It wasn’t exactly an easy sell, but whatever they privately thought of the monarchy they bowed at all the right moments and presented the prince with a succession of works of art as part of the traditional exchange of gifts between host and visitor.
Those gifts passed into the Royal Collection and as part of the 2017 UK-India Year of Culture, a year-long programme of events led by the British Council, in co-operation with the Indian High Commission, a selection of them are on display at Bradford’s Cartwright Hall.
“It was a really quite an extraordinary journey,” says Royal Collection curator Kajal Meghani. “Even for a royal, foreign travel was extremely difficult and arduous. The Prince was Queen Victoria’s eldest son and he set sail from London in October 1875 and he, along with an entourage which was about 50-strong, arrived in India just under a month later. During the next 17 weeks he was entertained by the colonial elite. From what we know, he seemed to have made a good impression and if the quality of the works of art which were presented to him are anything to go by those he met appeared keen to make a good impression.”
During the trip, which took in the Himalayas and the Taj Mahal, the prince was the guest of honour at any number of balls, dished out a few knighthoods and took part in big game hunts, which even at the time was met with a little controversy back home.
However, when he landed back on British shores any awkwardness about the afternoon he had been invited to shoot an elephant had been forgotten and the tour was declared such a success that Queen Victoria decided to style herself as the Empress of India.
“The exhibition is designed to tell the story of the tour through watercolours, photographs and 74 of the works of art that he received along the way,” adds Meghani. “Many of these items were precious heirlooms from personal treasuries, while others were specially commissioned from local artisans.
“There are so many highlights, like the gold enamelled and diamond-set inkstand, which had been modelled on the same kind of barge that the prince sailed down the Ganges on, to the gold plate from the city of Jaipur, which at the time was the largest of its kind ever produced and had taken four years to make and decorate.
“Elsewhere there is a set of small brass military figures which had been sculpted to represent all the different nationalities who served in the regional armies of South India in the 18th century. They were reportedly created for Timma Razu, the Raja of Peddapuram, on the advice of his astrologer, so he could review his troops daily without bloodshed. While they are all fascinating to look at, each of the objects also has its own story to tell and together they paint a picture of an entire region.”
While the touring exhibition will go on to Leicester, it’s the only chance to see the collection in the north of England and is something of a coup for Cartwright Hall, which will further cement its national reputation this summer with the opening of new galleries dedicated to David Hockney.
“When the prince came back to England he recognised the cultural and artistic merits of the gifts he received,” says Meghani. “So much so he made arrangement for the items to be placed on public display first at what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum and later at museums across the UK, as well as Paris.
“Newspapers of the time encouraged the public to see these extraordinary works of art, which were commended for their design and craftsmanship and this exhibition feels like we are continuing that work. Part of our aim at the Royal Collection is to find new audiences for the archive we hold and this exhibition does just that.”
Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India 1875-6, Cartwright Hall, Bradford, to June 6. On April 22, Jonathan Marsden, director of the Royal Collection Trust, will present an illustrated history of the collection. Tickets are free, but booking is essential. On May 31 there will be a family drop-in silk painting workshop inspired by the objects led by textile artist Musarat Raza. 01274 431212, bradfordmuseums.org.uk.