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.

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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.