OSBORNE HOUSE ON the Isle of Wight was one of Queen Victoria’s favourite residences. Apart from one room within it, I was not overly impressed by the place. That room, which alone is a very good reason to visit Osborne, is the ornate Durbar Room. Entering this vast hall is like stepping inside an exuberantly decorated Maharajah’s palace somewhere in India. It is a superb example of the Indo-Saracenic style, which is according to one definition (on Wikipedia) was:
“… a revivalist architectural style mostly used by British architects in India in the later 19th century, especially in public and government buildings in the British Raj, and the palaces of rulers of the princely states. It drew stylistic and decorative elements from native Indo-Islamic architecture, especially Mughal architecture, which the British regarded as the classic Indian style, and, less often, from Hindu temple architecture.”
The Durbar Room was built not in India but in the country that ruled it at the time. It was designed not by a British architect but by a man from British India – Ram Singh (1858-1916), who was born in Rasulpur in the Punjab (now a village in Pakistan). His skills were recognised at a young age when he was seen working in a woodcarver’s shop in Amritsar. The man who spotted his talent was Rudyard Kipling’s father, the art teacher Lockwood Kipling (1837-1911). At the time, Lockwood was the first principal of the Mayo School of Industrial Arts, Lahore (established in 1875). He enrolled Ram as a student. Ram Singh was a successful student and soon became assistant drawing master at the school and Lockwood’s protégé. The two men collaborated in many important projects including designing Aitchison College in Lahore, the Mayo School in Lahore, and both the Indian Passage and ballroom at Bagshot Park (near Windsor). The work he had done in England led to him and Lockwood Kipling being given the commission to design the Durbar Room at Osborne.
The Durbar Room was designed to accommodate large ceremonial occasions and to reflect Queen Victoria’s exalted position as Empress of India, a role created by the British Parliament in 1876. This room, completed in 1891 as an extension of Osborne House, with its riotous array of mainly Mughal-style plasterwork decorations might have served yet another purpose. By the time it was completed, Victoria had never visited India, and at the age of over 70 years was unlikely to do so (and never did). In a way, the Durbar Room brought India to Victoria, and judging by its appearance, did so very well.