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Eastern Encounters pattern
Eastern Encounters

Drawn from the Royal Library's collection of South Asian books and manuscripts

Chapter 4

Queen Victoria died at Osborne House on 22 January 1901. The news quickly travelled to India where her death was marked by a 101-gun salute at sundown in Calcutta, the capital of the Raj, after which the city went into deep formal mourning. King Edward VII (r. 1901–10), now aged 60, officially assumed the title ‘Emperor of India’ at his coronation on 9 August 1902.[1] Many Indian rulers and army officers travelled to London for the occasion and were hosted at receptions across England which included a mini durbar at Buckingham Palace. Meanwhile, in India, increased agitation was already beginning to threaten imperial authority. The swaraj (‘self-rule’) movement was largely a response to the export of wealth from South Asia to Britain and first drew support from the middle and upper classes of Bengal. Another famine devastated much of the subcontinent in 1899, and the economic policies of Lord Curzon (Viceroy 1898–1905) did little to appease critics of the British administration.[2]

Fig. 34: Unknown, George V and Queen Mary at the Jharokha Balcony of the Red Fort, 13 December 1911, 1912 from Queen Mary’s photograph album, RCIN 2303515 ©

Although King Edward VII never returned to India himself, he sent first his brother and later his son, the future King George V (r. 1910–36), on royal tours of the South Asia in the hope of improving public perception of and loyalty to the Crown. Both the Prince of Wales and his wife, Princess Mary of Teck, fell in love with ‘dear beautiful India’.[3] Following their initial visit in 1905–6, they returned to the subcontinent as Emperor and Empress for a Coronation Tour in 1911–12 (fig. 34), and made many acquisitions of South Asian works of art for the Royal Collection both there and later in Britain. King George V and Queen Mary amassed large souvenir scrapbooks and photograph albums documenting their tours and both annotated them on their return.[4] During George V’s reign, South Asian art and literature gained increasing prominence in the West. Rabindranath Tagore became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, and 1935 saw the first exhibition of modern Indian art in London, to which Queen Mary loaned two of her own paintings.

King George V’s reign was however to witness war, rebellion and revolution which not only transformed Europe but had a momentous impact on the subcontinent. Britain’s post-war economic recession led to a sharp rise in taxes in India but not the rewards South Asians expected for their loyalty and the substantial contribution of men and material they had made to the war effort. Widespread demands for freedom eventually led to the end of British rule and independence for the subcontinent, though not without the violent and devastating endgame that was Partition.



Early signs of unrest came with the severe criticism in the Indian press of the pomp and extravagance of the imperial durbar organised by the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, to officially mark King Edward VII’s coronation (fig. 35). To the Viceroy’s great disappointment, the new King chose not to attend in person but instead sent his brother, the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn. The elaborate celebrations lasted two weeks over the New Year 1902–3 and cost over £500,000, at a time when much of the western and central subcontinent was recovering from a severe famine. Curzon also scheduled a huge exhibition of Indian art and crafts, military reviews, sporting events and fireworks and closed the celebrations with a ball held in the Diwan-i Amm (‘Hall of Public Audience’) of the Red Fort. The coronation entertainments were regarded by many as excessive and an attempt to conceal the real poverty of India. Curzon’s exhibition came in for particular criticism as his economic policies were considered the direct cause of the collapse of Indian industry.[5]

Fig. 35: Bourne & Shepherd (active 1864–1900s), Lord and Lady Curzon on a State Elephant at the Delhi Durbar, 29 December 1902, 1903, platinum print, 27.6 × 22.8 cm, RCIN 2916586©

The Viceroy received even greater vilification in the Indian press following his partition of Bengal in 1905. In an attempt to promote divisions among the Bengali revolutionaries, he separated the province into a large, rich and predominantly Hindu West and a smaller, poorer, Muslim-majority East, claiming this would ease the administration of the region. Mounting political unrest prompted the first visit to South Asia of the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future King George V and Queen Mary). Their tour lasted from November 1905 to March 1906 (fig. 36) and was (indeed still is) the most extensive and far-reaching royal visit ever undertaken.[6] Facing opposition at home and in India, Curzon resigned as Viceroy that August but, having organised their entire schedule, insisted he remain to welcome the royal couple. As before every foreign tour, the Princess of Wales carried out extensive research, reading at least 36 books on India in the months leading up to their departure.[7] In a letter written at Agra, she wrote to a friend that Sir Walter Lawrence, her husband’s chief of staff, had remarked ‘you have a very good grasp of Indian affairs, quite remarkable in a woman’. ‘The religions too I know something of’, she continued, ‘Hindu, Muhammedan, & Buddhism [...]. All this knowledge, however small, helps one to take a keen interest in all one sees & I therefore enjoy to the utmost every detail of the wonderful sights.’[8] In her diaries she described the Taj Mahal as ‘the most perfect + wonderful building, I should say in the world’.[9] The Prince and Princess also met Abdul Karim in Agra as well as some of Queen Victoria’s other servants who had moved back to India after her death.

The Princess was particularly interested in the lives of Indian women and both hosted and attended ‘purdah parties’ throughout the tour.[10] During one such party in Bombay on 10 November, ladies ‘belonging to all the Indian communities’ presented to her a richly illuminated address with their names signed in the scripts of their different languages. This was accompanied by an album of 14 watercolour paintings depicting the various fashions and activities of the ladies of Bombay’s diverse communities.[11] The Princess was also attentive to local artists and works of art during her tour. On 21 November 1905 she visited the School of Art in Jaipur and, a few days later, recorded seeing ‘wonderful writings and paintings’ in the Bikaner Palace.[12] Her diaries also reveal that she visited colleges and bazaars to meet locals in a more relaxed environment and ‘made many purchases’ there. A number of her Pahari and Sikh paintings (see cat. nos 49 and 76) are likely to have been acquired during visits to Jammu and Amritsar in December 1905. 
Shortly before the end of their tour, the Princess wrote back to friends in England: ‘It is sad to think that we shall soon be leaving India to which I have become deeply attached.’[13] Their trip had an equally significant impact on her husband who returned from India critical of the general British conduct towards its inhabitants. He noted, ‘I could not help being struck by the way in which all salutations by the Natives were disregarded by the persons to whom they were given. Evidently we are too much inclined to look upon them as a conquered and down-trodden race and the Native, who is becoming more and more educated, realizes this.’[14] The King was in favour of increased Indian self-governance, writing:

Personally I think we have come to a parting of the ways, we cannot let things rest as they are. We must either trust the Natives more and give them a greater share in the Government […] or else we must double our Civil Service, the latter have now got out of touch with the villages […] where formerly they were amongst the Natives every day, who learned to know them and trust them.[15]

Back in England the King conspicuously acknowledged the royal status of the Indian Maharajahs by seating them above the British dignitaries at palace receptions. Amongst the regular guests to London was Ganga Singh, the Maharajah of Bikaner (depicted in fig. 36), who on June 1913, following a luncheon at Buckingham Palace (during which he was seated at the Queen’s right hand), presented King George V with two paintings from the Bikaner royal collection: RCINs 452416 and 452417.

Fig. 36: P.A. Johnson & Theodore Hoffmann: Calcutta (active 1882–c.1950),The Prince and Princess of Wales at Government House, Lahore, November 1905, 1906, gelatin silver print, 15.5 x 20.8 cm, RCIN 2918725 ©
When King George V succeeded his father as King in 1910, it was he who suggested a return to India to mark the occasion. The five-week royal tour from December 1911 to January 1912 was the first time in 300 years that a reigning British monarch had set foot on Indian soil. The underlying motivation was again to seek to reduce the growing opposition to British rule. During the famous durbar ceremony of 12 December, the King announced under the royal shamiana (‘ceremonial canopy’) a surprise reversal of Curzon’s partition of Bengal and proclaimed that the British administrative capital would be transferred from Calcutta to Delhi. The crowd burst into wild applause. The durbar was, however, also an opportunity to show off imperial power and, after his speech, the ‘Native Princes’ each paid homage to the King-Emperor. The following day the royal couple went to the Red Fort, as Queen Mary recorded in her diary, ‘At 3 – we drove to the Fort where a garden party was held, after which we put on our robes & crowns & showed ourselves to thousands of people stood on a balcony where the Mughal emperors formerly showed themselves’(fig. 34).[16]
Calcutta was the next stop on their progress and, on 4 January, the King and Queen visited the Calcutta Museum to view the works of art due to be transferred to the Victoria Memorial Hall, Lord Curzon’s grand tribute to the late Queen-Empress. Queen Mary noted in her diary that she ‘was particularly interested in the exquisite drawings by native artists’ she had seen there.[17] A few weeks later, Lady Hardinge, the new Vicereine, presented the Queen with a watercolour painting by the local artist Abanindranath Tagore (cat. no. 86). That summer, loyal addresses, caskets and other works of art presented to the couple were lent to the Victoria and Albert Museum for public display in London.[18]

On Wednesday, 10 January 1912, a farewell address was delivered to the royal couple from a pavilion erected at the pierhead of Bombay. King George V ‘quite broke down in reading my answer which rather upset me’.[19] He wrote to his mother, ‘I simply couldn’t help it’[20] and later told Lord Crewe that it flashed across his mind that he would never see India again and the thought was too much for him.[21] The following five years saw overwhelming devotion and loyalty to the King-Emperor from across the subcontinent, manifested in the support given to Britain during the First World War. Over 1.5 million South Asian servicemen fought for Britain and their allies between 1914 and 1918, amounting to one in six of the Empire’s soldiers: more than 72,000 of them lost their lives.[22] The South Asian financial contribution included an initial gift of £100m and £20–30m more each following year.[23] This expression of allegiance, coming even from steadfast nationalists, was keenly felt by the royal family. The King awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest medal for bravery, to 11 South Asian soldiers. Many of these were presented to injured servicemen recovering in the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, which was converted into a hospital for Indian soldiers for the duration of the war. An Indian Soldiers’ Fund was also established. Its role was to supply religious necessities, medical supplies and comforts to troops on the front line. These included Brahmanical threads for Hindus and miniature copies of their religious texts for Muslims and Sikhs.[24] Miniature printed Qurans and volumes containing scriptural selections of the Sikh holy texts, of the type given out to soldiers, were presented to Queen Mary, who delighted in all things minature, and they are some of the tiniest books in the Royal Library.[25] 

After the war, two Indians, the Maharajah of Bikaner and the first Indian peer, Lord Sinha, attended the 1919 Peace Conference. The Maharajah was among the signatories of the Treaty of Versailles, and it was assumed that India’s substantial contribution to the war effort would influence the post-war debate on self-rule. Yet within months of the Peace Conference, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar left many on the subcontinent disillusioned. Over a period of ten minutes on 13 April 1919, British troops continually fired 1,650 rounds of ball ammunition on a 10,000-strong crowd of peaceful protestors in a walled public garden. Over 1,000 are thought to have been killed.[26] Writing to Clive Wigram, then the King’s assistant private secretary, the Maharajah of Bikaner suggested:

His Imperial Majesty would be really surprised, if he came out here now and had the same opportunities which he had in 1905, to see what little effect His gracious plea for sympathy for the people of India has had on the majority of senior officials and how much worse in some ways matters really are at the present day.[27]

He went on to criticise the British press in India for accentuating racist feeling and thus encouraging the actions of both British and Indian extremists. When news of the atrocity reached Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore (uncle of the painter, Abanindranath), he renounced the knighthood conferred on him by King George V four years earlier. In an open letter to Lord Chelmsford (Viceroy 1916–21) he declared: 

The accounts of the insults and sufferings by our brothers in Punjab have trickled through the gagged silence, reaching every corner of India, and the universal agony of indignation roused in the hearts of our people has been ignored by our rulers [...] The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation.[28]

The resistance campaign gained headway throughout the 1920s, with the pious ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi leading the independence movement.[29]



India was central to political debate in Britain during the inter-war years. At this time Queen Mary continued to develop her interest in Indian art by patronising the studios and exhibitions of South Asian artists in London. On 21 March 1930, she visited the Royal College of Art in South Kensington where artists of the Bengal School were preparing to paint murals for India House, the new London headquarters of the High Commissioners for India. According to a report in The Times she said she was glad that they had ‘kept to the Indian tradition’ and purchased a painting by Lalit Mohan Sen.[30] She recorded her interest in the artists’ work in her diaries and invited them to a garden party at Buckingham Palace that summer. In the autumn, she visited an exhibition of paintings by the rival Bombay Art School at India House, which she and King George V officially opened in July that year.[31] The Queen was presented with several works of art, including a small painting owned by Leslie Wilson, the former Governor of Bombay. The work in question was a draft sketch by M.V. Dhurandhar of one of the murals for the New Delhi Secretariat, for which the Bombay School had won the commission: RCIN 932757. When the Queen expressed her interest, Wilson felt compelled to offer it to her, but his great dismay at losing the work was short-lived as Dhurandhar soon made him another copy.[32]

In November of the same year, King George V opened the first of three annual Round Table Conferences in London to decide the political fate of the subcontinent. Among the attendees in 1931 was Gandhi who, according to Queen Mary, ‘caused great excitement’ at a party the King hosted for delegates at Buckingham Palace ‘in his odd get up, loin cloth and slippers!’.[33] Earlier he had told reporters, ‘Some go in plus-fours, I shall go in minus-fours.’[34] Following years of discussion, a compromise new Government of India Act was passed in 1935 allowing a degree of autonomy to the states of British India.[35]


Fig. 37: Cornelia Sorabji (1866–1954) (ed.), Queen Mary’s Book for India, 1943, printed book, 19.3 × 12.5 cm, RCIN 1006180©

After the death of King George V in 1936 the now Dowager Queen Mary moved from Buckingham Palace to Marlborough House. It was around this time that she presented many of her books relating to India and much photographic and archival material to the India Office Library.[36] She also gave away a number of her South Asian works of art, including a selection of Pahari portraits and decorative objects, to the Victoria and Albert Museum.[37] As Queen Victoria earlier recorded, ‘a Queen Consort can do with her own things what she pleases’.[38] During the Second World War, Queen Mary was again active in promoting the achievements of Indian forces in the war effort. Cornelia Sorabji, an eminent social reformer and the first woman to read law at Oxford University, suggested that Queen Mary compile and edit an anthology of poetry and prose to be called Queen Mary’s Book for India (fig. 37) all profits from which would go towards the Indian Comforts Fund based at India House. Queen Mary agreed, and renowned writers including T.S. Eliot and Dorothy L. Sayers contributed pieces on topics relating to the role that Indian men and women played in the world conflict. Queen Mary wrote the book’s introduction from Marlborough House in 1942, a message directed to the mothers of India’s fighting men.[39]


By the end of the Second World War, the number of servicemen in the Indian army had reached over 2.5 million. The arrest of Gandhi at the start of the conflict incited the ‘Quit India’ movement and public demonstrations were common. The sense of British supremacy was undermined by the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942, and the subsequent British retreat which brought waves of Burmese refugees into India. That year, the British government announced plans for the full self-government of India on the cessation of hostilities,[40] and in 1946 a Cabinet Mission was sent to New Delhi to begin negotiations for the transfer of power. On 21 April that year, Queen Mary presented a copy of The Historical Record of the Imperial Visit to India 1911 to her granddaughter, the future Queen Elizabeth II, on her twenty-first birthday.
In late 1946, the position of Viceroy of India was offered to the naval officer Lord Louis Mountbatten, a close relative of the British royal family who had directed the recapture of Burma in 1945. A deadline of June 1948 was set for the orderly transition from British to independent rule in the subcontinent. Meetings took place between Mountbatten, the Indian Congress and the All-Muslim League as well as rulers of those Princely States, such as Bikaner and Hyderabad, not directly under British rule. Mountbatten made the decision to bring forward the date of independence to August 1947 and allowed for the formation of a separate Muslim state of Pakistan. Devastation, confusion and bloodshed ensued as ten to 12 million people were displaced from their homes on the ‘wrong’ sides of the new sectarian border. The Viceroy left India in November with a wedding present from Gandhi for the Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten, his nephew, who married at the end of the month ‘with my blessing with the wish that they would have a long and happy life of service of man’.[41] The present was a piece of cloth made from yarn Gandhi had spun himself with the words Jai Hind, ‘Long Live India’, woven at the centre.
The hurried granting of independence and the bloody events of Partition aggrieved Queen Mary, who declared, ‘When I die, INDIA will be found written on my heart.’[42] When a proposal was made to allocate the contents of the India Office Library between the two new states, she chose to withdraw her collection of books and albums. In 1950, this was instead transferred to the Royal Empire Society, now the Royal Commonwealth Society whose library has been housed by Cambridge University since 1992. Her personal interest in South Asia persisted, and, on the night before she died at Marlborough House in 1953, Queen Mary had a book on India read aloud to her.[43]



[1] The original date of 26 June for the ceremony had been revised at short notice after the King took ill.   

[2] For Curzon see Gilmour 1994 and Curzon Papers, BL IOPP MSS Eur F111 and F112.   

[3] RA QM/PRIV/QMD: 19 March 1906. 

[4] These are now divided between the Royal Archives and the Royal Commonwealth Society library, University of Cambridge.   

[5] Codell ed. 2012, pp. 37–9.   

[6] See Abbott 1906 and Reed 1906. 

[7] Princess of Wales to Mlle Bricka, 13 September 1904: RA QM/PRIV/CC 44/86. Many of these books are now in the Royal Commonwealth Society library, University of Cambridge.   

[8] Princess of Wales to Mlle Bricka, 13 September 1904: RA QM/PRIV/CC 44/92. 

[9] RA QM/PRIV/QMD: 16 December 1905. See also 17 December 1905; 27 February 1906; BL IOPP MSS Eur F143/46 and BL IOPP MSS Eur F143/47.

[10] Back in London, the Indian Princes were invited to dinners and their wives separately to afternoon parties hosted by Queen Mary. See RA QMD: November and December 1930.

[11] Painted by the well-known artist M.F. Pithawalla, one of the first generation to graduate from the Sir J.J. School of Art in Bombay, this is now in the collection of the Royal Commonwealth Society, University of Cambridge (RCMS 89_70).

[12] RA QM/PRIV/QMD: 27 November 1905.

[13] Princess of Wales to Grand-Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Dehra Dun, 6 March 1906: RA QM/PRIV/CC24/45.

[14] Prince of Wales to Lord Esher 1906, quoted in Rose 1983, p. 65.

[15] Ibid., p. 66.

[16] RA QM/PRIV/QMD: 13 December 1911.

[17] RA QM/PRIV/QMD: 4 January 1912.

[18] ‘Their Majesties’ Indian Gifts’, The Times, 25 May, 1912, p. 11.

[19] RA GVD: 10 January 1912. For the wording of the address see Historical Record 1911, pp. 269–70.

[20] RA GV/PRIV/AA37/40

[21] Pope-Hennessy 1987, p. 462. 

[22] For India’s contribution to the war effort, see Basu 2015.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., pp. 43–4.

[25] RCINS 1128080, 1128096, 1171549, 1128002, 1128025, 1128026 and 1128029. 

[26] Gandhi 2013, pp. 285–6.

[27] Letter from the Maharajah of Bikaner to Clive Wigram: RA N563/41, p. 8.

[28] Public letter addressed to Lord Chelmsford, Viceroy of India, published in The Statesman, a leading English-language Indian newspaper, 3 June 1919, and in the Modern Review, a Calcutta monthly, July 1919.

[29] See Fisher and Read 1997; Judd 1996. 

[30] See Mitter 2007, p. 213.

[31] RA QM/PRIV/QMD: 8 July 1930 and 29 October 1930. For the rivalry between the Bengal and Bombay schools see Mitter 2007, chapter 4, ‘Contested Nationalism: The New Delhi and India House Murals’.

[32] Mitter 2007, p. 223 and note 194. In a letter to Dhurandhar dated 28 March 1931, Wilson wrote: ‘It was of course a great honour that Her Majesty, the Queen should have desired the picture, and I was very proud to be able to present it to her, but I was, at the same time, not unnaturally, sorry to part with it, and am glad indeed to think that a copy will soon be hanging on the wall.’

[33] RA QM/PRIV/QMD: 5 November 1931.

[34] Quoted in Fisher and Read 1997, p. 242. 

[35] See Copland 1997, pp. 144–82.

[36] For a list of the items presented see BL IOPP MSS Eur F303/196.

[37] These included Pahari-style portraits of Sikh rulers and costume paintings on mica.

[38] RA VIC/ADD/A7/406.

[39] See BL IOPP MSS Eur F165/202: correspondence, contributions, proofs and reviews of Queen Mary’s Book for India, edited by Cornelia Sorabji in support of the Indian Comforts Fund. For Cornelia Sorabji see Sorabji 2010.

[40] Draft Declaration for Discussion with Indian Leaders, published 30 March 1942.

[41] Letter dated 9 November 1947, RA QEII/ADD/MISC.

[42] Pope-Hennessy 1987, p. 397. Mary was consciously echoing Mary I who, after the English loss of Calais in 1558, is believed to have said ‘When I am dead and opened, you shall find “Philip” and “Calais” lying in my heart.’

[43] Pope-Hennessy 1987, p. 621.

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