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Review: Splendours of the Subcontinent, New Walk Museum

The UK-India Year of Culture 2017 has seen many exhibitions held across the UK as part of the year long programme of events celebrating the UK’s cultural ties with India. The Queen launched the initiative at Buckingham Palace on 27th February, and the following month, a dazzling selection of objects from the Royal Collections went on display in Cartwright Hall Art Gallery in Bradford. The exhibition, Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India 1875-6, was on show in Leicester’s New Walk Museum and you will soon be able to see it at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse between 15 December 2017 - 15 April 2018. It is one of the most visually captivating that I haven seen this year.

I visited the New Walk Museum in August especially to see this exhibition along with my grandmother, mother and 3 year old daughter. The museum holds special memories for me: it is the first museum my mum took me to visit when I was a baby, and we regularly returned over the years to see the dinosaurs and mummies. The museum has seen a recent programme of refurbishment and everything from the dinosaur gallery to the cafe and gift shop has been improved. One thing that has remained the same, is the friendly welcome and the helpful front of house staff. After lunch, some shopping in the gift shop and a good look around the dinosaur gallery, we headed upstairs to the Splendours exhibition.

Spot the new dinosaur toy!

In October 1875, the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII) set off on a lengthy tour of British India. He travelled over 7,500 miles by land and over 2000 by sea. Although he travelled regularly both at home and abroad, including a tour of North America in 1860, the journey to India was unlike anything that had come before, or would again. Less than 20 years after the Indian Rebellion (1857-58), Prince Albert Edward, the heir to the throne and future Emperor of India, made the first royal tour of the country and personally met more than 90 rulers in what are now India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal.

The Prince was accompanied by a large party, including those with political experience in India such as Sir Bartle Frere (1815-84; Governor of Bombay, 1862-67 & member of Council of India, 1867–77), as well as those who recorded the visit visually and through written reports. The artist Sydney Prior Hall (1842-1922), one of the leading reportage artists of the Victorian period, was employed as ‘Special Artist to accompany the Prince of Wales‘ and produced a series of watercolours and drawings of the trip. Many of his artworks are still in the Royal Collections. William Howard Russell (1820-1907), who had previously covered the Crimean War, including the Charge of the Light Brigade, the American Civil War and the Indian Rebellion, reported on the trip for The Times. Russell later wrote a book about the visit which was illustrated by Prior Hall: The Prince of Wales’ Tour: A Diary in India (1877, 2nd ed.).

Russell’s book provides some background to the visit, and also notes, for example, that the expenses the Prince of Wales incurred during the trip in India would be covered by the revenues of India (Russell 1877, p.xii). It also mentioned the question of gifts. While the British government requested that gifts should not be given to the Prince of Wales, the Viceroy of India, Lord Northbrook, recognised that, as part of Indian court tradition, Indian rulers would present him with gifts. Or, as Russell put it, ‘One remarkable feature of Oriental manners was the exchange of presents between visitors and their hosts.’ (Russell 1877, p.xx).

Reciprocal gifts would also need to be given. Bartle Frere and Colonel Ellis, who was Equerry to the Prince, were charged with ‘the most difficult and delicate… affairs of finance and presents’ (Russell 1877, p.xv), and staff at the India Office were tasked to help with this matter. The Prince took a range of gifts with him to India, including rings and bracelets made by Garrard and Co., the crown jewellers, commemorative medals made by Phillips Brothers, swords made by Wilkinson Sword Company, and sporting firearms from Purdey and Sons. He also took various books to give as gifts, including John Nash’s Views of the Interior and Exterior of Windsor Castle.

The Indian rulers, for their part, presented the Prince with precious heirlooms from their personal treasuries (‘toshakhanas‘), or other locally commissioned pieces, many of which were used within a courtly context, such a rosewater sprinklers. As you can probably tell from the title, Splendours of the Subcontinent, the exhibition focuses on the objects which were received by the Prince. 74 of these gifts are displayed, alongside paintings and photographs (mostly reproductions).

And so, without further ado, let us commence on our journey through the wonders of South Asian craftsmanship and courtly life.

As you enter the exhibition, you are presented with a glorious gold, enamelled and diamond inkstand in the shape of a peacock barge. It was an appropriate choice of object with which to begin an exhibition about a glittering journey through India. Made in Jaipur, it was gifted to the Prince in January 1876 by Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh, Maharaja of Benares, when the Prince visited him at his palace which overlooked the River Ganges. As inkstands go, this is the most beautiful that I have ever seen.

Sparkling under the spotlights to your left, was a gold crown (studded with diamonds, emeralds and pearls. In contrast to other Indian rulers, the Kings of Awadh adopted a European style crown, similar to the example on display. And it was this which they decided to gift to the Prince of Wales when he visited their former palace (then the seat of British administration in the region) in Lucknow in January 1876. While he was in Lucknow, Albert Edward came face-to-face with the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion, meeting veterans and visiting some of the main sites where the fighting had occurred, including Marochetti’s marble sculpture of an angel at Cawnpore (‘Kanpur’) which commemorated the murder of some 200 British women and children. He also laid the foundation of a monument to the Indian soldiers who died while fighting with the East India Company army.

Crown gifted to the Prince by the King of Awadh

After seeing the peacock barge and the crown at the entrance, you enter the exhibition ‘proper’. Two introductory panels set out the background information for the exhibition: Why did the Prince of Wales undertake this journey? and What did the British government hope for the visit? A lot of the panels were titled Leicester Perspectives, but I wasn’t sure why - they didn’t seem to provide a particularly ‘Leicester Perspective’. Or, perhaps I am missing something. The painting at the centre of the two panels, The Flight from Lucknow by Abraham Solomon (1858) and purchased by Leicester Council in 1891, forms part of the background story to the Prince of Wales’ tour of India - and the label explained why. It was also nice to have a painting from Leicester’s own collections among the loans. But, it was a shame to place it among large text panels and the bright white object label because they completely overwhelmed the artwork and overshadowed its poignant subject matter.

After this useful textual introduction, came a video in which the present-day Prince of Wales outlined some of the information about his ancestor’s tour of India, while focusing a little more closely on the craftsmanship aspect. If I remember correctly (and I really need to start taking notes when I visit exhibitions), he also spoke about the UK’s Heritage Craft Association, of which he is President, and its aims to ‘safeguard craft skills and knowledge for the future.’ On the floor beneath the video screen was a large map showing those places that Albert Edward visited. It was a nice touch and also provided useful geographical context.

Everyone I saw enter the exhibition walked over to watch the film and look at the map before making their way around the displays. The film was interesting and a good length (i.e., not too long). My grandmother, mother and I enjoyed the film, while my 3 year old daughter ran around the map. Win win situation for all of us.

I assumed that the exhibition would be organised along the lines of the Prince’s own tour across the Subcontinent, but only part of the material was grouped according to provenance. The rest seemed a little more randomly organised, and I wondered if some objects were chosen purely by virtue of their aesthetic appeal rather than the stories they might have told or how they fit the narrative. For example, around the central space there were the following individual or groups of objects running clockwise from the object facing the film: model of a Jaipur house, shield from Baroda, peacock fans from Jaipur, and a case packed with golden objects used in a courtly environment from various places in South Asia. These objects were not connected by date order, and it was only with the courtly objects that thematic arrangement came into play.

Facing the film: a painted plaster model of a Jaipur house made by the students of the Jaipur School of Art and presented to the Prince by Ram Singh II, Maharaja of Jaipur, in February 1878.

Shield presented by Sayajirao III, Gaekwad of Baroda in November 1875. A pair of morchals (peacock fans) also presented by Ram Singh II, Maharaja of Jaipur.

And then a case packed with glittering gold objects that were used at court.

(1) The Attar-Dan (‘perfume holder’) is made of gold, studded with rubies and emeralds. This piece was presented to the Prince by Banesinhji Jaswantsinhji, Raj Sahib of Wankaner in November 1875. While the lid bears the name of the ruler of Wankaner in English, the tray is inscribed with his name in Gujarati. I saw the tray in the Historic Royal Collections online catalogue and it made me smile: it reminded me of the many, many stainless steel (not gold!) dishes, cups and containers I have received as gifts from family and friends on attending weddings and religious functions. Some traditions among the Gujarati community clearly don’t change.

(2) Kharak Singh, Raja of Kapurthala, presented the Prince of Wales with 4 lion-shaped perfume bottles in January 1876. The gold bottles once contained attar and, wonderfully, each lion has an articulated tongue. He also gave him (3) 2 gold surahis (water bottles) ornamented with peacocks and makara and inscribed in Persian. (4) Finally, the Prince received a pair of silver paan boxes from Tukoji Rao Holkar II, Maharaja of Indore, whom he met in March 1876, the final stop of his tour of India.

These objects were cleverly grouped together: a guest is traditionally welcomed to an Indian court with perfume, while paan is usually offered at the end of a formal assembly. So, the start and finish of a courtly visit was neatly represented in this single case.

Having been dazzled by these intricately made gold objects, we next turned to a case of weapons. Thwarted (not for the last time) by the reflective glass, I was not able to take good photos of this group of objects, so am reliant on images from the Royal Collection Trust website. The Prince of Wales was presented by large numbers of martial objects, albeit made mostly for ceremonial purposes, including shields, swords and daggers. The ornamented, translucent rhinoceros hide shield with the richly embroidered band (which you can’t see in the exhibition) presented by Vibhaji II Ranmalji, Jam Sahib of Nawanagar in November 1875, is one such example.

A pair of ceremonial ivory chotta (staffs), gifted by Ramachandra Tondaiman, Raja of Pudukkottai, framed the shield. Random observation: his descendant and heir, Martanda Tondaiman, donated a selection of Roman gold coins found in India to the British Museum, and I have included some of these in the Indo-Roman trade section of the Hotung Gallery.

On his visit to Bombay, Albert Edward was presented with 3 albums of late 18th century Indian miniature paintings showing Vishnu’s many avatara (incarnations). Of all the gifts he was given, I think this would have given me the most pleasure - apart from some of the textiles and jewellery, perhaps! Anyway, back to the exhibition…

Two miniature paintings from this collection were used to illustrate two moments in the Prince’s visit to Bombay. He arrived just after Diwali and the decorations that had been used for the Diwali celebrations, were also used to welcome him into the city and to celebrate his birthday on the 9th November 1875.  This story was told through the painting of a scene from the Ramayana (1) where Rama (Vishnu’s 7th incarnation) and his brother Lakshmana are firing arrows at Ravana.

(2) The second painting depicts the wedding of Krishna (Vishnu’s 8th incarnation) and Rukmini. The label for this painting mentioned that Mangaldas Nathubhai (also spelt ‘Munguldass Nathoobhoy’ in publications of the time) had invited the Prince to his son’s wedding. I would have loved to hear more about this event in the exhibition itself - although am well aware of the constraints of writing label texts to fixed word limits - but a glance at the website provided more information. It transpires that it was at this wedding that Mr Nathubhai presented the albums of paintings to the Prince, and Russell, who also attended the wedding, was astonished with the quantity of flowers decorating Nathubhai’s house where the wedding was taking place, writing: ‘the scene [was] overpowering; nor did any who entered escape the be-wreathment and garlanding, which form part of all ceremonies, the Prince being especially festooned with the choicest’. Having experienced a full-on Hindu wedding myself, I can well believe it!

Among all the glorious objects and artwork was this rather lovely corner where you could sit and take your own royal portrait. The museum clearly understands the modern museum-going audience: we like selfies and other photos of ourselves that we can share with family and friends on social media. Any opportunity to jazz these photos up is an added bonus. At this point, my little one threw an almighty tantrum, and the opportunity to take some photos in this corner passed.

photo corner

Of the many and various gifts that the Prince received during his tour, weapons formed the largest group by far. This was not entirely surprising: traditionally, highly decorated weaponry which displayed the highest level of craftsmanship would only be presented to highly ranking guests.

The next section of the exhibition focuses on arms and armour, and the first piece you encounter is striking. This coat of armour is made from hundreds of gilded scales, although I’m not sure what the scales are made from. Some of the smaller scales are encrusted with rubies and turquoise. If you look closely at the scales, you can see the gilded words: ‘Presented to HRH the Prince of Wales by Maharaja Bhawani Singh of Duttia as a token of Loyalty and Attachment 1876.’ The matching helmet sits atop the coat.

The next few cases comprise handheld weapons from across South Asia. For example, (1) there is a late 16th century steel spearhead presented by Jagadveera Rama Kumara Ettapa, Zamindar of Ettayapuram in December 1875. If you look closely at the base of the blade, there are two makara and a kirtimukha. (2) From Christoffel Henricues Dias Bandaranaike, Mudaliyar of Siyane Korale East in Ceylon, an inscribed ceremonial sword called a kastane. Kastane were particularly associated with the kingdom of Kandy, in the highlands at the centre of the island, where some workshops specialised in their production. (3) The pichangatti , a ceremonial knife traditionally carried by men in Coorg, was presented not by a ruler, but the inhabitants of Coorg. The gold hilt was cast in the shape of a parrot’s head with inlaid ruby eyes, but, for me, the most interesting part is the set of grooming implements attached to the scabbard. A small file, tweezers and an ear scraper - all made from gold - are included.

Two weapons stood out among those on display by virtue of the ingenuity and imagination of the craftsmen who made them. Two were presented by Ram Singh, Maharao of Bundi. (1) One is a traditional katar (punch dagger) with two very untraditional flintlock pistols on each side of the blade. How effective this might have been in combat is debatable, but it’s an interesting idea and I confess it brought to mind Q’s inventions in James Bond movies, as did the next piece. (2) The second is a walking stick that transforms into a three-part gun. Made from wood, overlaid with steel and then gold, the handle is decorated with the head of a makara inlaid with rubies, emeralds and turquoise, the whole object is ingenious and showcases the skill of the craftsman (or craftsmen) who made it.

I am not usually inspired by a display of weapons, but I found myself enjoying the large selection on display. Each showcased a slightly different skill and told a different story as well. For example, (1) this type of jambiya (hooked blade dagger) is usually associated with Yemen, where men wore it as part of their traditional dress. The ornamentation displayed on the hilt is similar to that found on Yemeni jewellery, which suggests it was either made in the Yemen or by Yemeni craftsmen based in India. It was presented by Mahbub Ali Khan, Nizam of Hyderabad. (2) The madu (parrying dagger), in contrast, is made from two blackbuck horns and was traditionally carried by Hindu mendicants - although this example, with its inclusion of metal mounts, was probably made for presentation purposes. It was gifted by Dajiraji Chandrasimhji, Thakur Sahib of Wadhwan.

I must include three more examples of weaponry - the last ones, I promise!

Of the shields displayed so far, this was the most interesting. (1) Like the others, it was made of rhinoceros hide, but this is where the similarity ended. This example, presented by Mohammad Ibrahim Ali Khan, Nawab of Tonk, is encrusted with diamonds, emeralds and rubies and the surface is finished with a clear varnish, thereby giving it the appearance of Japanese-style lacquer. The lacquering of shields has an interesting back-story: Portuguese merchants sent Indian objects, including shields, to Japan to be lacquered and they were later presented as diplomatic gifts in India or sent to Portugal. It seems that this type of decoration later influenced local Indian production. Tonk, in Rajasthan, was particularly well-known for producing lacquered shields.

(2) The katar (punch dagger) was presented by Vijayarama III Gajapati Raju Pusapati, Maharaja of Vizianagaram who had been made a Knight Commander of the Star of India in 1864. His gift appears to have taken inspiration from this appointment, because the motto of the Order of the Star of India - ‘Heaven’s Light our Guide’ - appears on the blue velvet scabbard. (3) A close-up view of khanjar (dagger), with a fan-shaped ivory hilt, reveals that the section below the hilt is incised with the ten avatara (incarnations) of Vishnu. The dagger was presented by Vijayarama III Gajapati Raju Pusapati, Maharaja of Vizianagaram.

Behind these martial objects, was a large reproduction of an illustration showing the Prince of Wales standing up in a howdah on the back of an elephant. I’m sure the subject was very interesting, but I forgot to record where this drawing was made or what he was doing… elephant or tiger hunting, perhaps? He and the party seem to be dressed for it.

After the weapons, came (1) a mother-of-pearl card tray presented by Janoji II Yashwantrao Bhonsle, the Raja of Deor. While the mother-of-pearl was probably carved in Canton, modern day Guangdong, in China, the mount is of Indian design and bears a Gujarati inscription. It is possible that this mount was made in Ahmedabad, a place where mounted mother-of-pearl objects had been made since the 16th century. (2) The ruyi (sceptre), a symbol of authority in China, was unexpected. Presented by Bir Narsingh Kunwar, Maharaja Jung Bahadur Rana [Prime Minister] of Nepal, this ruyi was probably made in China during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1711-99) and, according to the label, may have arrived in Nepal through diplomatic exchange with China.

Turning the corner, you come to the section that displays the virtuoso skill of the craftsmen in India wrought in precious metals, gemstones and enamelling. For me, this was the highlight of the exhibition and where I spent the longest time, enjoying the wide range of magnificent objects on display.

Let’s look at a beautiful watch and some scientific instruments first.

Mahendra Singh, Maharaja of Patiala, presented this gold, diamond set half hunter watch bearing his enamel portrait inlaid with diamonds on the reverse. The portrait is based on a photograph by Bourne and Shepherd taken in c.1870 and, in it, he wears the Grand Cross of the Star of India, which he was awarded in 1870. The watch itself was manufactured by H. Grandjean and Co. and it may have been one of the Maharaja’s personal watches. The gold watch chain, set with emeralds and diamonds, is displayed alongside the watch.

Ram Singh II, the Maharaja of Jaipur, presented this silver astrolabe (yantraraja - ‘king of instruments’) to the Prince of Wales. The reverse of the top section is inscribed with the co-ordinates for Greenwich. During Jai Singh II of Jaipur’s reign (1699-1743), Jaipur became a centre for astrolabe production five astronomical observatories were constructed in Jaipur, Delhi, Mathura, Ujjain and Benares. I was fortunate enough to visit the one in Jaipur a few years ago.

The last instrument is this silver sundial given to the Prince by Syed Lutf Ali Khan, a Zamindar of Patna. Sundials were usually made from brass, rather than highly reflective silver, and this one on display was produced as a presentation piece. This sundial measures time in two ways: firstly, in 60-minute hours; secondly, in 24-minute ghatis (a measure of time based on Indian astronomy).

Jaipur was a centre of excellence for polychrome enamelling and, alongside the enamelled pocket-watch (above), Ram Singh II, Maharaja of Jaipur also presented this intricately enamelled gold scent bottle and salver. The scent bottle is enamelled with floral designs and inlaid with diamonds, and has a ruby on the lid. The salver is covered with animals, including elephants and peacocks, while the feet are made in the shape of yali (elephant-headed lions). The Maharaja established the Jaipur School of Art in 1866 with the aim of both preserving the arts of Jaipur while also teaching students new skills from across India and Europe. It is possible that these two objects were made here.

The two silver rosewater sprinklers (gulabpash) with birds on the spouts, were presented by Shamsher Prakash, the Raja of Nahan. Interestingly, these objects were produced at the Nahan Foundry, which was established by the Raja in 1873 through an initiative with the British Government of India, and which produced industrial objects, including sugarcane crushers and railings. The Foundry was managed by Frederick Robert Jones and it has been suggested that he may have influenced the baroque-style of decoration.

Ratlam, in central India, was a centre of production for both decorative gold and glass plaques and opium, so it is not too surprising to see that Ranjit Singh, the Raja of Ratlam, presented the Prince of Wales with a silver gilt opium box with a pierced gold and green glass plaque lid decorated with Krishna with the gopis (cowherds). The underside of the box has a poppy head.

Albert Edward was presented with many and various Addresses, and some of these are displayed together, while others are interspersed with other objects. I have grouped a few here.

The Prince of Wales spent 9 days in Ceylon and visited various places associated with agriculture, including the Royal Botanical Gardens. He was presented with this ivory, gold and gemstone inlaid casket when he first arrived by the municipal council of Colombo. It contains spices mounted in gold - imagine! - and an address to the Prince inscribed in English, Sinhalese and Tamil on a gold sheet.

At the centre of the case is, for me, one of the most moving objects in the entire exhibition. It is a gold casket inlaid with gemstones and, on the top, is inscribed with the letters ‘A E’ (for ‘Albert Edward’) in English, Gurmukhi, Urdu and Devanagari, thereby representing the people of Amritsar who presented it to the Prince. The diversity of the people living in this special place are unified and represented through this single object. The casket is lined in velvet with zardozi (embroidery using silver or gold wrapped thread), for which Amritsar was well-known.

While the Prince was in Benares, he laid the foundation stone for a new hospital which was named after him when it opened in 1877. For this act, he was presented with a kharita (traditional Indian envelope used to send letters) embroidered in zardozi. The address inside was written in Sanskrit and English.

Finally, the inhabitants of Trichinopoly presented the Prince with an address and watercolour painting of Trichinopoly Rock Fort contained within an elaborate gold repousse case depicting various Hindu deities, including Shiva and Ganesha, and one of the caps shows Vishnu reclining on the serpent Adishesha. Trichinopoly was particularly known for embellishing European objects with motifs incorporating deities.

There was a lovely display of enamelled objects, including the plate, cup and saucer, perfume container and cosmetics box, all of which were presented by Ram Singh II, Maharaja of Jaipur.

A large casket made from gold-covered sandalwood and decorated with representations of Meenakshi sits the centre of the next display case. It was given by the people of Madurai. This type of decoration was known as swami and was especially popular among Europeans - so much so that craftsmen produced various objects covered with motifs traditionally found on amulets and other religious objects for European consumption. Above this chest, hangs a sword with cheetah or leopard heads, and a bejewelled gold sheath covered in foliage and bird patterns often employed by metalworkers in Kutch. Notably, this style of decoration was also used to embellish silverware manufactured in Kutch for the European market, such as that made by the workshops of the noted silversmith Oomersee Mawjee - we have a good collections of this type of silverware at the British Museum and some will be on display in the Hotung Gallery. This particular sword was gifted by Pragmalji II, Rao of Kutch.

In front of the casket and sword, are two fish and an address casket. I particularly love the articulated silver fish made from silver rings, each of which has an individually engraved scale. Not only is it beautifully made, but it is a kohl container - kohl would have been contained inside and the thin silver rod would have been used to apply it around the eyes. This container was presented by Mohammad Ibrahim Ali Khan, Nawak of Tonk. The gold fish holding a smaller fish in its mouth, although in the style of a kohl or perfume container, appears to have been purely decorative. Finally, the small gold address case bears the Prince of Wales’ crest on the top and contains an address written on cream-coloured silk - this address is displayed at the back of the case. It’s so rare to see these addresses displayed, and it was a real treat to see a range of them in this exhibition. This particular address was presented by the people of the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Ceylon.

Two groups of objects were displayed to either side of the casket and sword. To the left, a pair of gold rosewater sprinklers given by Pragmalji Rao, Rao of Kutch, that were made in the shape of cranes, and in front of them, a splendid bud-shaped perfume holder that opens to reveal gold perfume bottles.

To the right, a pair of gold bottles incised with traditional Kashmiri motifs - also found on shawls produced in this region - that were presented by Ranbir Singh, Maharaja of Kashmir. In front of the bottles, are a selection of 11 brass figures made in south India and presented by G.L. Narsinga Rao. Interestingly, they may have been part of a much larger set that was commissioned by Timma Razu, Raja of Peddapuram, Timma Razu so he could review his troops every day(!) After his death, the collections was dispersed and they are now found in various collections both in India and the UK.

Almost at the very end of the exhibition was a selection of jewellery - the type of object that one tends to assume will dominate any exhibition on Mughal or colonial-period India. Notably, some of these pieces were given to Albert Edward for the female members of his family, including, of course, his mother, Queen Victoria.

At the very front was the most fabulous belt, completely covered in diamonds, emeralds and rubies that were set in gold. The inside of the belt is also decorated with incised flowers and peacocks. It glitters and shimmers and I stood there transfixed by it. Chamarajendra Wadiyar X, Maharaja of Mysore presented it for Princess Alexandra (later Queen Alexandra).

Above the belt, a selection of jewellery was pinned. From top left, a turban ornamentsarpech - set with impressive emeralds and presented by Sajjan Singh, Maharana of Udaipur. Below this, a tiger claw brooch with a gaja lakshmi motif that was gifted by Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma IV Kulasekhara, Maharaja of Travancore. The Prince of Wales purchased the large gold bangle in Trichinopoly and presented it to his mother, Queen Victoria, for her 57th birthday, along with another bangle he bought in Jaipur.

The necklace at the top centre is made from diamonds, rubies, emeralds and pearls. Components of this necklace were made by Phillips Brothers & Sons using gemstones from a necklace and a ring presented to Queen Victoria by the Maharaja of Gwalior.

On the top right, a turban ornament with a large ruby at the centre, and diamonds and emeralds, that was presented by Ramchandra Deo III, Maharaja of Jaypore, along with a pair of ruby, emerald and seed-pearl jumkha earrings. Beneath these objects, are a pair of enamelled gold bangles which the Prince may have purchased during his stay in Jaipur. Finally, a necklace made from thin sheets of red glass with hunting scenes in gold, and a central plaque with portraits of the Prince and Princess of Wales, was given by Ranjit Singh, Raja of Ratlam. He also presented him with a brooch which has the same portraits.

Tucked away, in a darkened corner, was a hand carved sandalwood book cover presented by Chamarajendra Wadiyar X, Maharaja of Mysore in November 1875. The detail of the carving is exceptional, and I could almost imagine the distinctive scent of the sandalwood. It is carved with a variety of Hindu deities, including Vishnu’s avatara and Agni.

Having started with the peacock barge inkstand presented by the Maharaja of Benares, we travelled with the Prince of Wales through the exhibition, encountering highlights of Indian craftsmanship presented at royal palaces across South Asia. With this in mind, the final object we encounter is appropriate: a glorious ivory model palace workbox of Ramnagar Palace in Benares, which the Prince visited, that was also presented by the Maharaja of Benares. Model buildings were particularly popular towards the end of the 19th century and Indian rulers often presented them as gifts to visiting dignitaries.


It would have been all too easy to display this dazzling selection of objects that are steeped in the colonial past of South Asia and leave the exhibition at that. But, as seen in the video at the start of the exhibition, the curators have brought the story forward to the present day.

A large wooden panel at the end of the exhibition is inscribed with key dates in the 400-year relationship between the UK and India. It was made by artist Lorna Dunn with the aim of contextualising this history for the audience. Starting in 1588 when ‘British merchants received permission from Elizabeth I to explore the East Indies for trading purposes’ and including references to the colonial past, Gandhi, World Wars, Independence and even Enoch Powell, the final date is in 1972: ‘After the expulsion of Africans of Indian descent from Uganda by Idi Amin many of [the] people travel to Britain as they hold British Passports’. This last one was particularly resonant for me - and a wider Leicester audience - because many of us who grew up here are part of families who were forced to leave Uganda (and Kenya).

At the centre of the panel, is a series of videos which explore the ‘tightly woven and at times tumultuous relationship between Great Britain and India.’ Over the course of the summer, 8 different videos were shown. These videos were made over the course of 4 years by Inspirate and Image Nova who worked with the Leicester Arts & Museums Service, the Royal Collection Trust and the British Library to explore the origins of the UK-India relationship, those individuals who were key to changing this, and also the legacy of this history through decisions made over the last 400 years. As you can imagine, this was no mean feat. I would have liked to see all 8 films to see how they did this.

Exhibiting the gifts in the 19th century

Recognising the cultural and artistic merit of the gifts he had received, the Prince made arrangements for the items to be placed on public display when he returned to Britain, first at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), where Sydney Prior Hall’s watercolours and drawings were exhibited  alongside the objects. The material was later displayed at museums across the UK, including the Bethnal Green Museum but not at the New Walk Museum - despite requests! The collection was later sent to the great Paris International Exhibition of 1878, where it formed a key part of the display of objects from British India.

And, so our tour ends. The memories of the wonderful objects will remain with us. If you are able to visit this exhibition, I encourage you to do so. The catalogue written by Kajal Meghani, the curator of this exhibition, which accompanies the exhibition is a lovely memento and filled with detailed photographs of and information about all of the objects on display.

Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India 1875-6 can be seen at the Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, 15 December 2017 - 15 April 2018.

Select bibliography and links

Jacqueline Banerjee - Bertie’s Progress: The Prince of Wales in India, 1875-76: Part I, Bombay to Delhi.

Jacqueline Banerjee - Bertie’s Progress: The Prince of Wales in India, 1875-76: Part II.

Kajal Meghani - Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India, 1875-6, Royal Collection Trust (2017).

William Howard Russell - The Prince of Wales’ tour: a diary in India; with some account of the visits of His Royal Highness to the courts of Greece, Egypt, Spain and Portugal, 1877 (2nd ed.)

Link to most of the objects on display from the Royal Collection website - https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/search#/page/12 I have included links to all of the objects in the blogpost.

Please note that all photographs are mine, with the exception of those specified: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.

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