2.3 million objects from the past five millennia, the museum is constantly expanding. Housing hundreds of collections including post-classical sculpture, fine art, silver works, ceramics, furniture, musical instruments, oriental art, and the National Art Library, it is unsurprising that the content and building is forever increasing.

From its early beginnings in 1852, the museum has undergone numerous extensions, the very latest being completed this year. Exhibition Road, South Kensington, is home to several important locations, specifically the V&A’s neighbours: the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. A new, user-friendly entrance has been designed and built, providing easy access from the road to the contemporary Sainsbury Gallery. This quarter of the museum will be home to temporary exhibitions.

Rather than having an entrance directly from the pavement, the Amanda Levete Architects have paved an ultra-modern courtyard, incorporating arches from the 19th-century building. This open-air area contains a glass-walled cafe to serve the anticipated 3.4 million visitors who use this new entrance each year.

Although people visit the V&A for its extensive collections, the building itself is a work of art. The original founders aimed to exhibit the best and most innovative design in the actual fabric of the building, as well as in its contents. The idea for the museum was introduced by Prince Albert (1819-61) the Prince Consort to Queen Victoria (1819-1901). After the very successful Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park – the first World’s fair – Prince Albert urged for the £186,000 to be spent on developing a cultural district in South Kensington; “Albertopolis”.

Prince Albert’s ambition was to “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry.”

In 1857, construction began on the building that would become the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). It was not to only contain galleries but be the residence of government departments and colleges, including the Central School of Practice Art (Royal College of Art). The original building was a temporary iron structure that stuck out like a sore thumb. It was also quickly evident that it would not be large enough to accommodate the sheer number of exhibits. Thus, a new elaborate plan was drawn out and construction began on a permanent structure.

Throughout the 1860s and 70s, the museum expanded with new rooms being constantly added to the structure. Henry Cole (1808-82), the first director of the museum, had very ambitious decorative schemes and wanted the building to represent the best of British design. With a distrust for foreign builders, Cole employed leading English artists and designers of his own choosing to work on the building.

Amongst the many workers were two painters and sculptors: George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) and Frederic Leighton (1830-96), dominant figures in late Victorian art. They were commissioned to produce canvases to display inside the gallery as well as design intricate mosaics. These mosaics made up the thirty-five portraits of significant European artists that adorned the South Court. This was later affectionately named the Kensington Valhalla after the Norse mythological term for the resting place of heroes.

Specific rooms within the museum were assigned to various artists to decorate. One interior designer of particular note was William Morris (1834-96) who was known for his distinctive designs, craftsmanship, and paintings, amongst many other things. Another name worth knowing is Owen Jones (1809-74), who was commissioned to produce decorations for the Oriental Courts. He wanted his designs to complement the objects on show, therefore took great care to depict Persian, Indian, Chinese and Japanese art styles.

Godfrey Sykes (1824-66), a Yorkshire-born designer, was very active in the development of the South Kensington Museum. He was the head of the decorative design team responsible for the majority of the museum’s ornamentations and ornate trimmings. The museum was the last building he worked on before his early death at the age of 42. Some of his best work includes terracotta columns in the Lecture Theatre and a tiled frieze in the Centre Refreshment Room. These, however, were not necessarily created by Sykes himself. Although he produced the designs, others would have been responsible for the modelling, including a man named John Lockwood Kipling (1837-1911), the father of the world-known writer, Rudyard Kipling.

Sykes was known for his sense of humour, which he used to great effect in his “inhabited” alphabet with witty touches. Each letter contained an illustration of a person or persons interacting with the letter. These are located throughout the museum and are often used in relevant books published by the Science and Art Department.

The director, Henry Cole, and evidently the brains of the construction, retired in 1873. Although building works continued for another decade, work eventually stopped, leaving the museum in a chaotic, unfinished mess. Although able to function as an institution for the great collection of objects, the public was unhappy with the sorry looking appearance of what had promised to be a grand building. After much campaigning, an architectural competition was announced in 1891 to find a final design for the museum.

The winner of the competition was the young Aston Webb (1849-1930), an English architect who would later go on to design the facade of Buckingham Palace. Although some critics preferred the design submitted by the runner up, John Belcher (1841-1913), Webb’s proposal was far more practical.

2014hc0680-chosen-aston-webb-design-for-south-ken-musuem-1280

Design for the completion of the South Kensington Museum, Aston Webb, 1891

It was an additional eight years between the competition and the beginning of construction. Aston Webb finalised his design proposal thinking carefully about the general floor plan as well as the appearance of the exterior. Similarly to the original designers, Webb wanted to show off the splendour of British art and emphasise the importance of the museum. The facade of the building includes statues of significant people involved with the museum.

… a statue of Queen Victoria supported by St George and St Michael over the great arch and the Prince Consort below, as the Founders of the Museum; on either side in niches the present King and Queen. The great archway itself would be enriched with symbolic sculpture. The large bosses in the archivolt would represent various crafts; the large spandrils would have figures representing Truth and Beauty; while the two smaller niches on either side would have statues representing Imagination and Knowledge. …The whole edifice I suggest to be crowned by a gilt bronze winged figure of Fame.

-Aston Webb

statues

Left to right: Statue of George Frederic Watts by Richard Reginald Goulden, Cromwell Rd façade, 1905 – 6; statue of William Morris by Arthur George Walker, Exhibition Road façade, 1905 – 6; statue of Alfred Stevens by James Gamble, Cromwell Rd façade, 1905 –6. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unfortunately, Queen Victoria had died before the completion of the museum and never got to see herself immortalised in stone above the Grand Entrance. She did, however, take the opportunity to lay the foundation stone for the new structure, and thus renamed the South Kensington Museum the Victoria and Albert Museum. King Edward VII, who came to the throne in 1901, officially opened the V&A on 26th June 1909.

Aston Webb’s design was the last major construction the museum undertook – the new Sainsbury Gallery being rather minor in comparison. Yet, plenty of change has occurred over the past century.  Between 1910 and 1914, the then director, Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith (1859-1944) objected to the ostentatious design on the museum. He believed that the focus should be on the items in the collection and that visitors did not want to be distracted by the surrounding architecture. The way forward, in his eyes, was to create modest and neutrally decorated display spaces.

Harcourt Smith ordered the destruction or covering up of the supposedly inappropriate decor. Fortunately, the First World War halted the procedure, thus saving many of the original features. It was not until 1973 with the appointment of Sir Roy Strong (b.1935) as the director that the work conducted pre-war was reversed. Strong managed to restore some of the original interiors and reinstate the 19th-century collections. Unfortunately, some of the initial features are lost forever.

Beginning as a dream of Prince Albert’s, and quickly becoming a reality, the Victoria and Albert museum is continually becoming more diverse as knowledge is widened about past works of art and cultural representation. The V&A is not meant to be a historical museum, therefore it also keeps up with the times, displaying modern and contemporary exhibitions amongst the ancient. A recent exhibition illustrates how variegated the V&A’s collection can be. Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains (closing on 1st October 2017) is the first audio-visual display put on by the museum, showing the beginnings, middle and end of the iconic British band.

Despite the various extensions over the years, the Victoria and Albert Museum remains one of the most difficult buildings to understand and navigate. However, this is one of the great appeals of the museum. It is a unique building with an unequalled collection. It is possible to visit the museum several times and see something different on each trip. As the collection continues to grow, the V&A will never lose its appeal; there is something there for everyone.

Any visitor to the Victoria and Albert Museum is likely to be bemused as to what exactly the central thread that animates these discrepant if marvellous collections. The answer is that there is none. For over a century the museum has proved an extrememly capacious handbag.

-Sir Roy Strong