Magazine article History Today

Set in Stone Victoria's Monuments in India

Magazine article History Today

Set in Stone Victoria's Monuments in India

Article excerpt

At the centenary of Victoria's death, Mary Ann Steggles recalls' the circumstances in which the many monuments to the Queen were erected in India, and traces their fate.

The nineteenth century was an era of `statumania', and sculpture stands as the supreme imperial art form. Throughout the duration of the Raj, the British residents of India and their loyal supporters erected portrait statues in marble and bronze as symbols of a national and civic pride and evincing the moral virtue required for the expansion and security of the Empire. Whether erected by public subscription or funded through private benefaction, these symbols of allegiant nationalism were intended to inspire a sense of patriotic fervour in the native population, a function frequently emphasised by elaborate and grandiose unveiling ceremonies.

Sometimes it appeared as if no sooner had a subject laid down his life for `God, Queen, and Country' than a subscription committee was raised in order to immortalise the deed. The choice of the individual commemorated, the scale, the form of the statue, and its site depended the subject's position in the social scale, as laid down in the 1841 rules of Precedence in the East Indies. The governor-general ranked first, followed by the governors of Bengal, Madras, Bombay, and Agra. The chief justice of Bengal and the bishop of Calcutta followed and so forth down to civilians, divided into six classes according to their length of service. Women were assigned the position of their husbands. After 1858. the monarch was followed by the viceroy.

One of the most memorialised servants of the East India Company was Governor-General Charles Cornwallis whose portrait statue was erected in East India House, London, as well as others in Madras, Calcutta and Bombay; a funerary memorial under an elaborate cupola in Gorakhpur in addition to a funerary tablet in St Paul's Cathedral, London. In all, between 1792 when the first statue of Cornwallis was commissioned (for Madras), and 1927 when a statue of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, was commissioned for Bombay, over 170 portrait statues, from the workshops of some of Britain's most eminent sculptors, were exported to the subcontinent.

As the Company began to expand British economic, military, and missionary efforts on the Indian subcontinent, works of art were produced that were intended to carry messages both descriptive and prescriptive of the civic virtue and obligations expected at the time. Paintings were used to reinforce values such as patriotism, self-sacrifice, and statesmanship: examples included Robert Home's `The Death of Colonel Moorhouse at the Pettah Gate of Bangalore' (1795) or `Charles Cornwallis receiving the Sons of Tipu Sultan as Hostages' (1794), which were publicised in the Madras press for viewing and for the purchase of engraved copies prior to the shipping of the originals to London.

In times of political crisis, too, the ruling elite sought ways of bolstering its legitimacy through visual media which could establish a bond between rulers and ruled, re-establish the identification of moderate opposition groups with the regime, and thus marginalise its more vocal opponents. An easily understood visual language was needed to provoke this re-examination of fundamental values, and to validate and reinforce the message. The Indian Mutiny, or Sepoy Uprisings, of 1857 provided just such a crisis. Stories of atrocities occurring during the Uprisings quickly placed the question of the methods of East India Company rule squarely in the minds of the British population and the Parliament. The administration of British India was transferred from the Honourable East India Company to the Crown the following year, in 1858. A new public icon was needed to serve as a visual reminder of the virtues and endurance, of British imperial rule. The obvious subject was Queen Victoria.

Statues of the Queen were erected both at home and throughout the Empire. …

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