The Empress of India & The Imperial Trophy

In the 19th century British imperial power had reached its height. Through strong trade and industrial development Great Britain had come to rule many parts of the world. As time went on the Victorians began to investigate the inhabitants of their colonies through images, literature, and exhibitions. Many of these images and artefacts stand as trophies of conquest and expressions of power as organised possessions.

Rudolf Swoboda, a successful Austrian artist, first came into contact with Queen Victoria during the Colonial and Indian exhibition that took place in the autumn of 1886. It was here that he produced several portraits of the exhibition’s live exhibits, such as the potter Bakshiram shown in Fig. 1. The event, like the many other exhibitions of the period, was a celebration of British power and colonial development. India was given prominence throughout, representing the ‘jewel in the imperial crown’. Exhibits included Indian carpets, traditionally Indian animals, and Indian people. Victorians saw India as a successful colonial asset but also as the embodiment of unchanging traditional life. This was represented through the many examples of Indian craftwork and even individual artisans that were exhibited, of which Bakshiram was representative. Indian culture was firmly set in contrast to the successful modern Victorian society.

The Colonial and Indian exhibition and others like them are interesting in that they show the way in which the British chose to order the cultures and people of the colonies as objects on display to be examined by, what Timothy Mitchell calls, the ‘dominating European gaze’. In exhibitions like these the artefacts and even the colonial people were exhibited as imperial trophies. The traditions of the grand exhibition can also be seen through the work of the artists associated with the Royal Society of Arts in this period, whose role was directly linked to colonial affairs. The Society aimed to capture and exhibit the resources of the colonies in order to encourage trade and unity. The commission of paintings of Indian people was a usual request, a natural way for Queen Victoria to record the faces of her Indian subjects.

Swoboda’s commission was outlined in a letter from October 1886, which stated that ‘the sketches Her Majesty wishes to have are of the various types of the different nationalities. They should consist of heads of the same size as those already done for the Queen’. Swoboda’s work stuck closely to this request using the early paintings from the Colonial and Indian exhibition as a template for the larger body of work. Swoboda produced over forty paintings in India, nearly all of which were head and shoulder portraits at a small size of 30cm x 20cm (see Figs 2., 3., 4., 8. and 9.). His closeness to the royal house’s proposal indicates a clear awareness in fitting to a scheme. He also appears to have concentrated on a certain strata of Indian society, excluding the English educated class. This suggests a conscious decision to conform to the popular image of the Indian artisan, (although at this time the educated were still a minority, representing only 0.02 % of the overall Indian population). The craftsmen would have been more accessible to the painter, a factor that may also explain the high number of child portraits (see Fig. 3., 4. and 9.).

In order to make these small studies interesting and distinguishable from each other Swoboda appears to have concentrated on Indian subjects with unusual headwear or hairstyles such as the turban worn by Sunder Singh in Fig. 9.. This served to exaggerate the colonial citizens’ exotic ‘otherness’ and subsequently an inferiority compared to the colonial power of Britain. In this way the British become the ‘civilised’ in relation to the seemingly ‘uncivilised’ colonial conquests’. The ‘other’ is marked as different to the ‘normal’ white European. Brian Wilson, in his examination of the Victorian exhibitions, suggests that the representation of the ‘other’ colonial subject helped to define the position of the coloniser. Swoboda himself acted as a representative for the coloniser and would have been acutely aware of this powerful position in regard to his subjects. Not only was he acting on direct command from the Queen, he also represented her imperial strength. Swoboda was compiling a collection, a cross section of Indian inhabitants, and in this act the painter had power through his position as the viewer. By the very nature of accumulating a collection such as this, the individuality of the sitter is in some way lost. This notion of possessable subjects is emphasised through the paintings’ size, particular when seen in stark contrast to the larger portraits commissioned of the British ruling class at the time.

Another interesting element is the paintings resemblance to much of the photography gathered in this period, such as A Khambu and A Fakir (Fig 5. and 6.). As with other colonial states, photography was employed in a bid to gain knowledge of and, by extension, control over the new additions to the Empire. As Michel Foucault has noted, although knowledge and power are not the same thing, each incites the production of the other and, as Christopher Pinney in his examination of photography in India suggests, the individual was substituted as an indicator of a wider ‘general thesis’. Swoboda’s paintings reinforce these ideas, but their painterly beauty adds to their value as treasured possessions rather than technical studies. Despite this, some personality is attached to the portraits through the inclusion of the sitters’ names, something not found in the photographic collections.

Queen Victoria had a strong interest in India. Although she did not visit the country, she adopted many Indian servants and even learned Hindi and Urdu. Following the Colonial and Indian exhibition Victoria had also commissioned the design of a banquet hall at Osborne House to be built in the ‘Indian style’, which can be seen in Fig. 10.. The Durbar room, as it became known, was designed through the Colonial Art School in Lahore by the British Lockwood Kipling and Punjabi Ram Singh and exhibited the best of traditional Indian craft. Swoboda’s paintings were hung in the Durbar corridor leading to the Banquet Hall in 1894 where they continue to be displayed to this day. The Durbar room and Swoboda’s paintings stand as a representation of Victoria’s colonial power. The Queen had declared herself Empress of India in 1876 and was creating the palace to prove it. Queen Victoria saw the paintings as ‘beautiful things’, further colonial possessions to showcase as the material expression of the Queen’s power over her Indian subjects. While some writers have suggested that Victoria, although patronising, was in fact very affectionate toward India, it can be argued that it was only through her confidence in complete political control over the colony that she was able to enjoy its riches.

Although Swoboda’s painting style appears to give the paintings a realism and sensitivity in contrast to other photographs and paintings from the Victorian era,  their provenance challenges this notion. The paintings show a collection of unknown artisans selected for the gaze and ownership of the Empress of India. Edward Said identifies the process of imperialism as ‘the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory’, it is the process by which the power is maintained. Swoboda’s paintings present the Indian subject as a possession of the British crown and set within the opulent Durbar room, they become an imperial trophy.

See Swoboda’s work alongside other works associated with Empire in Artist and Empire at Tate Britain until the 10th of April 2016


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