Indian Royalty and Victorian Aesthetes

© V&A Images

Material culture exhibits stand out from the usual museum subject matter in many ways. Most shows look at the work of a particular genre, style, or artist, while those dominated by material culture objects seem to recreate entire worlds. This is most apparent when you are standing in an excellent one. I was in San Francisco two weeks ago to witness the end of one such exhibit and the arrival of another.

Originating at the Victoria and Albert in London, the Asian Art Museum’s ‘Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts‘ was on display from 21 October until 8 April. Despite being in its last week, it was still packed to full during my visit. In such close quarters it was impossible not to occasionally overhear the conversations of passers-by, many of whom said they were returning to see it a second or third time. Patrons had to queue to see many of the paintings — and especially the jewellery pieces — up close. Equally crowded were the display cases for the clothing and textiles. The garments were appropriately elaborate. Some were richly embroidered and embellished, while others were arresting in the simplicity of the stamped and stenciled patterned cotton robes, with subtle but definite differences for the Hindu and Muslim maharajas.

© V&A Images

The exhibit succeeded in illustrating how diverse the royal courts in India could be, from the Sikh maharajas in the far north, to the Hindu princes in Calcutta and Delhi, to the still mughal-influenced Muslim palaces of the south. Some spoke Punjabi, some Hindi, some Urdu or Arabic, but all studied Sanskrit and later, English. As Anna Jackson and Amin Jaffer state in the catalogue’s introduction, “[a]lthough there is a tendency to consider the Indian princes as a homogenous group, their origins differed considerably”. Through the careful and clever employment of diverse objects, video media, photographs of and from the various courts the Asian Art Museum managed to show the range and depth of difference to be found among this class of princes. Particularly clever was the use of  Bollywood film clips — without sound, unfortunately — to show the colours absent from the contemporary movies, how board games displayed in the exhibit would have been played, and the lasting influence the courts continue to have on modern art and culture.

© V&A Images

The exhibit also addressed the tension between the courts and the British during the three hundred year colonial period, and the conflicting pressures they faced from British government and their own people. These pressures eventually became an identity struggle faced not only by these men and their courts, but by India itself during the latter stages of the Raj and the early days of independence. Expected to conform to the British stereotype of exotic princes, they were educated in both their own and Western history, philosophy, art, and politics while denied any true authority. The photographs of Maharaja Sayajiro Gaekwad III of Baroda in the traditional court dress juxtaposed with a photograph of him in a British suit outside the House of Commons illustrated the feeling that the maharajas were caught between two worlds.

© National Portrait Gallery, London

This dichotomy was best illustrated in the final room of the exhibit which showed court jewels that had been reset by Cartier’s, and saris made out of 1930s fabrics: sheer, embroidered in sequined, over-sized floral motifs that were usually reserved for Western evening dresses, or even elaborate lace. The most avant-garde of these later princes, Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Hokore of Indore, and his wife, Maharani Sanyogita Devi were photographed by Man Ray in Paris. Paired with the prince’s art deco furniture in the final room of the exhibit, these objects served to illustrate exactly what it meant to be an Indian prince during the period just before independence: rooted in a complex past, while striding confidently forward.

Image © FAMSF

Across town at the Palace of the Legion of Honour, The Cult of Beauty explores the Victorian avant-garde movement.  The exhibit is enormous, and yet there is no sense of being overwhelmed, and nothing is lost. While examining a photograph or textile sample, you will realise that the wallpaper covering the display wall on which they are mounted is in fact a reproduction of a Morris design with its own placard.

At first, the idea of a Victorian avant-garde seems oxymoronic to many in the twenty-first century who tend to judge that era by its eponymous monarch. One of the key aims of museums is to educate and inspire discussion, and the Legion of Honour quickly breaks down any stereotypes of Victorian England as a sea of uniform stuffiness. Beginning in 1860,  the exhibit takes the visitor through the entire arc of the aesthetic movement’s popularity. Having started as the parlor discussions (and re-decorations) of a few artists and artistically-inclined middle and upper class patrons, it eventually achieved such a high level of mass popularity as to be satirised by Gilbert and Sullivan in their comedic opera, Patience.


Encompassing everything from literature to interior design to the arts and dress reform, the aesthetic movement was the first period in modern art history to assert that art should be made for art’s sake. Unusually, they did not look to the Classical world for inspiration or aesthetics. Instead, they were influenced by the decorative arts of China and Japan, and took much of their poetic and literature subjects from the mediaeval and gothic.

© V&A Images

The truly fascinating revelation was the Victorian avant-garde’s refusal to limit themselves. They did not simply revolutionize poetry and theatre, or select new subjects to paint and new colour schemes to paint them in, but encompassed all aspects of life in their philosophy. Even new mediums, such as photography, were not ignored, as can be seen in the ethereal work of Julia Margaret Cameron featured throughout the show. Equally unique was the level of interaction and communication between such disparate artists as Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, James McNeil Whistler and the Pre-Raphaelites.

Private Collection

Just when I was starting to regret the lack of clothing examples, the guides informed us that the rest of the exhibit could be seen upstairs. Images of the clothes — many by Liberty of London and other manufacturers who got their start as dressmakers for disciples of the dress reform movement — can be seen over at Heather Vaughan’s blog. As Heather so aptly puts it, the garments will stop you in your tracks. The entire exhibit should give visitors pause, hopefully encouraging a new consideration and perspective not only on the Victorian world, but on our own.

© V&A Images

Maharaja may have closed, but the catalogue is still available through the Asian Art Museum’s website and store, and well worth the read.  The Cult of Beauty remains open in San Francisco — its only North American venue — until 17 June.

Special thanks to Amelia Bunch of the Asian Art Museum, and Cheryl McCain of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for the use of their images.

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  • jacqueline April 24, 2012 12.34 pm

    The great thing about material culture exhibitions is that they help contextualize all the objects and artwork. You get such a richer sense of how ideas and influences inspired the culture and its material output.

    Any idea if the “Cult of Beauty” will travel elsewhere in the United States? I really want to see it but don’t think I can get to SF any time soon. Either way, I’ll have to get the catalogue. When I did my undergrad study abroad in the UK it was focused on the Arts and Crafts movement, so this would be a great follow up.

  • Motorbikes February 23, 2013 09.13 pm

    The post posted was extremely informative and beneficial.
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