Long Reads

Colonial India's riches at first World Expo in 1851

Prasun Sonwalkar
Filed on September 9, 2021
Koh-i-noor on the British queen's crown. — Reuters file

One of the major attractions at the The Great Exhibition in 1851 was the India section curated by John Forbes Royle on behalf of the East India Company

The Great Exhibition in 1851 was meant to be a celebration of the Industrial Revolution, with exhibits that included a massive hydraulic press, a printing machine that could turn out 5,000 copies of the popular periodical Illustrated London News in an hour, another for printing and folding envelopes, and the John Haddon Etching Press. But one of the major attractions was the large India section curated by the Kanpur-born botanist John Forbes Royle (1798-1858) on behalf of the East India Company, which was then ruling most of the subcontinent.

Historians have long explored the aesthetics and politics of colonial collecting and representing India at trade fairs: exotic against the modern West. Some believe the exhibition in Hyde Park enhanced Britain’s knowledge about India, while others insist that the way Indian items were juxtaposed with British and other artefacts, they reinforced the dominant theme of orientalism. For example, some Indian items were described as ‘rude Tools of the Natives’, besides raw materials such as ivory, horns and metallic ores. Research shows that the paintings, idols, models, panoramas, and dioramas imported from India mostly lacked reliable information about their provenance; they were simply regarded at the time as something exotic, subject only to wonder or disgust.

The highlight of the Indian objects were two iconic diamonds reputed to be mined in Andhra Pradesh: the Koh-i-Noor — hundreds lined up each day to view it — and the pale-coloured Daria-i-Noor. Records show that many who crowded around to see the Koh-i-Noor were disappointed because it failed to sparkle even though it was lit by a several little gas jets; it was only when it was skillfully cut that its beauty shone through. Other attractions included an embroidered carpet from Lahore, a bed from Kashmir and a bedstead made of pure silver, a coat embroidered with pearls, emeralds and rubies, and a magnificent howdah and trappings for a maharaja’s elephant (the elephant wearing it came from a museum of stuffed animals in England).

Another rarity was an exquisite ivory throne gifted by the Maharaja of Travancore to Queen Victoria. The throne, one of the priceless possessions currently in the Royal Collection, has rarely been seen in public since. It was last shown to the public at an exhibition titled ‘Victoria & Albert: Art & Love’, in August 2010. Reflecting the craftsmanship of Travancore (now Kerala) artisans, the throne with a footstool was despatched to London in October 1850 for display at the exhibition. After the event, Queen Victoria wrote to the Maharaja of Travancore: “Your Highness’s chair has occupied a prominent position amongst the wonderful works of art which have been collected in our metropolis and your highness’s liberality and the workmanship of the natives of Travancore have received due admiration from the vast multitude of spectators.”

Historian of London Liza Picard recalls the event: “If you took an omnibus along London’s Knightsbridge in the summer of 1851, you would see an astonishing sight. Glittering among the trees was a palace made of glass, like something out of the Arabian Nights. It was as tall as the trees, indeed taller, because the building arched over two of them already growing there, as if, like giant plants in a glasshouse, they had been transplanted with no disturbance to their roots. A shower of rain washed the dust from the glass, and made it glitter all the more. Nothing like this had been seen in London, ever… Britain was at peace. The Chartists had meekly delivered their Petition to the House of Commons in three cabs, and gone home. (Prince) Albert could write to his cousin King William of Prussia, that ‘we have no fear here either of an uprising or an assassination’. England was experiencing a manufacturing boom. This was the time to show off, on the international stage.”

Most studies of representation at the 1851 Expo are based on 49 water colour illustrations of various sections that had high ceilings, including six depicting the Indian displays. English painter Joseph Nash painted 43 of them and Belgian artist Louis Haghe six. The Indian depictions were painted by Nash. They were reproduced as chromolithographs and later published by Messrs Dickinson of Bond Street in two volumes with accompanying letterpress descriptions in 1854 as Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

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