Eastern Eye (UK)
Unseen Treasures of Portland Collection yield tales of the Raj
ART, JEWELS, HISTORICAL ARTEFACTS, FURNITURE ON DISPLAY AT NOTTINGHAM EXHIBITION
A JADE tea set brought back from the splendid Delhi Durbar of 1903 by an English aristocratic family reflects an important part in the story of Britain’s relationship with India.
It is among 500 objects included in an exhibition titled “Unseen Treasures of the Portland Collection” which opened last Saturday (25) at the Portland Gallery on the Welbeck estate in North Nottinghamshire. The exhibition, whose contents change every three years, includes treasures collected over more than 400 years by the Cavendish-Bentinck family, which has strong India connections.
The Dukes of Portland have owned Welbeck since 1607.
The sixth Duke of Portland’s uncle, Lord William Bentinck had two stints in India and is credited with introducing a number of reforms, including abolishing widow burning (sati), as the governor of Fort William (Bengal) from 1828 to 1834 and the first governor-general of India from 1834 to 1835.
On display at the exhibition are the finest examples of art, portraits, silver, jewels, historical artefacts and furniture. They include a pair of silver buires (wine fountains) from 1688; Rowland Lockey’s portrait of ‘Bess of Hardwick’ from c1587; and the personal seal of King Charles I created from a Mughal emerald crystal of 78 carats in 1616.
The tea set was brought back by the sixth Duke and Duchess of Portland. In 1903, two years after the death of Queen Victoria, Empress of India, the British had convinced themselves that the Raj would go on for ever.
Had someone looking to the future predicted that one day an Indian would be prime minister of the United Kingdom, such a person would have been declared either mad or a dangerous rebel and locked up for good.
In fact, Lord Curzon, who was viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905 and organised the dazzling Delhi Durbar of 1903 to proclaim Edward VII as Emperor of India, declared: “As long as we rule India, we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it, we shall drop straightaway to a thirdrate power.”
The sixth Duke of Portland, William John Arthur Charles James CavendishBentinck, was born on December 28, 1857, the year of the “Indian Mutiny” and died, aged 85, four years before Indian independence on April 26, 1943.
He was a landowner, courtier, and Conservative politician who notably served as Master of the Horse to the monarch from 1886-1892 and again from
1895-1905. He and his wife, Winifred Anna Dallas-Yorke, had three children. She died, aged on July 90, 1954, seven years after independence.
The sixth Duke and Duchess of Portland were well connected and attended the Delhi Durbar as personal guests of Edward VII. The jade tea set, which caught their eye, was made by a skilled craftsman and medal winner, Mahomet Amin.
In a few short months at the end of 1902, a deserted plain was transformed into an elaborate tented city, complete with temporary light railway to bring crowds of spectators out from Delhi, a post office with its own stamps, telephone and telegraphic facilities, a variety of stores, a police force with specially designed uniforms, a hospital, a magistrate’s court and complex sanitation, drainage and electric light installations. In all there were 1,400 tents. The Portlands were allocated a luxury one in the viceroy’s camp.
The Delhi Durbar of 1903 outdid the one in 1877, when Queen Victoria was proclaimed the Empress of India and also the one in 1911 to commemorate the coronation in Britain a few months earlier of King George V and Queen Mary.
Edward VII, to Curzon’s disappointment, did not attend, but sent his brother, the Duke of Connaught, who arrived with a mass of dignitaries by train from Bombay
just as Curzon and his government came in the other direction from Calcutta. The assembly awaiting them displayed possibly the greatest collection of jewels to be seen in one place. Each of the Indian princes was adorned with the most spectacular of his gems from the collections of centuries. Obsequious maharajahs came with great retinues from all over India, while the massed ranks of the Indian army, under their commander-inchief Lord Kitchener, paraded, played their bands, and restrained the crowds.
On the first day, the Curzons entered the area of festivities, together with the maharajahs riding on elephants, some with huge gold candelabra stuck on their tusks. The durbar ceremony itself fell on New Year’s Day and was followed by days of polo and other sports, dinners, balls, military reviews, bands, and exhibitions.
The world’s press dispatched their best journalists, artists and photographers to cover proceedings. The popularity of movie footage of the event, shown in makeshift cinemas throughout India, is often credited with having launched the country’s early film industry.
The event culminated in a grand coronation ball attended only by the highestranking guests, reigned over by Lord Curzon and Lady Curzon in all her jewels and peacock gown.
Curzon, the greatest of the viceroys, rescued the Taj Mahal, founded the Kaziranga National Park in Assam for wildlife, but also fomented Hindu-Muslim communal tensions by partitioning Bengal along religious lines.
The sixth Duke of Portland’s uncle, Lieutenant General Lord William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck GCB GCH PC (September 14, 1774-June 17, 1839), known as Lord William Bentinck, was the second son of the 3rd Duke of Portland.
His father got him a job as governor of Madras in 1803, but his work was largely overshadowed by the mutiny at Vellore in July 1806 and he left his post in 1807.
His second stint between 1828 and 1934 earned him the reputation of being a progressive man. His bold reforms included abolishing sati, suppressing female infanticide and human sacrifice, and establishing English as the medium of instruction after passing the English Education Act 1835.
In 1835 he also founded the Medical College, Bengal, which became the Calcutta Medical College, a prestigious institution which had sent countless doctors to the NHS in Britain. Among them were former assistant commissioner Neil Basu’s father, Dr Pankaj Kumar Basu, and also Dr Rupendra Kumar Majumdar, whose son is Bafta chairman Krishnendu Majumdar.