Royal Indian treasures return to Scotland

They created a sensation when they went on display in the grand hall of the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art in 1879, bringing the riches of the Indian subcontinent to Victorian Scotland.
The Prince stands by an elephant during his tour of India. Picture: Royal CollectionThe Prince stands by an elephant during his tour of India. Picture: Royal Collection
The Prince stands by an elephant during his tour of India. Picture: Royal Collection

Now the treasures presented to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later crowned King Edward VII) on his four-month tour of localities encompassing present-day India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal, are to go on show in Scotland for the first time in nearly 140 years.

Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India 1875-6, opens at the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh on 15 December and runs until 22 April 2018.

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The spectacular works include a dazzling sirpech (turban ornament) made of three large emeralds and bordered with diamonds, a gold plate which took four years to make, decorated with hanging pearls which opens to reveal a perfume holder, and a pair of peacock feather fly whisks inlaid with diamonds.

The priceless pieces were given to the Prince on his four-month tour in 1875 as part of the traditional exchange of gifts and preceding the declaration of his mother, Queen Victoria, as the Empress of India. The visit aimed to establish personal links with local rulers and strengthen the ties between the subcontinent and the British Crown.

Regarded as some of the finest works of Indian design and craftsmanship from the Royal Collection, the gifts were displayed in an exhibition that toured Britain and Europe between 1876 and 1883, including visits to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.

Newspapers stirred up a frenzy of interest and people queued for hours to get in.

By the end of 1883, the gifts had been seen by more than two million people in Britain alone.

A report in The Scotsman of 5 March, 1874 described the “Opening Conversazione” at the museum in Chambers Street, where the queue of carriages reached the High Street and police kept order over a large crowd gathered to watch the arrivals.

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The article went on: “To give eclat to the opening of the collection for public inspection, the Lord Provost, Magistrates, and Council of the city gave last night a grand conversazione in the Museum, which was attended by over 3,000 ladies and gentlemen.

“The centre of attraction for the visitors was, of course, the Prince’s presents, but round the cases containing these the crowd was at times so dense that only a very hurried glimpse could be obtained.”

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After an evening of speeches and music provided by the band of the Inniskilling Dragoons, the report finished: “The company began to retire about ten o’clock and a lively scramble for cabs was maintained during the next hour.”

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