Featuring not one but two exhibitions which are running in tandem, Splendours of the Subcontinent at the Queen’s Gallery offers a fascinating exploration of the British monarchy and South Asian culture and craftsmanship. Located moments from Hotel 41, the Queen’s Gallery hosts A Prince's Tour of India 1875–6, focusing on King Edward VII’s tour of India, alongside Four Centuries of South Asian Paintings and Manuscripts, which draws on the riches of the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Here, the respective curators for both exhibitions, Kajal Meghani and Emily Hannam, give us a glimpse into what visitors can expect.
How did the idea for Splendours of the Subcontinent come about?
Kajal: “Splendours of the Subcontinent encompasses two exhibitions – A Prince's Tour of India 1875–6, which features gifts presented to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) during his four-month tour of the Indian subcontinent at the end of the nineteenth century, and Four Centuries of South Asian Paintings and Manuscripts, which explores the 400-year shared history of the British monarchy and South Asia through paintings and manuscripts from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.
A Prince's Tour was first developed as a touring exhibition, which travelled to Bradford, Leicester and Edinburgh before opening in London in June 2018. This was very much inspired by Albert Edward, Prince of Wales's idea of exhibiting his gifts from the tour following his visit to India in 1875-6 so that British craftsmen could be inspired by what their counterparts in South Asia were producing. The 19th-century exhibition of these incredible gifts travelled to 10 venues across Britain and Europe, where audiences marvelled at the ingenious design of the gifts.”
Emily: “The works of art in the Prince's Tour exhibition wouldn't have filled all four gallery spaces at The Queen's Gallery in London, so the question arose as to what to exhibit alongside it. A project was already underway to catalogue and conserve the South Asian collections of the Royal Library and it seemed very fitting to organise an exhibition of them to tie in with A Prince's Tour.”
Why did it feel appropriate to stage these exhibitions now?
Emily: “The shared history of the British monarchy and South Asia which these works of art represent, individually and collectively, has shaped and continues to shape the Britain of today. Many people assume that all of the South Asian art in the Royal Collection are spoils of empire, but nearly all of the works on display were in fact diplomatic gifts showcasing the highest levels of South Asian artistry and cultural heritage.”
Why was it important to stage these two exhibitions simultaneously?
Emily: “The range and breadth of the South Asian works of art in the Royal Collection is extraordinary and so it was important that Splendours reflected this. The Prince's Tour exhibition looks at just one episode in the history of diplomatic relations between Britain and South Asia but includes a wide variety of objects. Four Centuries of South Asian Paintings and Manuscripts takes a longer view, including manuscripts acquired by the Georgian monarchs right up to the first modern South Asian painting to enter the Royal Collection in the 20th century.”
When Edward VII visited India it was as King-in-Waiting. How do you think the visit prepared him for his future role as monarch?
Kajal: “Prior to the visit to India in 1875, King Edward VII had undertaken numerous tours that enabled him to learn more about the culture, history and people of other parts of the world. Similarly, his visit to India allowed him to do the same. However, as India was part of the British Empire, this would be a region that he would later rule over, so the visit to India was designed to allow the Prince of Wales to make lasting diplomatic connections with Indian rulers and dignitaries.”
Can you talk us through your favourite pieces from the exhibitions?
Emily: “The Padshahnama manuscript commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah-Jahan is an obvious highlight. I challenge anyone not to be left speechless by the incomparable levels of delicacy and refinement achieved by the artists who worked on it. The original silk binding in which the manuscript was sent to George III at the end of the 18th century is also on display, which is an unexpected surprise to many visitors.
Queen Mary acquired a series of 16 Pahari paintings depicting the story of Prahlad from the Hindu epic the Bhagavata Purana, all of which are on display in this exhibition for the very first time. Despite being 250 years old, the paintings look surprisingly modern. Not only are they astonishingly beautiful and well preserved, they're also great fun. The demons all have bizarre hairy bodies, knobbly knees and animal heads and buck teeth.
We have also included Queen Victoria's 'Hindustani journals' and her phrase book. It gives Urdu translations for everyday expressions including 'tell the princess tea is ready' and 'the egg is not boiled enough'. I think the fact that Queen Victoria could speak, read and write Urdu will be another exciting discovery to many.”
Kajal: “One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is an inkstand in the form of a barge that was presented to the Prince of Wales by the Maharaja of Benares, after the Prince travelled along the River Ganges on a similar boat. The barge is made of gold and intricately enamelled with beautiful floral designs and animal details in hues of blue, pink, green and orange and inlaid with sapphires, diamonds and rubies. It is one of the first objects that you see in the exhibition.
My other favourite object is a gold and ruby bangle, which is incredibly sculptural in its form. The bangle was not a gift to the Prince of Wales but it is a souvenir that the Prince bargained for whilst in South India. He later presented this bangle to Queen Victoria as a birthday present and she writes about receiving this birthday present in her diary.”
Explore both Splendours of the Subcontinent exhibitions when you stay at Hotel 41.
Image Credits: All images © Royal Collection Trust Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.