A Prince’s trip across the Empire: Splendours of the Subcontinent exhibition at Buckingham Palace

An exhibition currently at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, but heading to Buckingham Palace, shows off the ‘Splendours of the Subcontinent’ – the amazing gifts the Prince of Wales (future Edward VII) received on his tour of India and the surrounding areas in 1875.

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Prince Albert Edward – future Edward VII – (front left) visited iIdia in the 1870s, receiving a wealth of gifts (wikimedia commons)

In October 1875, Prince Albert Edward (known as ‘Bertie’ to his family) set off on a four-month tour of the Indian subcontinent; as future King, he was expected to visit the Empire and learn about it, hopefully preparing him for his ultimate destiny of wearing the crown.

The trip took Bertie to India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal, travelling some 10,000 miles.  Diplomatic gifts, much like today, are an important part of relationship building, and no expense was spared for the British royal party. The locals lavished expensive gifts on the Prince to welcome him, as did the 90+ different local rulers he met, and it is these treasures that form the ‘Splendours of the Subcontinent’ exhibition, some of the finest items from the East in the Royal Collection.

Some of the highlights of this display include enamelled peacock feather fans (morchals) – also captured in this illustration in use against the hot weather and flies – a gold and emerald turban ornament, a walking stun-cum-gun and jewelled daggers.

Pair of morchals (fly whisks) constructed of peacock feathers, inlaid with diamonds and set with layered bands of gold tinsel. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

‘State elephants at Baroda’ Sydney Prior Hall captures the use of the peacock feather fans. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

He was accompanied by advisors and friends, too. This included William Howard Russell, who was responsible for writing the official tour diary, and Sydney Prior Hall, an artist who captured the tour through his ‘animated pencil drawings and watercolours’. The diary, watercolours and photography from the tour will be used throughout the exhibition to provide an insight into the tour – much like our royal reporting does now.

A few mentionable items to see include the enamelled and diamond-set gold ink stand from Benares (modern Varanasi).

Enamelled gold inkstand presented by Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh, Maharaja of Benares. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

There were numerous gifts of traditional arms and armour, including jewelled daggers, swords and ceremonial shields.

One piece that stands out is the sea-creature walking stick, which actually conceals a gun inside! Thought to have been presented by Maharao Ram Singh of Bundi, it houses a three barrel gun, whose trigger is the makara (a mythological Indian sea creature) handle.

This walking stick is also a gun (Royal Collection Trust)

This flower-like perfume holder is especially beautiful; of course, perfume was much more expensive in the 19th century, and to house it securely, but also in a way was surely impressive to the recipient. This was a piece from Ram Singh II, Maharaja of Jaipur.

Records show that it took five years to produce and is enamelled with depictions of Jaipur’s iconic palaces in hues of pink, green, red and blue.

An intricate perfume holder on display for ‘Splendours of the subcontinent’ (Royal Collection Trust)

A necklace came from Ranjit Singh, Raja of Ratlam; it was an especially personal gift, featuring a depiction of the Prince and Princess of Wales. There was also a matching brooch, in the form of a flower.

The necklace features the prince and princess of wales (Royal Collection Trust)

A jewelled turban ornament (sirpech or sarpech) came as a welcome present from Sajjan Singh, Maharana of Udaipur. It features emeralds in a gold setting with enamel. It would have been worn on the front of a turban as a symbol of royal status.

By the end of the tour, the Prince had received over 2,000 gifts, and recognising the cultural value and artistic merit of these items, on his return to Britain he made arrangements for them to be placed on public display at the V&A, which was the South Kensington Museum. It was called ‘The Prince of Wales’s Indian Collection‘. 

Emerald and gold enamelled Sirpech (turban ornament) will soon be on display at Buckingham Palace. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

Mimicking the Prince’s own exhibit, they are on show in Edinburgh until 22nd April, when they head to The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

The exhibition is open from 8 June – 14 October 2018, and for the summer, will run alongside an exhibition of The Prince of Wales’ selections of art inside the palace, marking his 70th birthday.

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