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Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s last portrait and other stories

The paintings of a little-known British artist that hang in the Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum and the secrets they guard


Updated: February 21, 2021 8:44:20 am
Emily Eden reached Calcutta on March 3, 1836, on her 39th birthday, after about a five-month-long sea voyage from England.

Written by Praveen Siddharth

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In a corner of the vast Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum hang two paintings which are easy to miss. Nine of 10 visitors indeed miss them entirely. These lithographic reproductions of expressionless solitary figures aren’t exactly captivating works of art. While Three Warriors depicts three Sikh warriors, A Young Hill Rana shows a young prince in a traditional attire. No context is given to indicate who they were or why they were painted. What is fascinating about these paintings lies in what you don’t see.

These were created almost two centuries ago, around 1838, by a young Englishwoman, Emily Eden. Emily was the unmarried sister of George Eden (Lord Auckland), the third governor-general of India, whom she accompanied to the country. She was not an artist, but she liked to sketch. And the early 1800s was a fascinating period to sketch. The East India Company (EIC) had managed to control the trade routes, but much of it was still ruled by independent kings. The few Englishmen in the country were cocooned by British customs and luxuries. Their primary preoccupation was to make a fortune and return to England to retire in comfort.

Emily Eden reached Calcutta on March 3, 1836, on her 39th birthday, after about a five-month-long sea voyage from England. She did not fit the description of a typical English woman in India, as Rudyard Kipling would later portray: “a frivolous, snobbish and selfish creature, who flitted from bridge to Tennis parties in the hills”. Rather, she proved to be an able companion to her unmarried brother and had a keen eye for the splendours that the land and the people offered. In her initial days, she was besotted with the flora and fauna, and developed gardens and menageries. One of these gardens, still bears her name: the Eden Gardens (now cricket stadium) in Kolkata.

Her life was soon to change. To assert the growing British power and portend to the princely states the might of the EIC, the governor-general embarked on an expedition with his retinue from Calcutta to Shimla and back. While Lord Auckland went about meeting the rajas of Nahan and Patiala, between October 1837 and February 1840, Emily spent her time sketching all that she encountered: elephants, birds, dogs, a pair of hunting leopards gifted by the King of Oudh, princes, soldiers and common men and women. The sketches were accompanied with extensive notes in her diary of her impressions.

Then came a twist in her fantastic journey. The “Great Game” had begun. This was a largely imaginary confrontation between the British and Russian imperial powers in Central Asia. Both countries believed that the other was preparing to attack them. The phrase originated when, in 1840, Captain Arthur Conolly, in the 6th Bengal Light Cavalry, used the expression in a letter to Henry Rawlinson, political agent for southern Afghanistan: “You’ve a great game, a noble game, before you.” Lord Auckland believed strongly that it was necessary to invade Afghanistan to checkmate the Russians. To gather support, the EIC made Maharaja Ranjit Singh an ally by signing an agreement of perpetual peace and friendship. He was wooed with a fitting gift: a portrait of Queen Victoria who had just been crowned. But there was simply no time to have it painted and sent to India.

In the end, history is the biggest judge of people and their actions. Lord Auckland led a disastrous invasion of Afghanistan when the British garrison was massacred in 1842.

So, this huge responsibility fell on Emily, the sketcher of riff-raff and the odd prince. The gift was presented on November 29, 1838 in a durbar tent in the British camp at Firozpur. Emily recorded the ceremony in her diary: “Sir W.C. [Willoughby Cotton] with some of our gentlemen marched up the room with my picture of the Queen on a green and gold cushion; all the English got up, and a salute of twenty-one guns was fired. Runjeet took it up in his hands, though it was a great weight, and examined it for at least five minutes with his one piercing eye […] then [he] said it was the most gratifying present he could have received and that on return to his camp the picture would be hung in front of his tent, and a royal salute fired.”
But this was not the only piece she painted during her Punjab stay. On December 28, 1838, Ranjit Singh was reviewing his troops along with Lord Auckland. Emily, bored with the military display, decided instead to sketch the Sher-e-Punjab — old and frail, sitting in a chair.

This would be the last portrait painted of the great Sikh ruler as he died a few months later. On her return to England in 1842, Emily arranged to have her paintings printed and her letters published privately. Her letters were compiled into a book, Up the Country, and published in 1867. It became an instant bestseller. Her collection of 24 sketches — including the two works now at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the painting of Ranjit Singh — was published as Portraits of the Princes and People of India in 1844. A copy of these sketches is with the Victoria Memorial, Kolkata.

Unlike the English’s sense of racial superiority, Emily held very objective views of the British presence in India. Her letters reveal her sense of anguish. Writing about Delhi, she observed: “In short, Delhi is a very suggestive and moralising place — such stupendous remains of power and wealth passed and passing away — and somehow I feel that we horrid English have just ‘gone and done it’, merchandised it, revenue it, and spoiled it all.”

In the end, history is the biggest judge of people and their actions. Lord Auckland led a disastrous invasion of Afghanistan when the British garrison was massacred in 1842. He came to be generally regarded as the “worst ever Governor General”, although many would compete for this title later. Of Emily’s two Punjab paintings, only that of Ranjit Singh still survives. Queen Victoria’s portrait, presented with such pomp, was lost immediately. Henry Fane, aide-de-camp to the commander-in-chief of the Company army, recorded Ranjit Singh’s bewilderment: “I do not think he quite understood it, but seemed to think her majesty made a very decent Nautch girl.” The portrait was, probably, promptly discarded by him.

Emily’s paintings in the Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum are really postcards from a distant era. The characters are frozen in time. A reminder that what endures is not riches or vestiges of power but ordinary human stories outside of grand designs and great games.

Praveen Siddharth is private secretary to the President of India

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