THE CORRIDORS LEADING to the spectacular Durbar Room in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight are lined with portraits of people born in pre-independence India, either painted or photographed during the 19th century. Most of these images depict members of the Indian aristocracy (e.g., rulers of Princely States). A few depict less exalted persons, such as craftsmen and the designer of the Durbar Room.
Maharajah Duleep Singh (1838-1893), who surrendered the Koh-i-Noor diamond to Queen Victoria, is portrayed in a few pictures, notably one by the famous German artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873). Many other paintings were created by the Austrian painter Rudolf Swoboda (1859-1914). Queen Victoria liked his painting style and commissioned him to create more than 40 portraits of Indian people. In 1886, the queen paid for him to travel to India, and gave him £300 in travelling expenses. Her instructions to the young artist were:
“The Sketches Her Majesty wishes to have – are of the various types of the different nationalities. They should consist of heads of the same size as those already done for The Queen, and also small full lengths, as well as sketches of landscapes, buildings, and other scenes. Her Majesty does not want any large pictures done at first, but thinks that perhaps you could bring away material for making them should they eventually be wished for.” (www.rct.uk/collection/403755/gulzar).
Many of these can be seen hanging in Osborne House. Amongst his many Indian portraits, there is at least one painted not in India but in England. Queen Victoria had several servants, who were born in British India and the Princely States associated with it. The best known of these ‘imported’ servants was her favourite Mohammed Abdul Karim (1863-1909), her ‘munshi’ (teacher), who helped her study Hindustani, which she learned to write competently in the Urdu script. Amongst Swoboda’s paintings of Indians hanging in Osborne House, there is one of a non-Indian, a lady from Cyprus, and another, a Cape Malay woman from Cape Town (South Africa). Why they are there, I have not yet found out, but maybe Swoboda spotted them at the Colonial Exhibition held in London in 1886.
Not all the portraits of Indians are painted. Some of them are hand-coloured photographs. A few of these photos are signed by their creators, one of which was the photographic studio of Gobind Ram and Oodey Ram in Jaipur. Along with a studio in Calcutta the Ram brothers were pioneers in photography in 19th century India. One source (www.indiatoday.in/lifestyle/whats-hot/story/tryst-with-colonial-india-205124-2014-08-22) stated:
“Apparently, studio photography was practised by many Maharajas as a means of leisure, mostly using their courtesans as subjects. The Ravi Varma Studios of Calcutta and Gobind Ram-Oodey Ram Studio in Jaipur are just two examples.”
As can be seen at Osborne, these photographers also made portraits of the maharajahs and their families.
Although Queen Victoria loved Osborne House, I cannot see its appeal apart from the wonderful Durbar Room. For me, seeing this lavishly decorated hall and the collection portraits of the Indian people are the main delights of this otherwise rather gloomy residence.