Book Review: Splendours of the Subcontinent : A Prince's Tour of India, 1875-6

Since prehistoric times, leaders across tribes and empires have exchanged land, money, cattle, brides, and precious stones as gifts. 


Vesuvius - the gelding gifted to Xi Jinping by Macron

Never look a gift horse in the mouth

The right diplomatic gift can help foster strong relationships and showcase the best talents of a country.  Earlier this year, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, made the news with his gift of a eight-year-old gelding for Chinese premier, Xi Jinping. The choice of a horse hit all the right notes - it was both generous and thoughtful. The gift was inspired by the Chinese tradition of “panda diplomacy” and was also an allusion to the Qianlima, a Chinese mythical winged creature famed for its ability to travel great distances, underlining Macron's desire for a long-term relationship with Beijing. 

The wrong gift can be an embarrassment to the giver and cause a headache or even offence to the recipient. In 2013, François Hollande received a camel from Malian authorities during an official visit to the African country. The French president left the camel in the custody of a family in Timbuktu who misunderstood the situation and promptly turned it into a tagine. In 2009, President Obama's gifted 25 of his favourite movies on DVD to UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. Not only did the DVD not work in the UK but it was in exchange for £10,000-worth of gifts given to Obama by Brown, including two biographies of Winston Churchill and a pen and holder made from the wood of an anti-slavery ship.  

Splendours of the Subcontinent

A masterful example of gift-giving

The Royal Collection's Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince's Tour of India considers a masterful example of diplomat gifting - those from Indian royalty to the Prince of Wales on his 1875/6 tour of India.

Written by Kajal Meghani, this handsome hardback accompanies a Royal Collection exhibition at The Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse and The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace. The book opens with an accessible and enlightening introduction describing the rationale of the Prince's trip, the preparations as well as considering the diplomatic gifts the Prince received.

In October 1875, the Prince of Wales set off on a tour of the Indian Subcontinent, visiting over 21 localities. which today encompass India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal. The four-month tour was a politically important gesture. As The Times reported: 'The greatest necessity in the government of a vast and various empire like that of England [sic] is mutual intelligence, mutual respect, a sense of unity, and increasing sympathy.' At the time a large part of India was still governed by long-established Princes and Rajahs. The exchange of gifts, an important part of Indian princely ceremony, was going to be a tricky matter. In fact, it was debated in Parliament and in the India Office. The reason for the concern was that Prince couldn’t possibly hope to match the lavishness of the gifts he was likely to receive from his royal Indian hosts.

That concern was well placed. The tour a lavish and splendid affair - something the book brings to life by weaving in colourful extracts from Sir William Howard Russell's diary throughout the introduction. In Poona, we learn that the Prince enjoyed his first experience of riding an elephant. The elephant was painted yellow with saffron and harnessed in a silver gilt howdah,'surpassing splendour, [and shining] like burnished gold in the morning sun'. A fireworks display in Trichinoply '[poured like] lava, like floods, now blue, now orange, now green, from some overwelling fountain'

Rose-water sprinklers and articulated fish

Despite a circular sent to the Indian courts suggesting that the Indian rulers only present 'curiosities, ancient arms and specimens of local manufacture', the gifts received by the Prince of Wales included many magnificent examples of works. The gifts included weaponry, turban adornments, perfume holders, rose-water sprinklers and architectural models. Highlights include an ivory workbox made to look like the palace that stands on the banks of the Ganges at Benares, a silver gilt and gold opium box from the Raja of Ratlam, a gold articulated fish and a miniature model peacock-prowed boat that doubles as a desktop inkstand. Together, they are regarded as some of the finest works of Indian design from the Royal Collection. The gifts successfully highlighted the creativity and craftsmanship of the places from which they came.

Model of a Jaipur House 1866-75

Model of a Jaipur house 1866 - 1875

The book does a superb job of reproducing these objects. Each is reproduced with a crisp full-page photograph which is large enough for readers to be able to closely examine the details within the work. Alongside each photograph is a short description giving context and details on the design, manufacture and provenance of the object.

Gold articulated fish

Gold articulated fish

Arguably, the gifts from the Indian Princes on this trip can claim to be one of the most successful examples of diplomatic gifting. When the Prince arrived home, the gifts went on display and caught the public imagination. An opening exhibition at the South Kensington Museum (later renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum) attracted almost 30,000 visitors in the first week. Newspapers published weekly features discussing the gifts. The collection toured to venues across Britain, in Paris and in Copenhagen. By 1883 more than two million people in Britain had seen the show. 

The moment that British taste and design was changed forever 

The exhibition tour of the gifts was so successful that British companies, keen to capitalise on the popularity of the aesthetic, started to mimic it.  For example, Liberty of London introduced dinner services with a scrolling foliage similar to that seen on the scabbard of a sword presented to the prince by Rao of Cutch. The Birmingham-based firm Elkington & Co, which had developed the process of silver-plating, began to manufacture copies of Indian silver. 

The diplomatic gifts given to the Prince led to a transformation in our cultural imagination and changed European and British taste and design forever. Who says soft power doesn't work?

Our thanks to the Royal Collection team for providing a review copy.

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