Exhibition Review – Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector (The Wallace Collection)

In 1870, Richard Wallace (1818-1890) received a windfall from his employer the 4th Marquess of Hertford which comprised an art collection consisting of Old Master paintings, 17th and 18th century furniture, snuff boxes and perhaps the second largest assembly of Sevres porcelain in Britain (all in addition to homes in Britain and France as well as land in Britain). Ostensibly the inheritance was a reward for the services Wallace had performed for the 4th Marquess as his private secretary and art advisor, but the long standing belief was that Wallace was the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess by a mistress, Agnes Wallace Jackson.

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Since the 4th Marquess of Hertford never married and had no legitimate children, the title and the estate passed to a nephew: however as his art collection was his private property, the 4th Marquess decided to bequeath it to Richard Wallace. The inheritance would be the bedrock of the Wallace Collection and it is fitting that the museum has decided to mark the bicentenary of its founder’s birth with an exhibition looking at Wallace’s life and interests through the objects he collected.

During his lifetime, Wallace was well known as a philanthropist – known for his work for the poor both in Britain and France as well as being an art collector. His philanthropy and collecting came together as he was a generous lender of objects from his collection to museums and art galleries and he gave money to enable museums to purchase works of art. In 1872 – by then Sir Richard Wallace – he arranged for a loan of his collection to the Bethnal Green Museum (now the V&A Museum of Childhood) with the stipulation that no admission charge would be levied. The exhibition ran until 1875 and by the time it had closed some 2.3 million people had visited.

On Wallace’s in 1890 he left everything to his widow Lady Wallace (their only son Edmond having predeceased his parents). In 1897, Lady Wallace died and she left her husband’s art collection, papers and Hertford House to the nation on the condition that admission would be free (much like Wallace’s stipulation to the loan to Bethnal Green Museum). The Wallace Collection finally opened to the public in 1900 and since then has become well known for its stupendous collection of Dutch and British paintings, French porcelain and furniture, arms and armour.

To celebrate the bicentenary of its founder, the Wallace Collection has put up an exhibition simply entitled Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector. Featuring archival material from the collection’s files that charts key events in Wallace’s life; such as the codicil in the 4th Marquess’s will where he bequeaths his private property to Wallace, receipts that showed how much Wallace was prepared to spend to add to his collection and a catalogue for the Bethnal Green Museum exhibition.

The main highlights of the exhibition of course are the featured objects that demonstrate what kind of a collector Richard Wallace was and his main interests. Unlike the 4th Marquess who collected Old Master paintings and 18th century French porcelain, Wallace’s tastes ran more to Medieval and Renaissance decorative art, arms and armour and non-Western art. He was also particularly drawn to objects that had an interesting provenance or story behind them.

What stood out in the exhibition for me were objects that had royal provenance: such as a dagger than belonged to King Henry IV of France which was presented to him as a wedding gift (and later carried by the Emperor Napoleon as a talisman), and a pair of jewelled cups that were made for the Qianlong Emperor for the annual New Year rites. I can imagine that what attracted Wallace to acquire both was not only the craftsmanship and attention to detail that was very evident but also the fact that both were owned by monarchs and had an interesting story behind them.

 

The story behind an object would have most likely been a motivation for the acquisition of the Horn of St Hubert, which as tradition dictated was used by the saint while out hunting when he encountered the stag with the cross between its antlers. For many, many years it was displayed at Chauvirey-le-Châtel until the 1870s, when it was sold to Richard Wallace who paid 16,000 francs for it.

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As knowledgeable as Richard Wallace was about art and although he took great care with his purchases, he was not immune to purchasing fakes and reconstituted pieces. Some of the Renaissance jewellery that he acquired were not made in the 16th century as advertised but were very clever 19th century copies or outright forgeries, but such was the craftsmanship that they quickly became works of art in their own right. Another example was a silver gilt basin that was made in Portugal in the 16th century but someone later added the coat of arms of Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) in order to increase its value and fabricate an important provenance on a well-made but obscure piece.

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The exhibition is small but perfectly formed and does shine a spotlight on Richard Wallace which enables the visitor to get to know more about the man behind the collector and philanthropist. Despite the fact that his collecting slowed down in the 1880s due to being affected by the agricultural depression, Wallace remained committed to ensuring that his collection was accessible to the general public and this was finally realised in 1897 when Hertford House and its contents were given to the nation, an act of generosity which was described by a fellow collector and rival, Ferdinand de Rothschild as a “windfall…..[whose] artistic value is inestimable” and to this day it remains a jewel among Britain’s museums.

 

Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector is on at the Wallace Collection from 20 June 2018 to 6 January 2019. Admission is free and for more information, please visit https://www.wallacecollection.org/whats-on/sir-richard-wallace-the-collector-3/

The blogger visited the exhibition on 31 July 2018, photos also taken by blogger

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Queen Victoria and India (Part 2)

As mentioned in part 1, Queen Victoria viewed India as her special fief, and while she showed little interest in the subcontinent at the beginning of her reign, this began to change from the 1840s onwards. First there was her new husband Prince Albert – in his quest to carve out a role for himself, he found himself drawn to causes which involved Britain’s growing empire, such as the abolitionist movement. Secondly, with the fall of the Whigs from power they were replaced by the Tories whose view of governing India was very different from their rivals. As governor-general in the 1840s, Lord Ellenborough undertook the unprecedented move of communicating directly with the Queen especially with regards to information that was supposedly restricted to the East India Company’s Board of Control and the Cabinet. In addition, independent of the East India Company, Ellenborough also began to establish relationships with local rulers in the Queen’s name and helped facilitate direct diplomacy between Queen Victoria and these local rulers.

Some of this direct diplomacy turned into friendships and a few even went further than that. In 1852, Queen Victoria received the deposed Rajah of Coorg, Chikka Virarajendra and his daughter Gouramma (1841-1864) at Buckingham Palace. The purpose of the visit was to petition the Queen for the return of his wealth which had been seized by the East India Company after his kingdom had been annexed, as well as to have his daughter educated in Britain.

Princess Gouramma was also baptised at Buckingham Palace by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Queen was pleased to act as the girl’s godmother and also gave the little princess her own name and from then on she became known as Victoria Gouramma. Although the princess of Coorg was cared for by a succession of aristocratic guardians, Queen Victoria took an active interest in her education and upbringing. Victoria Gouramma was a regular guest at the various royal residences, played with the royal children and sat for the painter Franz Xavier Winterhalter and the sculptor Baron Carlo Marochetti.

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Victoria Gouramma grew up to be an attractive and flirtatious young woman and it was the latter that worried her guardians and the Queen. To their relief, she finally married Colonel John Campbell and they had one daughter named Edith Victoria Gouramma but tragically Princess Victoria Gouramma died at the age of 23. She was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery and the inscription in her gravestone was composed by the Queen herself.

Queen Victoria much like with her own children and grandchildren had hoped for a grander match for Victoria Gouramma and the young man she had in mind for her was Duleep Singh (1838-1893), the Maharajah of Punjab who also lost his kingdom after Punjab was annexed by the East India Company. Like Victoria Gouramma, he also received a Western education and converted to Christianity. He was also a regular guest at the various royal residences and maintained a close friendship with the royal family. After Queen Victoria’s efforts to marry him off to Princess Victoria Gouramma ended in failure, Duleep Singh married Bamba Muller, the illegitimate daughter of a German businessman and his Ethiopian mistress. They had five children and Duleep Singh acquired a country home in Suffolk called Elveden where he lived the life of a British aristocrat.

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However his extravagant lifestyle and squabbles with the India Office among others apart from his reconversion to the Sikh faith led to his exile and estrangement from Queen Victoria. Despite all these, the Queen never wavered in her friendship and affection for Duleep Singh and they were reconciled before his death in 1893. Much like with Victoria Gouramma, the Queen acted as godmother and guardian to Duleep Singh’s five children.

Had Queen Victoria succeeded with her matchmaking plans to marry off Victoria Gouramma to Duleep Singh, it was hoped that the prospective union would lead to a new Indian Christian dynasty and would lead to the spread of the Christian faith in India although it is doubtful it would be the case even if Victoria Gouramma and Duleep Singh had married and had children.

When Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 1887, the Indian army took a prominent role in the celebrations as soldiers from the various Indian regiments marched alongside their British counterparts, their uniforms providing a dash of colour and exoticism in the streets of London. It was also this year that two Indians joined the Royal Household – Mohammed Bukush and Abdul Karim – whose main function was to attend to the Queen during meals and undertake any other tasks Her Majesty might see fit for them to do. Four others joined the following year and they stood out in their distinct livery even when in Scotland where their Indian uniforms were made out of Balmoral tartan.

One of the Indian staff, Abdul Karim eventually stood out and he went from serving at the table to giving the Queen Hindustani lessons and finally becoming her secretary on Indian matters. To reflect this change of status, he was addressed as munshi or secretary and photographs of him waiting on the royal table were destroyed. The rest of the Household worried that they had another John Brown in their midst but as Shrabani Basu perceptively noted, the Munshi just as Prince Albert, Disraeli and Brown before him was able to tap into the Queen’s romantic side for “[a]s a Queen she lived in a man’s world and could have few women friends….and she had no one to turn to or confide in after Albert’s death…..Karim brought her close to India, the country that she had always longed to visit. A skilled raconteur, he told the Queen about his country, the religions and the culture.” (pp. 241-2)

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While Victoria saw the Munshi as a romantic figure and someone she could confide to, others did not see it that way. The government was concerned over any leaks of Indian policy and as one of the Queen’s biographers Christopher Hibbert noted that the Queen due to the Munshi’s influence “was persuaded to see Indian affairs from an exclusively Muslim point of view” and which did not go down well with the government in India especially the provincial governors and civil servants. Sir Frederick Ponsonby, the Queen’s Private Secretary and Sir James Reid, physician in ordinary bore the brunt of having to mediate between the Queen, the government and the rest of the Household with regards to the Munshi. There was a mix of racism and snobbery underpinning the dramas over the Munshi but it would be simplistic to dismiss the general household attitude towards him as solely due to those two factors.

As the Queen piled on him more honours, money and gifts (among them a land and house in India), he became grander in attitude and bearing which also did not go down well with his Indian colleagues and the princes and other native dignitaries who paid visits to Victoria and the rest of the royal family. As another one of the Indian servants, Ahmed Hussain told Sir James Reid, Karim received a lot of favours from the Queen that even an Indian prince or a long standing servant of twenty years would not get. In addition, Karim was also less than honest about his background, claiming that his father was a doctor when in reality he was a lowly apothecary in India. Karim also brought his wife over from India and she lived in purdah, refusing to go out in public unless veiled – a source of much hilarity for some of his Indian colleagues who knew Mrs Karim back in India and knew that she was never in purdah.

Queen Victoria all her life had been free of racial prejudice and social snobbery and her treatment of the Munshi reflected that. But as Lord Salisbury believed, the Queen enjoyed the squabbles between the Munshi and the rest of the household since they were “the only form of excitement she can have.” That’s not necessarily the case but the issues with the Munshi also revealed the Queen’s stubborn side and her refusal to see the negative side of persons she favoured.

Longing to visit India but unable to, Queen Victoria recreated India back in Britain. This extended not only to having Indian servants and having Indian curry served at the royal table but also to commissioning a room where she could feel that India had come to her and live out her view of India.

The room in question was the Durbar Room at Osborne House in the Isle of Wight. The house was acquired by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as a family home in the 1840s in lieu of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton where the couple together with their nine children could live a much more domestic lifestyle. The house was designed in the Italianate style by Prince Albert which reminded the prince of his study trips and holidays in Italy, with the building work supervised by Thomas Cubitt. Underpinning the fact that this was a family home was in Lauren Palmor’s words that “Osborne lacked the requisite amenities for conducting state affairs – there was no throne room, formal dining room or stateroom” and the opportunity to take a break from her round of official duties meant that Queen Victoria always relished her time at Osborne. As she wrote to her then prime minister Sir Robert Peel: “We are more and more delighted with this lovely spot…the combination of sea, trees…the purest air…make it a perfect Paradise.”

All of this would change after Prince Albert’s death in 1861, when Queen Victoria would spend more and more time at Osborne House, and it was then decided to extend the house in order to accommodate rooms for official entertaining. The grandest of these rooms was the Durbar Hall which was designed and executed by the team of Sir Lockwood Kipling (father of the writer Rudyard Kipling) and Bhami Ram Singh. Both men were connected to the Mayo School of Art in Lahore (now in modern day Pakistan) and this was not the first royal commission they had worked on, the first being that of a billiard room for Bagshot Park, the country home of one of Queen Victoria’s sons, Prince Arthur Duke of Connaught. The Bagshot Park commission would lead to the Osborne House assignment which was built between 1890 and 1891 and the finished room with its teak carvings and intricate plaster would be in Jeremy Musson’s words, “not a room for quiet withdrawal and relaxation but rather for state banqueting; it was designed for imperial hospitality, to impress (and even intimidate) at the highest level.”

Just as in a typical building project, the finished product isn’t always to the original design. Princess Louise, one of the queen’s daughters and a professional sculptor herself, voiced her opposition to the gallery above the fireplace, considering it heavy and suggested a peacock design instead. Her suggestion was incorporated into the final design and one that visitors will see when they step into the room. Ram Singh stayed on to oversee the work and due to the high cost of bringing workmen from India, British builders under the firm of Jackson and Sons were engaged to turn Ram Singh’s design into a reality. However there were fixtures that were made in India such as the rug woven in Agra that brought colour into a room that is predominantly white in colour scheme.

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The Durbar Room was not only used for official entertaining but also for family events such as Christmas where during the festive season, the room was decorated with Christmas trees which stood on tables together with presents. This space was also used for tableaus and stage performances put on by members of the royal family and the household for Queen Victoria and her guests.

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Another main function of the Durbar Room was for the display of gifts given to Queen Victoria by Indian princes and subjects. What surprises the visitor is that they do not correspond to our view of Indian opulence as this was strictly discouraged by the Queen and the government. Following her proclamation as Empress of India in 1876 and subsequent Golden and Diamond Jubilees in 1887 and 1897, the Queen preferred addresses of loyalty as she wrote to the Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir that “kind words from a distant friend are the most precious of all gifts.” Her Indian subjects took this maxim seriously, apart from loyal addresses she was also sent books written about her or her husband Prince Albert as well as tomes dedicated to her. Local authors also took to translating Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands in various Indian languages and sending them as gifts.

Loyal addresses were sent in cases that reflected the skill, materials and design special to a particular region or area and the result is a microcosm of the Indian subcontinent all displayed in one room. The corridor leading to the Durbar Room is a preview of the room the visitor is about to enter as it is lined with portraits of the Queen’s Indian subjects, those of her staff painted by the artist Rudolf Swoboda (which included that of Abdul Karim), the architect Bhami Ram Singh and portraits of Indian princes presented to the Queen. Also in this corridor are the portrait of Duleep Singh by Winterhalter and the bust of Victoria Gouramma by Marochetti.

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So all in all, what do all these tell us about Queen Victoria? As the writer Theo Aronson mused, India held an enduring fascination for the Queen for its exoticism, mystery, excitement and colour and we can see this with the portraits and the rooms that she commissioned, not to mention the gifts she received and the uniforms worn by her Indian members of staff. As he continued:

“The Indians were a subject people, ‘belonging to me’ as she would say. More so than any of the other colonies, the Queen felt personally associated with India; she regarded herself as being directly responsible for ‘that enormous Empire which is so bright a jewel in her Crown.’” (p. 142)

However this was only one side of the story. As her relationships with Duleep Singh, Victoria Gouramma and Abdul Karim showed, the Queen was not bothered by differences in skin colour, status or religion, she was naturally a curious person and they whetted her appetite to know more about a country so different from the one she reigned over. They brought out her maternal side as well and she was prepared to overlook their caprices in a way that she would not have tolerated in her children and grandchildren.

Proclaiming Queen Victoria “Empress of India” represented a triumph of the view that Indians were different from the British and that having the British monarch as emperor or empress would appeal to the perception that Indians were very conscious of gradations in status. The Imperial title would make these distinctions clear and appeal as a symbol. In addition, it would help foster a closer bond between the monarchy and the Indian princes that would remain in force until 1947.

 

Further Reading:

Robert Blake. Disraeli (London, 1966)

Robert Blake. Gladstone, Disraeli, and Queen Victoria Centenary Romanes Lecture (Oxford, 1993)

C.P. Belliappa. Victoria Gowramma: The Lost Princess of Coorg (Kolkata, 2010)

Michael Alexander and Sushila Anand. Queen Victoria’s Maharajah, Duleep Singh, 1838–93 (London, 1980)

Thomas Metcalf. Ideologies of the Raj (Cambridge, 1994)

C.C. Eldridge. England’s Mission: The Imperial Idea in the Age of Gladstone and Disraeli 1868-1880 (London, 1973)

Jan Morris. Pax Britannica: The Climax of an Empire (London, 1968)

Christopher Hibbert. Queen Victoria: A Personal History (London, 2000)

Shrabani Basu .Victoria and Abdul (London, 2010)

Elizabeth Longford. Victoria R.I. (London, 1964)

Jane Ridley. Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (London, 2011)

Kate Hubbard. Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household (London, 2012)

Hannah Pakula. The Last Romantic: A Biography of Queen Marie of Romania(London, 1984)

HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney. Victoria and Albert: A Family Life at Osborne House (London, 1991)

Michaela Reid. Ask Sir James: The Life of Sir James Reid, Personal Physician to Queen Victoria (London, 1987)

Kajal Meghani. Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India, 1875-1876 (London, 2016)

Emily Hannam. Eastern Encounters: Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent (London, 2018)

William Ewart Gladstone. Midlothian Speeches 1879 (Leicester, 1971)

Milinda Banerjee. ‘Ocular Sovereignty, Acclamatory Rulership and Political Communication: Visits of Princes of Wales to Bengal’ in Frank Lorenz Műller and Heidi Mehrkens (eds) Royal Heirs and the Use of Soft Power in Nineteenth-Century Europe (London, 2016), pp. 81-100

Julius Bryant. ‘Kipling’s Royal Commissions: Bagshot Park and Osborne’ in Julius Bryant and Susan Weber (eds) John Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London (London, 2016), pp. 434-467

https://open.conted.ox.ac.uk/resources/documents/%E2%80%98-right-royal-tamasha%E2%80%99-imaging-queen-victoria-kaiser-i-hind-malvina-pollock

Lauren Palmor. ‘Queen Victoria’s Durbar Room: The Imperial Museum at Home’, Past Tense: Graduate Review of History, vol. 3 no. 1 (2015), pp. 60-74

L.A. Knight. ‘The Royal Titles Act and India’, The Historical Journal, vol. 11 no. 3 (1968), pp. 488-507

Miles Taylor. ‘Queen Victoria and India, 1837-61’ Victorian Studies, vol. 46, no. 2 (2004), pp. 264-274

David Washbrook. ‘After the Mutiny: From Queen to Queen Empress,’ History Today 47 (1997), pp. 10-15

Cartoons taken from the http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/history/victoria/20.html

Durbar Room photos taken by blogger who visited Osborne House on 11 June 2018

Queen Victoria and India (Part 1)

One of our enduring images of Queen Victoria is the woman always dressed in black with a white widow’s cap atop her head. Her jewel are also devoid of colour, not for her coloured stones such as emeralds and rubies but always pearls and diamonds and in some portraits, she is depicted wearing a pearl and diamond bracelet with a miniature portrait of her husband Prince Albert. His untimely death in 1861 sent the Queen into mourning from which she never recovered and for the next forty years until her own death in 1901, she wore black in Albert’s memory.

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Her only concessions to colour were the orders and decorations she would wear for state portraits and occasions. These included the sash and star of the Order of the Garter and pinned on her left shoulder were the badges of the Order of Victoria and Albert and the Order of the Crown of India. The latter was established to mark Queen Victoria’s proclamation as Empress of India in 1876 and was one of the three Indian orders of chivalry that cemented the link between the British crown and her Indian subjects, most especially the various princes.

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The insignia of the Order of the Crown of India contained the initials “VRI” which stood for “Victoria Regina Imperiatrix” (Victoria Queen Empress) and underlines Queen Victoria’s relationship with and image of India. In this blog, I will be looking at this relationship through two prisms; first with Queen as Empress of India and secondly, her fashioning an image of India based on her dealings with individual Indians and the addition of the Durbar Room at Osborne House.

Queen Victoria as Empress of India

On 27 April 1876, Queen Victoria was proclaimed “Empress of India” after the passage of a bill granting her the title and style of empress was passed in both Houses and received royal assent. In reality, the title was a watered down version of what Victoria originally wanted – “Empress of Great Britain, Ireland and India” which the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli with his customary tact and flattery was able to dissuade the Queen from assuming said title as well as avoid controversy by giving assurances that Britain and Ireland would not be included.

This is not to say however that the move to grant Queen Victoria the title of “Empress of India” was smooth sailing, far from it as from the moment the Queen articulated her desire for the title, most explicitly when she opened Parliament in person the year before, what became known as the Royal Titles Bill was dogged by controversy. The debates over the Royal Titles Bill not only reveals to us Queen Victoria’s view on foreign and imperial matters as well as that of the political establishment but also says a lot about how the British saw themselves and crucially how the British saw India. In many ways, the assumption of the title “Empress of India” by Queen Victoria represented the triumph of the romantic over the liberal view of India which for better or for worse has coloured British policy in India during the days of the Raj.

What were these two views? The first was influenced by late eighteenth and nineteenth century liberalism which viewed that India was corrupt and decadent. Their solution lay in reforming India through education, rule of law and free trade which the Liberals believed would result into a prosperous land freed of its decadent past. To this end, officials such as Lords William Bentinck and Dalhousie presided over policies and reforms that provided infrastructure, an administrative system among other things. The most significant however came with regards to education and stamping out practices that the British found abhorrent such as sati or wife burning. Education along Western lines, a Westernised code of laws and administrative system were among those heavily promoted and enacted with the optimistic view that would result the creation of, in Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s words, “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, morals and intellect.”

This optimism was not to last however as the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 led to the Government of India Act the following year which transferred the functions of governing India from the British East India Company to the Crown. This also led to a shift in view with regards to how best approach Indian affairs. The Liberal view of a corrupt India which could be improved through education and rule of law was set aside in favour of the more romantic view that India was “unchanging” and its traditions should be cherished rather than changed or suppressed. Corollary to this was the belief that Indians were not like the British and it was unfair to treat them as such.

In February 1876, opening Parliament for the first time since the death of Prince Albert, the Queen spoke of “the hearty affection with which he has been received by my Indian subjects of all classes and races assures me that they are happy under my rule, and loyal to my throne.” This was reference to the tour of India being undertaken by her oldest son and heir Albert Edward Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) from 1875 and its success became the impetus for Queen Victoria to request Parliament to add “Empress of India” to her existing titles.

The success of the on-going tour was not the only motivation for Queen Victoria to request for the title of Empress of India. First of all, Victoria in her mind was already empress since the Government of India Act if not even earlier. This view was exploited by politicians such as Lord Ellenborough who as Governor-General in the 1840s was extending her authority in India through the annexation of territories and facilitating relationships with the various Indian princes and the Crown independent of the East India Company. These bonds were cemented with the exchange of gifts, correspondence and crucially the establishment of an honours system with the creation of the Order of the Star of India. The latter was established following the suppression of the mutiny as a way to reward the princes who remained loyal to the British. Its insignia and motto “Heaven’s Light Our Guide” was designed and conceptualised by Prince Albert and this honour could be seen as being in line with the Government of India Act’s provision for the princes becoming central to British policy in India.

Secondly was with regards to Britain’s relationship with Russia which could be described as cool even chilly due to two main issues – the so-called “Eastern Question” regarding the concerns of the European Great Powers with the Ottoman Empire’s continuing political and economic instability. Britain’s view was that the Ottoman Empire was an important buffer state in order to check Russia’s desire to exploit nationalist sentiment in the Balkans and position itself as the champion of the Slavs. The other was with regards to the “Great Game” which came about due to Russia expanding its empire into Central Asia which placed its borders next to India. There was fear on the British side about a possible Russian incursion into India while the Russians were suspicious of British commercial attempts into Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The antipathy towards Russia also spilled over closer to home. In 1874, Queen Victoria’s second son Prince Alfred Duke of Edinburgh successfully courted and won the hand of Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia. The courtship opposed by both sets of parents – Queen Victoria was a passionate Russophobe who was not thrilled with the idea of a Russian daughter-in-law while Tsar Alexander II and his wife were loath to lose their only daughter on who they relied on heavily. Despite misgivings, the marriage went ahead and there arose issues of precedence as the Duchess of Edinburgh would rank third behind the Princess of Wales and the Princess Royal. The Tsar also made matters worse by requesting that his daughter should retain her style of “Imperial Highness” which displeased Queen Victoria. In the end, a compromise was made where the new princess was styled “Her Royal and Imperial Highness the Duchess of Edinburgh.”

The question over precedence and status also played an important factor with the Queen’s desire for the title. In reality Queen Victoria was not as status conscious as her continental counterparts however she was annoyed at continental royals maintaining that her children were socially inferior to the children of a Russian tsar or an Austrian emperor. What aggrieved her further was after German unification in 1871, the new emperor Wilhelm I (father-in-law of her oldest daughter Victoria Princess Royal and Crown Princess of Germany) thought that he ranked higher than Victoria who was a mere queen.

All these also chimed in with the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s vision of empire which would be a source of national pride. It was during his premiership that Indian and Imperial interests became synonymous with national interest and having Queen Victoria assume the title “Empress of India” would not only appeal to the Queen’s vanity but also to put her on equal footing with the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Royal’s Russian and German in-laws respectively. As Disraeli’s biographer Robert Blake observed: “[b]asically the Royal Titles Bill, like the Prince’s visit, was a counter-blast to the threat of Russian invasion or subversion of India, a measure designed to reaffirm and symbolize British power.” (p. 562)

When the Royal Titles Bill was announced on 17 February 1876, it was greeted with derision and met with stiff opposition not helped by the fact that Disraeli had failed to inform the opposition of plans to introduce the bill through Parliament. The debates in Parliament and general public opposition to the imperial title tell us a lot about how the British saw themselves as a people. As the Liberal MP Robert Lowe pointed out, “sentiment clothes the title of emperor with bad associations” and used the Roman empire as an example which he described as “the wretches who have filled the throne of Imperial Rome, who have been often raised to their position by military violence, and who sank below ordinary human nature in debauchery and crime.”

Disraeli’s reply to Lowe’s charge of Roman emperors coming to the throne through violence was to cite the example of the Antonines or the “Five Good Emperors” who reigned from 96-180AD. And while it may be true that Rome flourished under the reigns of these five men and that the succession was peaceful, it did not detract from the fact that a cursory glance at the list of Roman emperors, the great majority obtained the throne through the sword and died by the sword.

Opposition to the title also featured in the press. The Times called the idea of Victoria as Empress of India “tawdry” while cartoonists had a field day lampooning Disraeli’s imperial pretentions. A famous cartoon by John Tenniel (who famously illustrated Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) depicted Disraeli dressed as a Jewish peddler brandishing a foreign and gaudy crown in front of the Queen who is shown carrying a much more modest crown. Captioned “New Crowns for Old Ones” it was a play on the story of Aladdin and reflected what Malvina Pollock Kalim called a “widespread concern over corrupting influences that would either degrade her as the successor to a weak and degenerate Mughal ruler or encourage her to turn to an ‘Eastern potentate’.”

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The debates also showed how much Disraeli and Queen Victoria betrayed an ignorance of the British public.  They did not foresee the popular opposition to the title of Empress with its negative connotations not only to Rome but also its association with autocratic European states such as Russia, Germany and Austria as well as France with its Napoleonic past. The British were proud of their constitutional and democratic (by the standards of the time) institutions and practices which did not sit well with the “autocratic flavour” of an imperial title.  As Jan Morris mused, “in those days the word ‘Empire’ still referred in liberal British minds, to the dominions of foreign tyrants, and the idea of a British empress seemed a monstrous negation of principles.” (pp. 37-8) and this was a theme William Gladstone returned to during his famous Midlothian campaign where after dismissing the title as  “theatrical bombast and folly” asked his audience in Glasgow:

“But I will now assume that it was right; and if it was right, gentlemen, I call upon you to agree with me in this, that in order to complete the transaction, that assumption of a higher title ought to have been accompanied, in the face of the vast Indian people, by increase in franchise or of privilege, by augmentation of benefit, by redress of grievances and correction of abuse. Is that the course of government, which has since been pursued in India?”

The answer to these questions as Gladstone outlined in the rest of his speech was a resounding “no.”  In the end, the title of empress was simply in Ralph Metcalfe’s words “a determination to assert Britain’s equivalence as a major power with her European rivals” as well cement the bonds between the British crown and the Indian people and princes under the person of the British monarch.

Contrary to Queen Victoria’s view that the bill was passed by a large margin, in reality it was only a slim one and on the condition that the new title only applied to India. The Prince of Wales meanwhile only learned of the passage of the Royal Titles Act not through official channels but through the newspapers while still on tour. This was something that the press picked up on as shown in a cartoon by John Gordon Thomson for Fun magazine which depicted a bewildered Prince of Wales upon seeing his mother Queen Victoria riding in state atop an elephant and attended by the assorted paraphernalia of Indian royalty. Outwardly, the Prince received the congratulations and felicitations graciously but behind the scenes, he wrote a stinging letter to Disraeli miffed at not having been informed, stating his opposition to the title and any moves to change his style to that of “Imperial Highness.” The Prime Minister having handled the passage of the bill badly was afraid that the press and public would find out about the Prince’s opposition to his mother’s new title quickly wrote to reassure him that there would be no change to his title and the rest of the royal family.

Royal Titles Act cartoon

The Prince of Wales was partly mollified by Disraeli’s reassurance but as his recent biographer Jane Ridley wrote: “Bertie had good reason to feel ill-used by the Queen. Victoria had strenuously opposed his plan to travel to India, but when the trip succeeded, she executed a spectacular U-turn and, without consulting him, stole his glory by upstaging him with this coup de theatre. The Queen, who took a close interest in India, which she saw as her special fief, had no intention of leaving all the kudos to her son.”  (p. 181)

 

Further Reading:

Robert Blake. Disraeli (London, 1966)

Robert Blake. Gladstone, Disraeli, and Queen Victoria Centenary Romanes Lecture (Oxford, 1993)

C.P. Belliappa. Victoria Gowramma: The Lost Princess of Coorg (Kolkata, 2010)

Michael Alexander and Sushila Anand. Queen Victoria’s Maharajah, Duleep Singh, 1838–93 (London, 1980)

Thomas Metcalf. Ideologies of the Raj (Cambridge, 1994)

C.C. Eldridge. England’s Mission: The Imperial Idea in the Age of Gladstone and Disraeli 1868-1880 (London, 1973)

Jan Morris. Pax Britannica: The Climax of an Empire (London, 1968)

Christopher Hibbert. Queen Victoria: A Personal History (London, 2000)

Shrabani Basu .Victoria and Abdul (London, 2010)

Elizabeth Longford. Victoria R.I. (London, 1964)

Jane Ridley. Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (London, 2011)

Kate Hubbard. Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household (London, 2012)

Hannah Pakula. The Last Romantic: A Biography of Queen Marie of Romania (London, 1984)

HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney. Victoria and Albert: A Family Life at Osborne House (London, 1991)

Michaela Reid. Ask Sir James: The Life of Sir James Reid, Personal Physician to Queen Victoria (London, 1987)

Kajal Meghani. Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India, 1875-1876 (London, 2016)

Emily Hannam. Eastern Encounters: Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent (London, 2018)

William Ewart Gladstone. Midlothian Speeches 1879 (Leicester, 1971)

Milinda Banerjee. ‘Ocular Sovereignty, Acclamatory Rulership and Political Communication: Visits of Princes of Wales to Bengal’ in Frank Lorenz Műller and Heidi Mehrkens (eds) Royal Heirs and the Use of Soft Power in Nineteenth-Century Europe (London, 2016), pp. 81-100

Julius Bryant. ‘Kipling’s Royal Commissions: Bagshot Park and Osborne’ in Julius Bryant and Susan Weber (eds) John Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London (London, 2016), pp. 434-467

https://open.conted.ox.ac.uk/resources/documents/%E2%80%98-right-royal-tamasha%E2%80%99-imaging-queen-victoria-kaiser-i-hind-malvina-pollock

Lauren Palmor. ‘Queen Victoria’s Durbar Room: The Imperial Museum at Home’, Past Tense: Graduate Review of History, vol. 3 no. 1 (2015), pp. 60-74

L.A. Knight. ‘The Royal Titles Act and India’, The Historical Journal, vol. 11 no. 3 (1968), pp. 488-507

Miles Taylor. ‘Queen Victoria and India, 1837-61’ Victorian Studies, vol. 46, no. 2 (2004), pp. 264-274

David Washbrook. ‘After the Mutiny: From Queen to Queen Empress,’ History Today 47 (1997), pp. 10-15

Cartoons taken from the http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/history/victoria/20.html

Durbar Room photos taken by blogger who visited Osborne House on 11 June 2018

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking by Deborah Cadbury

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014 not only resulted into a deluge of books, films, articles, blogs, exhibitions and documentaries about the events leading to the war but also a reappraisal and revisiting of Queen Victoria’s role as the “Grandmother of Europe.” Eight of her nine children married into the various royal houses of Europe and this complicated network of family ties was intertwined with international affairs, which in some way were one of the causes that led to the Great War.

This network of family ties was part and parcel Prince Albert’s vision of Europe as a family of nations unified by peace and liberalism and held together by Britain and a unified and liberal Germany. This idea was not new however as Victoria and Albert’s Uncle Leopold (later King of the Belgians) always nurtured a dream of having a Coburg on every throne in Europe – a dream which Albert carried on by marrying off his oldest daughter Vicky to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia. Through Vicky and Fritz, Albert hoped that Prussia and later Germany could be transformed into a liberal state, made in the image of Britain. However this plan unravelled quickly with the early death of Frederick after a brief reign as Kaiser and never came to fruition.

Queen Victoria and grandchildren

Queen Victoria viewed every pronouncement and scheme from her beloved Albert as akin to holy writ and as Deborah Cadbury shows in her recent work, her matchmaking would not only apply to her children but also extended to her grandchildren. Amidst the backdrop of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881 and its aftermath, Cadbury charts the Queen’s machinations as she tried to prop up Albert’s vision through her grandchildren.

These machinations often did not go according to plan as the Queen was frustrated in her attempts to block the marriages of her Hessian grandchildren Ella and Alix  into the Russian imperial family. Victoria was a passionate Russophobe, her view of Russia partly coloured by the two countries’ disagreements over the Ottoman Empire and the on going “Great Game” over Central Asia and India. She also viewed the country as unsafe and admitted to feeling her blood feeling cold over the idea of “gentle, simple Alicky” as tsarina.

Another one of Victoria’s schemes that failed was marrying off one of her grandsons, Prince Eddy the Duke of Clarence. First on the list was his first cousin Alix of Hesse but she refused him, then Eddy himself fell in love with Helene of Orleans, who despite being Catholic was willing to convert to the Anglican faith to marry him. Despite the Queen’s support and her father’s eagerness to see his daughter as a potential queen consort, Pope Leo XIII threw a spanner into the works of the proposed marriage by refusing the princess a dispensation to convert to Anglicanism. Undeterred, Queen Victoria proposed as fiancée May of Teck, a distant relation with a flawed pedigree, but unfortunately it was not going to be third time lucky for Eddy as not long after the engagement, he caught influenza and died. After a suitable period of mourning, May was then engaged to Eddy’s younger brother George, who was also nursing a broken heart after the Duchess of Edinburgh put a stop to any moves to marry off her daughter Marie to the smitten George. Instead “Missy” was married off by her mother to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania.

Bubbling under the surface of these entanglements was the constant threat of assassination attempts and violence from revolutionary and anarchist groups. Ella’s gilded bubble was shattered when her husband Sergei was assassinated in 1905, while another of Victoria’s granddaughters, Ena of Battenberg survived one as she and her new husband King Alfonso XIII of Spain were in their carriage following their wedding in 1906. These incidents among others were a harbinger of what was to come especially in the wake of the First World War: but Queen Victoria and her son and successor King Edward VII clung naively to Albert’s vision and maintained that peace could be achieved through strengthening the family bonds between the various monarchies of Europe.

Cadbury writes in a brisk and conversational style that is readable and she has helpfully drawn up a handy dramatis personae at the beginning to help the reader through the myriad of names and nicknames that are scattered throughout the narrative. While the popular press then and hagiographers write about these royal marriages as love matches, Cadbury disagrees and presents the reality behind these marriages. The story of Nicholas II and Alexandra (Alix)’s marriage is one of love and tragedy but Cadbury does not ignore the fact that despite their personal happiness both were temperamentally unsuited to the roles they had been destined to fulfill. If Nicholas was not suited to be the autocrat like his father, Alexandra despite her royal blood and impeccable family connections was not the right consort for Nicholas. Her unwillingness to follow well-meaning advice from family and friends not to mention her defence of autocracy with the same zeal that led her to wholeheartedly embrace the Russian Orthodox faith had disastrous consequences for her family and her adopted country.

The same is true with George V and Mary and I wish that the author had explored more of their married life, as there were already signs from the engagement that the marriage was not one of love as presented to the public but more of duty. One can only speculate what the former May of Teck thought and felt as she was shut out of even something as mundane as decorating her own home and her individuality all her life repressed and subordinate to George’s will and limitations. One of her earliest biographers perceptively noted that for May there was no higher calling than to be royal and perhaps that overrode any other considerations for her.

Apart from the narration, this book’s other main strength is with regards to pointing out strongly Queen Victoria’s weakness – her naïve view that foreign policy issues could be solved between families, not really realising that growing movements of nationalism, national identity and national interest were stronger than family ties. This was something her two successors – Edward VII to a lesser extent and George V to a greater extent understood, this played a part with the establishment of the Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia in 1907 and later withdrawing the offer of asylum to Nicholas II and his family in 1918.

In the end, as Cadbury shrewdly observed, royal cousinhood would prove to be powerless against the tide of change and in the end also sowed its own seeds of destruction. After the First World War, the political power of monarchy was all but destroyed and never again would “equal” royal marriages be encouraged and viewed as tools of political alliances. A popular saying goes that “blood is thicker than water” but as this tome demonstrates, blood ties would be meaningless against a cataclysmic world war.

 

 

Exhibition Review: Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style (Fashion Museum, Bath)

The strong interest in what female members of the British royal family wear continues with the latest addition in the person of the Duchess of Sussex. The coverage of her wedding gown and the ensemble she wore to her first official engagement demonstrates that this interest in royal fashion has not abated and is exacerbated by the presence of blogs, social media and the omnipresent 24/7/365 news culture.

This interest is not new however as demonstrated by an on-going exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath entitled Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style, featuring clothes worn by Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) and Princess Margaret; each a wife or sister of a monarch. As public figures and being royal there are expectations to be met such as being above politics, so they should be seen and not heard. What royal women wear should be above fashion and be suitable for the occasion and the people they will meet: hence the bright colours in order to stand out, hats must never obscure the face, bags should never get in the way of shaking hands and accepting gifts from well-wishers. Even shoes are selected with comfort in mind.

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The exhibition is a small one with the clothes drawn from the museum’s own collection and loans from the Royal Collection. What was interesting is the information regarding how the museum was able to acquire dresses with royal provenance. Some like Princess Margaret’s were donated to the museum by the princess herself, while others such as a gown worn by Queen Mary were given by one of her ladies-in-waiting. Displayed chronologically, the clothes are a mini-history of royal fashion from the 1860s to the 1950s as well as highlighting how the four royal women featured used fashion and clothes to create their image and assist in their performance of their royal duties.

The women featured fall into two headings. Trendsetters like Queen Alexandra when as Princess of Wales she popularised tailored separates for day wear and jewelled chokers (to conceal a scar brought about by scrofula) for evening, and later Princess Margaret whose fashion choices generated headlines and epitomised glamour, especially after the austerity of the Second World War. Or in the case of Queens Mary and Elizabeth, their style was an integral part of their identity and as such instantly recognisable. Queen Mary remained wedded to the Edwardian styles that went out of fashion even during her lifetime, while Queen Elizabeth, with the help of designer Norman Hartnell, became known for her sparkling evening gowns which were heavily embroidered and beaded and in the distinct crinoline shape.

One of the interesting highlights of the exhibition was how clothes were not only re-worn but even recycled. Queen Alexandra’s wedding gown is virtually unrecognisable in the photographs of her on her wedding day but this is not unusual, as wedding dresses during this period were worn more than once – first on the wedding day and then reworked. As the wedding dress was the most expensive outfit in the entire bridal trousseau, it made sense for the gown to be designed in such a way that it could be worn again and again.

A second example of this clothes recycling was the dress worn by Queen Mary for Princess Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947. Designed by Norman Hartnell and described as “gold lame and turquoise cut velvet”, it originally had long sleeves and a high neck. The gown was later altered with the neckline adjusted and the sleeves cut to create the floaty panels around the upper arms. Both gowns demonstrated how clever alteration can result into a new dress created out of an old one.

Another interesting highlight was with regards to the change in Alexandra’s wardrobe after 1892 which marked a turning point. The death of her oldest son the Duke of Clarence hit her hard and after a period of deep mourning, she decided to wear half mourning for the rest of her life in his memory. This was in marked contrast to her mother-in-law Queen Victoria who wore black for forty years following the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861. Her choice is reflected in two gowns in dusky blue and mauve – two popular colours associated with half mourning, and they give us a good idea of the colour palette in Alexandra’s wardrobe during the last three decades of her life.

While the clothes are well presented, it’s a shame that apart from a hat and two pairs of shoes that belonged to Queen Mary as well as a glove that belonged to Queen Alexandra accessories are absent, which prevents the viewer from getting a more rounded picture of each woman’s taste and look. However this is a minor quibble more than anything. What is disappointing was there is nothing on display from Queen Elizabeth’s famous “White Wardrobe” designed by Norman Hartnell for the state visit to France in 1938. More than anything, the “White Wardrobe” represented a crossroads in Elizabeth’s over all look that marked the beginnings of the popular and iconic images of her as queen consort and queen mother.

The exhibition closes with a surprise loan from the Countess of Wessex which brings the exhibition fully to the present and demonstrate that while fashion have moved on, the demands of royal dressing have not. There is also a film showing the four featured women out and about performing their public duties which gives us a glimpse of them and their clothes in movement.

Certainly this exhibition leaves me wanting more but while small it is packed full with interesting information and trivia and as the surprise loan demonstrates, the public’s fascination with what royal women wear continues.

 

Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style is on at the Fashion Museum Bath until 28 April 2019. Admission included in the ticket price.

For more information please visit: https://www.fashionmuseum.co.uk/

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 23 May 2018 and photos were taken by the bloggers.

Exhibition Review – Ocean Liners: Speed and Style (V&A)

Glamour is not something we associate with travelling nowadays, with shrinking legroom, tight security, baggage restrictions and the ingenious ways by which airlines (especially budget ones) routinely fleece their customers. However, that wasn’t the case as during the early decades of the twentieth century, long before air travel became a reality, travelling by sea was the only way to cross continents and travel lengthy distances. The great liners of the day with names such as Olympic, Mauretania, Normandie, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and the United States plied the world’s oceans and became a byword not just for technological prowess but also for glamour and beauty.

ocean liners advert

Organised with co-operation from the Peabody Essex Museum, the V&A’s Ocean Liners: Speed and Style is the first exhibition to provide a comprehensive exploration of these “floating palaces” and operates on three levels: first it looks at the glitz and allure of travelling aboard a liner. As one enters the exhibition space, the visitor is treated to a recreation of that glamorous world where the interiors are as luxurious and lavish as any great palace or hotel as manifested by doors and panels from the SS France, the panel which adorned the grand staircase of the RMS Olympic as well as the furniture and panels from the RMS Queen Mary and the SS Normandie. Customer service was also paramount as the liners ensured that not only did their visitors travel in comfort and style, but every need and whim was anticipated;  for example. the Queen Mary having a room that could convert into a Roman Catholic chapel and a door that doubled as a menorah for use by Jewish passengers for Sabbath services.

Nowhere is the glamour of ocean travel shown more clearly than in the “life on board” section where the displays are meant to evoke the travelling experience for first class passengers. Ocean liners emulated grand hotels not only in terms of interiors but also in terms of food and service with top chefs acting as consultants. The entire on board experience was deliberately designed to replicate how the rich and powerful lived on dry land to make travelling as appealing and convenient as possible.  There were also activities on board such as sports and games for young and old alike but the main highlight is the fashion featured – a Christian Dior suit belonging to the actress Marlene Dietrich as well as a small selection of gowns worn by socialite Eleanor Grigsby as well the luggage in which their clothes were packed – dressing cases full of cosmetic bottles and Vuitton trunks that covert into chests of drawers – no slinging a soft bag into the overhead locker for these travellers. These clothes emphasised how much being on board was also to be seen and nowhere is this more apparent with the recreation of the “grande descente” where female passengers wearing their best gowns and jewels would descend the grand staircase of a liner on their way to dinner.

 

 

 

Secondly, the exhibition also takes a look at how technology has transformed how people travelled by sea. From its beginnings via Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Eastern, ocean liners were initially used to transport mail and cargo gradually extending to transporting people especially those who were emigrating for a better life. However it was not a pleasant experience and as the nineteenth century gradually grew to a close, advances in ship building and technology made it possible for travelling by liner to be glamorous and aspirational rather than dirty and dangerous. Models and illustrations from the period demonstrate how much attention was paid to the design of the ship and its engines not only to make the liner look aesthetically pleasing but to ensure that safety, comfort and speed were not compromised.

Speed also comes in to what I consider the most important aspect explored by the exhibition – how ocean liners were used as tools to promote nationalism, national identity and national pride. The Blue Riband which was awarded for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic became fiercely contested and it was understandable that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany would be exulting over German liners wresting the Blue Riband from their British rivals in 1898 and holding on to it until 1903. In a way, the competition for the coveted Blue Riband reflected the growing Anglo-German naval rivalry during this period as well as Germany’s dream of possessing a powerful navy to ensure its “place in the sun.” Nowhere is this ambition more apparent in a painted panel that was part of the Kronpriz Wilhelm’s interior which depicted allegorical images of the sea and rather unsubtly pointed out that Germany’s future lay with its mastery of maritime power.

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Increasingly as well, the state was taking an active interest in the liners and what they could achieve for the nation. This was especially true as during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, liners were increasingly being built with government subsidies on the understanding that they would be requisitioned for public use in the event of war or any national calamity as was the case during the two World Wars where the likes of the Mauretania, Britannic and Queen Mary were used either as hospital ships or to transport troops and supplies to the front.

National identity and national pride were also heavily invoked especially during the 1930s. As demonstrated by two rival liners – the Queen Mary and the Normandie, which were seen by their respective governments as a way to promote Britain and France. Queen Mary, the first of the liners built by the merged Cunard-White Star Line drew heavily on a more restrained style in keeping up with the British national character to give prospective passengers a feel of being in a stately home at sea. Its interiors, fixtures and furniture made from materials sourced not only from all over Britain but also from its empire as a way of showing that the colonies were not a financial drain on the state but rather an important source for raw materials, and that the empire was of mutual benefit economically for the mother country and its dependents.

 

The Normandie on the other hand was unashamedly Art Deco in style and reflected continuing French influence in Western art and design by commissioning panels, sculptures and interior decoration from leading French artists. It was also a perfect showcase for the best of French industry as the likes of Lalique, Aubusson and other leading companies provided the liner’s furniture and fixtures. Both liners could be seen as floating representations of their respective countries at sea.

 

The Second World War put an end to the golden age of the ocean liner and the advent of airplanes such as the Boeing 747 and the Concorde rendered long distance travel by sea redundant. But the liners still provide inspiration for romance, dystopia and nostalgia as demonstrated by films such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Titanic (1997). In addition, the liners themselves were a potent symbol for optimism in scientific and technological progress.

The exhibition is not without its weakness; more could have been said about those travelling in second and third class as well as the staff that saw to the needs of the passengers. But that’s a small quibble, the V&A has managed to give its visitors a slice of that glamorous life at sea that has passed into the annals of history and one that we will never see again.

 

Notes:

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 14 April 2018. Photos also taken by bloggers.

Ocean Liners: Speed & Style is on at the V&A London until 17 June 2018 after which it will transfer at the V&A Dundee from 15 September 2018 to 24 February 2019. For more information please visit: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/ocean-liners-speed-style and: https://www.vandadundee.org/exhibitions/ocean-liners

Downton Abbey – an unhistorical historical drama

In his review of the 2013 Downton Abbey Christmas special, the TV critic Jim Shelley wrote that “Downton Abbey was shamelessly, shamefully aimed at the Americans, rather than the British audience that had made it so popular in the first place.” He could have been writing about the whole programme though and it became more apparent from the third series onwards as the history began to disappear and the soap opera aspect took over. It wasn’t helped by the endless junkets to America, where the actors seemed to be subjected to a Groundhog Day of the same chat show appearances, same questions, and same events over and over again.

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As we have said several times in our critique of this programme, Downton Abbey’s main problem is its very ahistoricity: it doesn’t just trivialise and misrepresent history but also the attitudes and behaviours of people during the time frame it was set. All of this despite the insistence that the programme is accurate, well researched and that it’s realistic. It is nothing of the sort, many of the story lines are anachronistic, crowbarred in a way that looks and feels forced; not to mention lacking any logical sense.

One of the main complaints with Downton Abbey and other period dramas in general is what one blogger calls “today’s imposition of 21st-century ideas and concerns on characters placed rather than fully located in [the past].” These dramas make an effort with the costumes, settings and props but that’s where it all ends, the way the characters sometimes behave and with the storylines, they might as well have been set today than say in 1912 or 1925!

We see various examples of these anachronisms in Downton Abbey – such as Robert’s reaction to his middle daughter Edith’s pregnancy which was more in line with a father from the 2010s rather than the 1920s. There’s Rose having too much freedom as an unmarried woman when someone like her would have been strictly chaperoned until she was married; or servants being buddy-buddy with their employers when that would not have been the case. Apart from the anachronistic storylines, there are two major omissions – the first being religion and the second being the empire.

Losing one’s religion:

As another blogger complained, this series projected “secularism back onto a time and place and way of life where it did not yet exist.” In an interview, the programme’s historical adviser Alastair Bruce claimed that the absence of religion was due to “executives in charge of the series had ordered producers to ‘leave religion out of it’, for fear of alienating an increasingly atheistic public.” He added, “Everyone panics when you try to do anything religious on the telly.”

This I believe is nonsense. Another popular period drama, Call the Midwife (BBC) not only has religion as one of the main themes of the programme but also religious people as central characters. Yet this programme time and again has been a hit with both critics and viewers. Although it has its flaws it’s not shy about tacking difficult story lines and depicting attitudes during the time the narrative is set no matter how unpalatable it is to our modern day sensibilities. It also depicts how religion and religious people still played a big part in Britain in the late 1950s and 1960s, even when organised religion was in retreat from everyday life. If Call the Midwife can do all that, then Downton Abbey which is set in the 1910s and 1920s has no such excuse.

Even Victoria (ITV) has featured religion in many of its scenes and one episode in the recent second series had religion as one of its main themes. And while the programme has taken some liberties with Queen Victoria’s life, aspects of religion such as the churching ritual that Victoria had to undergo following the birth of her first child and religious divisions hampering famine relief in Ireland was used with good effect to depict attitudes and customs of British society high and low of the late 1830s and 1840s. (It was as recently as 1979 that the Church of England renamed the rite of the churching of women in the Prayer Book to one of “A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child.”)

Whilst it’s true that in Downton Abbey there have been a few scenes set in the village church and the local vicar has made few appearances in series 2 and 3, there is a complete absence of religion with all the characters lacking any sense of religious belief and practice. Any literature of the period and contemporary accounts demonstrates the importance of religion in people’s lives. Although there were some who identified themselves as agnostic or even atheists, this was mostly confined to the middle class intelligentsia. For the majority, people identified themselves with a particular faith or sect, went to Church or the synagogue every week, and discussed religious issues with some even turning their hand to writing about theology and other aspects of their faith.

Especially in a rural area, religion was part and parcel of everyday life and the local lord and his family were obliged to set an example to their servants, tenants and the local community. It didn’t matter whether they were Church of England, Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic, Jewish or Nonconformist (a shorthand term used for Protestant sects other than the Established Churches) but religious observance either of the strict or nominal kind was scrupulously observed. The majority of the aristocracy belonged (at least nominally) to the Church of England and this was reinforced by the fact that bishops also sat in the House of Lords, that the local vicar was dependent on his living on the local lord and that the Church was an acceptable career for younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry. In effect all these ensured that the unity of Church and State, prominent in British institutions such as the Monarchy and Parliament, was also replicated on the local level; which also meant that the local vicar and his wife were an integral part of the local community’s social life and were often related to the local aristocracy and gentry. They would be regularly asked to dinner and other social events in the Big House, while the vicar’s wife and the chatelaine would regularly work together on a host of charitable endeavours and appeals. Historically there have even been some aristocrats who took an active role in religious life and education, most notably Millicent Duchess of Sutherland with her Bible study groups not just confined to her household but among her husband’s tenants and the local village. There was also Father the Honourable Ignatius Spencer, the younger son of the 4th Earl Spencer, who started out as an Anglican vicar but converted to Roman Catholicism and took holy orders in that church. In light of this, the near absence of religion and its practice in Downton Abbey renders meaningless its claim to accurately represent British life during the early decades of the twentieth century.

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Defenders will point out that showing religion wouldn’t fit the storyline or that there is the religion due to the weddings, christening – and the vicar does pop up in the programme. I find this a spurious excuse – religion was a part of everyday life in the era around the period in which Downton is set, in a way we can’t imagine in our largely secular world.  Faith, or at least lip service to religious observance, was all pervasive, and the Church, along with the Empire and the monarchy, had a deep significance and importance for very many people. Religion and religious teaching was deeply embedded in people’s psyche, church-going on a Sunday was still common, and many children of all social classes attended a local Sunday School.

Churches also undertook a considerable amount of charitable and welfare work and provided a venue for social and community activities as well as spiritual comfort in times of national crisis. National days of prayer were particularly well supported during the Great War, Sunday was generally regarded as a day of rest and all shops closed on Sundays.

In her diaries written during the First World War, Lillie Scales describes the role religion played for her and many other people:

August 1914 – Intercession services are being held in many places…one feels that only hope is in God and that He will defend the right.

  1. On Sunday January 6th we had the national day of intercession and it was a wonderful day. We had good congregations, but one heard everywhere of crowded churches, and even queues.

November 11th 1918 George (Lillie’s husband) had gone to St Giles’s at 11 o’clock, and found people pouring into the church for an impromptu thanksgiving service, and there were services there all morning. There had been an impromptu great thanksgiving service in St Paul’s at 12 noon.

November 17th 1918 – There was a great thanksgiving service in St Paul’s, and churches everywhere were crowded, queues in many places.

 

Church membership (according to faithsurvey.co.uk) peaked in 1900 at 33% of the population, and in 1920 was just under 10 million in a population of around 40 million – and there must have been many more people who attended church because of social, moral or familial pressure or expectation. This aspect of existence – weekly church attendance, the great annual rituals of Whitsun, Easter, Advent and Christmas, the importance in public life that the established church had and the comfort religion gave to many (especially during the war years) are simply ignored – because Bruce claimed that he was told to show it would upset viewers.

To a great number of people in the UK now, religion isn’t important and they don’t realise the extent to which it was in the Downton era. That’s why Alastair Bruce got away with his comment and no-one picked up the logical fail to the claim that this was supposed to be an accurate depiction of life 100 years ago but that a very significant chunk of social existence was omitted. Write a drama that panders to what as writer you perceive to be the susceptibilities and prejudices of your audience instead of depicting historical facts and you end up with Braveheart – or Downton Abbey.

I think a good writer would have found a way to have people going about their everyday life in the background and the storyline in the foreground. I am of the view that one of the whole points of a drama is to show facets of these characters and religion might not necessarily be a major story line but it could be something in the background to give the viewer a picture of what was life then. If religion was depicted as part of everyday life in Downton Abbey, it could have added more poignancy to Thomas’s struggles or Robert’s crises. We could have seen Thomas wresting with the conflict between religious dogma and society’s attitudes against his own sexuality and desires, or Robert with his personal issues having a crisis of faith due to feeling unwanted during the war, realising that his marriage is not what it seemed and the family’s subsequent precarious finances. This is real story telling and not the half-baked and flimsy ones that we’ve seen on screen.

 

Don’t Mention the Empire:

When the TV critic Jim Shelley groused that the programme was pandering shamelessly to the Americans, it was an astute observation. One can see this with the casting of veteran Hollywood actress Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson, Cora’s mother in series 3 then contriving her return in the series 4 Christmas special with her son Harold (Paul Giamatti) in tow. The aforementioned special was seemingly designed to pander to Americans’ fascination with British royalty, pomp and circumstance as well as the endless parade of evening gowns and spectacle that the viewing public had come to expect.

Perhaps surprisingly for the producers and TV executives, the episode was greeted with derision and hilarity with the plot described as “ludicrous” and lacking credibility. Even the much-vaunted research and accuracy was panned, as several viewers pointed out mistakes ranging from the way the presentation was done down to errors in dress and uniforms.

This pandering to the Americans is perhaps one reason why the British Empire is conspicuously absent in Downton Abbey. For sure there are a few fleeting references here and there but it’s very much like Basil Fawlty going on about not mentioning the war. Just like with religion, Fellowes must have decided that the empire didn’t fit into his plot so it’s not mentioned at all. The only obligatory references are with Robert’s cousin the Marquess of Flintshire going to India to become a provincial governor, a fleeting mention of the Amritsar Massacre and listening to a radio broadcast of George V opening the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley (a very convenient prompt to tell the audience that series 5 is set in 1924).

Apart from what I’ve mentioned above, the empire might not as well exist in Downton Abbey. This is despite the fact that historically it was an omnipresent presence in British life and we are still living with its legacy for good or ill to this very day. The popular celebrity genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC) through several episodes featuring the likes of actor Charles Dance, Olympic athlete Sebastian Coe, chef Ainsley Harriott, journalist Natasha Kaplinsky, actress Meera Syal and most recently choreographer Craig Revel Horwood have demonstrated how much the empire is very much interwoven into the very fabric of this country. We can see the empire’s influence in the food that we eat, in our decorative arts and architecture, not to mention that many place names up and down Britain have their origins in places that were part of the empire on which “the sun never sets.”  These influences have been cemented further following the end of the Second World War when immigration grew steadily from countries that comprised the former empire.

During the period in which Downton Abbey is set, the empire featured prominently in national life and everyday life (one example being the annual celebration of Empire Day). The positions of Colonial Secretary and Secretary of State for India were seen as prestigious, news concerning the empire was widely covered and the comings and goings of politicians and famous people from the colonies were headline news. There were also the various events that underlined the bonds between Britain and its colonies through industrial exhibitions held in major cities; the most famous being that held at Wembley in 1924-5. These exhibitions not only presented the best of home grown industry but also products from the empire such as timber from Canada, butter and lamb from New Zealand, cotton from India and others. In short, exhibitions such as those held at Wembley were, in the observation of Anne Clendinning, to “celebrate imperial unity and to increase mutual economic cooperation” as well as highlight the empire which was described by King George V as a “family of nations.”

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This idea of the empire as a “family of nations” isn’t a new one but it was used by Queen Victoria to cement the bonds between Britain and a growing empire during the second half of the 19th century with her sons and grandsons touring India and the white dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) on her behalf. This was further underlined when Victoria’s son-in-law the future 9th duke of Argyll served as Governor-General of Canada. In 1911, George V went one step further by travelling to India to be present at a Durbar staged to mark his coronation as emperor of India; and following the end of the First World War, his sons all undertook tours of the empire on his behalf with the Duke of York (the future George VI) travelling to the Antipodes and Africa while the Duke of Gloucester undertook tours of Africa. However the most indefatigable was the oldest son, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) when during the 1920s and 1930s he became the first member of the royal family to visit nearly all parts of the empire during his world tours. These tours were so successful that in David Cannadine’s words, “the crown was made truly imperial and the empire authentically royal.”

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Royal tours followed a certain formula as described by Cannadine in his book Ornamentalism whereby “[t]hese were grand progresses by land and sea, lasting for many months and covering many miles, involving countless receptions, dinners, parades and speeches, and all carried on before vast, delighted and admiring crowds.” By the twentieth century, following Edward VII’s dictum that the more people see the royals the better it is for the country, the “arrangement for these tours became even more elaborate, and the tours even more novel, thrilling and spectacular, as the royal lineaments and sovereign symbols were brought vividly and vitally alive.”  There were also the reciprocal visits from African chiefs, Indian maharajahs, and royals from the various Pacific islands and sultans from Malaya where they were treated with the courtesy, deference, pomp and circumstance that their status demanded. All of these reinforced the idea that the empire was indeed a “family of nations.”

On a more personal level, the empire had an impact on huge swathes of the British population not just with what they consumed or bought but the personal and familial level. A huge percentage of the UK population had at least one family member or a friend living and working in the colonies. Thousands of people together with their families emigrated to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in search of a better life lured by the opportunity afforded by huge tracts of land for farming, herding and mining; a cheaper standard of living and the chance to start anew.

A cheaper standard of living and lack of career prospects at home also drove many young men to try their luck in the colonies. The empire provided career opportunities and prospects for advancement that were not readily available in Britain. This was attractive for younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry as well as those from the upper middle classes in straitened conditions – there was the army, the colonial civil service as well as being on the staff of a governor or viceroy which allowed them avenues for promotion, enabling them to marry and provide for a wife and family in a way that would not be possible in Britain. Being an officer in a prestigious colonial or Indian regiment or being an aide-de-camp or private secretary to the viceroy or a governor-general made a young man a very attractive marriage prospect indeed.

There were also opportunities in the private sector for engineers, surveyors, bankers, scientists and the like as British firms and banks also opened branches in the colonies. Others saw the colonies as a way where they could be their own masters whether it be setting up their own business or acquiring land for farming or mining, prospecting for gold or other valuable minerals. For those who were not inclined towards government service or farming, the empire also provided prospects in the fields of religion, education, medicine and the social sciences. In short, the British Empire showed that there were rewards for those who were willing to take risks and leave the comfort zone of Britain.

In light of this, Downton Abbey could have made much more use of the empire with its storylines. For instance it could be used to write out characters such as Sybil after Jessica Brown Findlay refused to renew her contract. It’s true that Sybil, Tom and their baby daughter could have moved to America given they have family in that country but if they really wanted a fresh start and a clear break from their pasts then immigrating to Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa would have been much better as the Bransons could create a new life of their own unencumbered by their backgrounds.

The same could also be said of downstairs, where it would be likely that at least a few of the servants would have at least known someone who had gone to the colonies for better work prospects, and again this could be another way to write out someone like Daisy or any of the footmen. Or even Anna and Mr Bates, the money that they have saved would have allowed them not only to open the guesthouse that they want but also perhaps begin a new life in any of the Dominions or try their hand at running at a rubber plantation in Malaya or a tea farm in India.

Crucially however using the empire would have allowed Rose to exit the programme at the end of series 4. The series 4 Christmas special could have ended with Rose departing for India to re-join her parents following her season. Given her straitened financial circumstances and her less than impeccable moral credentials, she would have had problems finding a husband in Britain especially as after the First World War there were fewer men to go around. In fact India would have been a much better bet if she was looking for a husband. There was the army, the Indian Civil Service, the Viceroy’s office, the staff of the various provincial governors (among them her father Lord Flintshire) and of course those who were working for British companies based in India. Rose would be no different to the numbers of young upper and middle class young British women going to India in order to find an eligible young man to marry. For the women who went to India and who were known as the “Fishing Fleet”, it was an attractive choice – as Anne de Courcy wrote:

“By the nineteenth century, India was seen as a marriage market for girls neither pretty nor rich enough to make at home what was known as ‘a good match’, the aim of all young respectable young women – indeed, perhaps not to make one at all. In India, where European men greatly outnumbered European women, they would be besieged by suitors, many of whom be richer or have more prospects than anyone they could meet in England.” (p. 3)

And that was the motivation to go to India especially as for women, the main goal was to marry and raise a family. For upper and middle class women, the social life such as the London Season and country house visits were all geared towards young women to make a good match but in reality a great number of them didn’t (especially after the First World War when Britain had been denuded of eligible young men). As Mabell Countess of Airlie and countless other social commentators observed, ideally a young woman should have received at least a proposal by the end of her first season and should be married by the age of twenty. A woman who had reached the age of twenty five unmarried was already considered to be an old maid so it’s not surprising that many young women were dispatched by worried parents to try their luck in India – a last throw of the dice before settling into spinsterhood and a future of caring for aged parents and/or nephews and nieces.

But of course, Rose stays on (even when there is no real raison d’etre to her character) and eventually marries the Hon Atticus Aldridge, the son and heir to Viscount Sinderby. Much was made of him being Jewish and while someone like him would have at least five years’ worth of debutantes to choose from with some as rich or richer than he is (thereby cementing an alliance between wealth and wealth) but no, love has to triumph even when it’s crowbarred in as a way of giving a redundant character something to do, and any parental objection to the match is dismissed as bigotry – forgetting that the parents (especially the Sinderbys) would by the standards of the time have legitimate objections to the match and not just with regards to religious differences.

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Once Rose and Atticus are married she is written out of the programme, but they make a brief appearance during the finale and its revealed that they are living in America. As Atticus works in banking and finance it would be more plausible to have based him in the City of London, where a number of Jewish founded banks such as Samuel Montagu might have provided a congenial niche for a rich and personable young man. If they were going to be posted overseas, it would be more likely that it would be Shanghai in China, which despite not being part of the British Empire had a substantial presence in commerce and banking. Why Fellowes had to contrive to say that they’re in America is baffling unless this is him still pandering to the American market until the very end.

 

Conclusion:

In our previous posts on Downton Abbey, we have mentioned several issues with the programme with regards to its writing, plotting and characterisation. Dramatic weight and rhythm has always been a problem with this programme, with trivial and irrelevant story lines being given equal time and importance with vital ones. There is as well no sense of the appropriate time for a story line and the programme itself has been riddled by one delayed action plot after the other; the war memorial; the lavish post-war entertaining after the family has lost its money rather than before the war, when it could be justified by having three daughters to marry off; even the family doing their bit for the war effort but not until the war had been going on for two years – all of these meant that these story lines have been robbed of their historical context and as a result the characters do not behave in a way that is of their time.

The history and its use and abuse as a narrative driver are a major issue. As stated earlier in this entry, Downton Abbey is ahistory not history. It might pay lip service to a few historical events such as the sinking of the Titanic and real life historical figures such as Neville Chamberlain but in the end, the programme portrays a false and incomplete picture of the period, using historical events to forward the writer’s pet agendas when that suits and ignoring them when it doesn’t. It is false because while the drama might be set from 1912 to 1925, the attitudes displayed (at least the majority of them) are more attuned to today’s norms. In many ways Downton Abbey is a classic case of ideas that were commonplace and accepted in 1925 being suddenly being labelled “bizarre”,“bigoted” and plain wrong today to suit the sensibilities of the audience and reinforce a belief that somehow we are so much enlightened than some of the characters we are watching. From attitudes towards gay men and unmarried mothers to men shot for cowardice during the war, it seems that a writer like Julian Fellowes can simply erase history in his mind and convince himself that because he holds one opinion today, anyone who held a contrary opinion in the past (notably, of course, Robert and Carson) must have been some sort of knuckle-dragging, sexist, mouth breathing, ignorant bigot who can be held up to ridicule at every opportunity. No doubt of course there were people like that around in 1925 – the history of the decades that follow amply bears that out – but while people like Robert and Carson may well have held opinions that we regard as odious, they were not alone in that. Prejudice against homosexuality and babies born out of wedlock and men who deserted their posts in war (to name but three stories in Downton) was taken for granted – it is our attitudes that at the time would have been regarded as odd and out of the ordinary. A drama written with no appreciation or understanding that the past is a different country, and that fails to honour that past, good or bad, by imposing contemporary standards upon the standards of another era is one that does not deserve to be dignified with the name of a drama – it is mere pastiche. Fellowes’ historical blindness is amply demonstrated by the descriptions of Downton being set in a “gentler, kinder time” – a time when there was capital punishment for murder, corporal punishment in schools was commonplace, workhouses still operated and the horrors of the Great War were all too fresh in the memory.

Not only is Downton Abbey false, it is incomplete; and it is incomplete because of its omission of major aspects of British life and society during that period. What is worrying is that many people have taken what they have seen in Downton Abbey as gospel truth; as is the deeply damaging notion that people in the past are just like us only in funny clothes. As result it ends up being not only poor historical drama but poor drama full stop.

The programme’s omission of both religion and empire robbed Downton Abbey of any claim to be realistic or well researched. Crucially both could have given more depth to the narrative and added dimension to the characters and added a real understanding of an era. Unfortunately, it was never meant to be and yet again, we have to return to the question of why Fellowes set his narrative in the past when he is patently uninterested in exploring its real story.