In October 1875, Queen Victoria’s eldest son Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, embarked on a diplomatic tour of the Indian sub-continent. With him was a group of advisors, friends and household members, including the prominent journalist Howard Russell and the artist Sydney Prior Hall, who captured the tour through his vivid watercolours.
Over the next four months, the royal party travelled 10,000 miles by ship, rail, carriage and elephant, meeting 90 local rulers in 21 regions encompassing modern-day India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal.
At each stage of the journey the future king was presented with dazzling and elaborate gifts, ranging from jewellery to weaponry and ceremonial objects, representing the finest examples of Indian design and craftsmanship. It is these gifts which are the subject of The Queen’s Gallery’s dazzling ‘Splendours of the Sub-Continent’ exhibition.
I was intrigued to learn that the British monarchy’s connection to the sub-continent dates back to 1600, when a Royal Charter granted the East India Company a monopoly over trade with the East Indies. By the 19th century, the Company had evolved from a trading company into a territorial and political power in India.
In 1838, the Company was dissolved in favour of British Crown rule. Two thirds of the sub-continent was ruled by the ‘British Raj’, a combination of the India Office in London, the British India Government and the Viceroy, with Queen Victoria as head of the state.
The remainder of India was governed by Indian rulers linked to the British Raj by a resident governor. It was important for the monarchy to establish diplomatic links with these rulers, hence this high-profile tour by Prince Albert. He exchanged gifts with each ruler he met and returned to Britain with an extraordinary collection of Indian works of art.
I loved the Peacock Barge Inkstand, pictured below; its colours and craftsmanship are incredible. The inkstand is modelled on a state barge belonging to the Maharaja of Benares on which Prince Albert travelled down the Ganges, while the prow is modelled on a fanning peacock and is inset with sapphires and diamonds.
What a feast for the eyes the Prince’s tour must have been. At each city, elaborate arches, pavilions and illuminations were erected to welcome the Prince and his party. The rulers of Baroda, Benares, Kashmir, Gwalior, Jaipur and Indore invited Albert to visit their courts and organised grand processions to escort the Prince, usually on an elephant, into their palaces. These visits allowed the Prince to learn more about the history and cultures of the individual principalities.
I also loved the Perfume Holder shown below, a gift from Ram Singh II, the Maharaja of Jaipur. Moulded in the shape of a lotus flower, it is said to have taken five years to complete and is incredibly intricate: a mechanism under the plate allows the petals of the flower to open, revealing a red & yellow enamelled cup.
Prince Albert left India in March 1876. Once home, aware that the gifts he’d received were of exceptional quality and design, he decided to share them with a wider audience at the Indian Museum in South Kensington (now part of the V&A). In its first week, the exhibition received 30,000 visitors; it would go on to generate over £300,000 – money used by the Museum to purchase objects from India to expand its own collection. In the meantime, the gifts so captured the British public’s imagination that shops such as Liberty began stocking textiles and artworks from India.
The objects that I saw today are breath-taking and it is little wonder that they caused such a sensation in 19th century Britain. Not only are they beautiful, each represents a slice of Indian history, culture and craftsmanship from which we can learn a great deal. An exhibition truly not to be missed.