Osborne House is a Treasure House

The rooms may have been elegant, full of beautiful objects and of huge historical importance but I was most impressed by the corridors of Osborne House.  The bronze statues were great with Fredinand Barbedienne’s statue of Silenus and the infant Bacchus a favourite.  This was a gift from Prince Albert to Queen Victoria.

The head of Prince Alemayehu of Abyssinia fascinated me.  I read Elizabeth Laird’s fictionalised life of the young boy who was taken into exile by the British when the empire was at its height.  Yet again we have a young man, supposedly taken under the wing of the Queen when he should have been ruling in his own country.  In this case the bronze by Francis John Williamson was commissioned by Victoria after the death of the prince at a young age.

To be surrounded with such opulence must be an assault on the senses but maybe you stop seeing them after a while.

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Osborne House is a Treasure House

In (or on) the Isle of Wight so I visited Osborne House for the first time in about thirty years.  I remember parts of my previous visit but did not remember the Durbar room, the most impressive addition to the house in Queen Victoria’s time!

BlogDuleepSinghpaintingI was on the lookout for the portrait of Duleep Singh having read the novel based on his life by Navtej Sarna.  The location of this painting by Winterhalter is significant as the boy Maharajah was taken under the wing of the Queen when he was taken away from the Punjab and his mother at the age of ten.

The painting was commissioned by Victoria using the services of German artist Franz Xaver Wintherhalter, a court painter who worked for European royalty.  This work is dated 1854.

Surrounding the portrait were other paintings of Indian people, mostly men, collected or commissioned by the Queen for her house. Her status as Empress of India is reflected by the fact that India came to her; she never visited India herself.   There are princes, military types and servants represented here with little differentiation by rank.  Their position is all due to ethnicity.

As is usual on visits such as this, I came away wanting to know more about the unsung parts of history.  The painting of the man with the long hair was intriguing because he was shared a name with Duleep Singh.  Victor Albert Jay Duleep Singh was his son and the godson of the Queen.  It was painted by Sydney Prior Hall and presented to the Queen by Duleep Singh at Christmas 1879.  Apparently, Her Majesty was much taken with the boy’s long hair but he had been given a short back and sides before attending school.  The painting was created with the help of a photograph that had been taken of him before his hair cut.

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The Exile

I first heard about the life of Duleep Singh in a television documentary a few years ago.  I wanted to know more as this seemed to be another of those hidden stories about Empire which were best forgotten.

BlogTheExileThis novel by Navtej Sarna takes the historical facts but weaves a story told by the elderly Duleep Singh as he nears death and several of the figures he encountered in his life.  The young Duleep Singh became the maharaja of the Punjab but was outmanoeuvered by the British.  As a boy he was sent to Britain to be brought up as a young gentleman.  Queen Victoria was fond of him and he was placed in the care of Dr John Login, a deeply committed Christian who was delighted when his charge converted from Sikhism as a young man.

It is a story of power and manipulation.  The young maharaja was separated from his mother at a young age to prevent son or parent from trying to regain the throne.  While the British royal family included him, they did so on their terms; the British government was keen to ensure he could not return to India.

For much of his life he was content to live the life of a country gentleman. He had estates in Scotland and Suffolk.  Later, after being reunited with his mother, he regained an interest in Sikhism and sought to return to India.  The British Empire did not let anyone kick against it and the might of the state was used to ensure he did not reach his homeland.  He turned instead to Russia in the hope that their enmity with Britain would lead to him regaining the Punjab.  International politics being what they are, he was unsuccessful and he died in a mid-range Paris hotel.

The story is worth telling and the author leads us through quite complex history by providing us with the fictional thoughts of the dying man.   The novel is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?

The Fishing Fleet

BlogFishingFleetThis book by Anne de Courcy is a study of the British in India through the particular prism of the women who travelled out to the Raj to marry.  In some cases, the journey was made with the sole purpose of finding a husband.

The history of the Empire is well documented and what makes this book stand out is its focus on amazing women, many from the ruling classes, who supported husbands in their governing roles, often in trying circumstances; not all women lived in Government House!

The pressures on family life were seen most of all by the women.  An example of the difficulties they faced is seen through the difficult decision needed when their children go back ‘home’ for school.  Should they stay in England or leave them to return to husbands in India?  In such ways did the British show their stiff upper lips!

For some women, the bachelors of India (mostly running the Indian Civil Service) were ideal since their working lives precluded marriage until they turned 30.  The fleet also proved handy for families who decided their daughters were too plain or too clever or both.

The story of the British in India is an interesting one but has been well covered by other historians.  This book works so well by exploring the history from a different angle but also because voices that might otherwise be forgotten are aired.

‘The Fishing Fleet’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Room 1900

In London at Tate Britain to see an exhibition so I took the opportunity to re-visit some of my favourite works of art on display in the ‘Walk Through British Art’ galleries.  The room I love most of all, in this chronological arrangement, is Room 1900 where the end of the Victorian and start of the Edwardian age is celebrated.

There are many works here that I admire but, on this occasion, I was keen to see a sculpture by James Havard Thomas, a sculptor active from the 1880s onwards until his death in 1921.  The particular work is called ‘Lycidas’. It is a life-sized nude sculpture of a young man.  His model was Antonio, his Italian servant from the time when the artist lived in Southern Italy.  The work was rejected in 1905 by the Royal Academy as being too life- like and ordinary.  What Antonio made of this rejection is not known!

Lycidas 1902-8 by James Havard Thomas 1854-1921

Theocritus: A Villanelle

I went through a phase, as a student, of trying to learn different poetic forms.  The villanelle was one part of this study and this poem by Oscar Wilde stuck in my mind.

Theocritus: A VillanelleBlogOscarWilde

O singer of Persephone!
In the dim meadows desolate
Dost thou remember Sicily?

Still through the ivy flits the bee
Where Amaryllis lies in state;
O Singer of Persephone!

Simaetha calls on Hecate
And hears the wild dogs at the gate;
Dost thou remember Sicily?

Still by the light and laughing sea
Poor Polypheme bemoans his fate;
O Singer of Persephone!

And still in boyish rivalry
Young Daphnis challenges his mate;
Dost thou remember Sicily?

Slim Lacon keeps a goat for thee,
For thee the jocund shepherds wait;
O Singer of Persephone!
Dost thou remember Sicily?

Oscar Wilde

Lockwood Kipling

In London, so off to the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington to see the Lockwood Kipling exhibition.  I was particularly keen to see this as it celebrates a man who could easily be forgotten, or overshadowed in his case.  His son’s fame as a poet and author has endured while his work as a champion of India’s artistic heritage has been largely forgotten.  ‘Kim’ by Rudyard Kipling is a favourite book from my youth.  I reread it as an adult, and had conflicting thoughts about the place of the British Empire’s role in history, but the edition I read had illustrations by Lockwood Kipling.

The story is a fascinating one.  He attended the Great Exhibition in 1851 and was inspired by what he saw in the Indian galleries. He was a teenager but this was the start of a love affair with the arts and crafts of India. This alone makes me warm towards him; people who are inspired at an early age and go on to dedicate their careers in pursuit of their interests are always fascinating to me.

Lockwood Kipling is also connected with the Victoria and Albert Museum itself, although in its previous carnation as the South Kensington Museum.  It is fitting, then, that it is here that his work and influence is celebrated.  There are artefacts and images of India with an emphasis on the decorative arts that influenced him so much.  There are pictures of the Great Exhibition as well as an evocation of the cities of Mumbai and Lahore, both of which were important in Kipling’s life.  As the fame of his son spread, so Lockwood Kipling became involved in book illustration.  In the exhibition are samples of his work.  At the end was a ‘room’ with artefacts from Osborne House where he worked with Bai Ram Singh on the Durbar Room.  My favourite item was a painting called ‘A Peep at the Train’ by Rudolf Swoboda.