The bust of the Indian Prince and Sikh hero, Maharaja Duleep Singh, by British sculptor John Gibson. Courtesy of Bonhams
LONDON, ENGLAND - The bust of the Indian Prince and Sikh hero, Maharaja Duleep Singh, fashioned by British sculptor John Gibson almost 150 years ago, was sold for £1.7m at Bonhams Indian and Islamic Sale today, April 19th at 101 New Bond Street. The bust was estimated to sell for £25,000 to £35,000 but huge interest from buyers in India and Britain drove the price to extraordinary heights.
Before the sale many potential buyers asked to be photographed standing alongside this historic figure.
The tug of war in Bonhams international saleroom for this stunning marble sculpture went on for minutes and it was ultimately knocked down to a UK private collector. The former owner, a lady of title commented afterwards: “I suppose what has happened here today shows that you cannot put a price on history.”
Maharajah Duleep Singh, the Maharajah of Lahore and King of the Sikh Empire, was born on the 6th September 1838, the son of the legendary Lion of the Punjab, Maharajah Ranjit Singh, and the so-called `Messalina of the Punjab’, Maharani Jind Kaur. In 30 years Ranjit Singh, the great warrior king of the Sikhs had carved out a kingdom stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Himalayas.
The sculpture was produced in Rome in 1859-60. The story of Duleep Singh (1838-1893) is a tragic one of loss and of political manoeuvring by the British Government and the British East India Company. Today Duleep is a figure of veneration for Sikhs around the world, many of whom find their way to his last home at Elvedon Hall in Norfolk.
Writer and specialist on Duleep Singh, Christy Campbell, (author of The Maharajah’s Box, HarperCollins, 2000) says that at the age of 11, Maharajah Duleep Singh, ruler of the Punjab, and owner of the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond was removed from his Kingdom by the British East India Company after the Anglo-Sikh Wars and exiled to Britain. A full feature article by Christy appears in the next issue of Bonhams quarterly magazine.
In Britain Duleep led the extravagant life of an Indian prince associating with the cream of Victorian society enjoying hunting parties with the Prince of Wales. He became a favourite of Queen Victoria, who described him as “extremely handsome with a graceful and dignified manner.”
Duleep's mother, the Maharani Jindan, had been dragged screaming from her eleven-year-old son and imprisoned in a fortress. Last wife of the great Maharajah Ranjit Singh, she had been regent in the boy-king's infancy.
Duleep had had his long hair shorn, was given a bible and taught Christianity. Meanwhile the Koh-i-Noor diamond, glittering jewel in the crown of the Lahore treasury, was pocketed by his conquerors and presented to Queen Victoria as a symbol of dominion.
In 1854 Duleep was brought to England to begin his extraordinary journey through fashionable society. Five years later it had led him to Rome to sit for the esteemed Royal Academician John Gibson.
In spring 1859 the sculptor began work on the Duleep bust making sketches and maquette studies. The subject wears a voluminous pearl necklace and embroidered kaftan tunic in the Kashmiri taste. His uncut hair, in the religious prescription of his Sikh patrimony, is wound in a turban. He is also bearded.
Whether through a sense of guilt or a girlish crush, Queen Victoria had been enraptured since first meeting Duleep. Images of Duleep festooned Osborne House, the Queen’s Italianate retreat on the Isle of Wight. In 1856 she had commissioned a portrait bust by the Italian born sculptor Carlo Marochetti RA (who also would model the effigies of Prince Albert and the Queen for the royal mausoleum at Frogmore.)
Government ministers in London meanwhile considered how to ensure the exile should have no residual political power. It was thought unwise to send him to Eton (where he might be beaten) or thereafter to university. In the Great Mutiny of 1857, the Sikh regiments of the East India Company’s army stayed loyal. That saved British rule. The Sikhs might not do so again if a new challenge should arise, based on the person of Duleep.
With the issue of marriage looming the thirteen-year-old Princess Victoria Gouramma, daughter of the former Rajah of Coorg was introduced to Duleep. She was the goddaughter of the Queen - who thought her highly suitable as a bride for Duleep. He was a Christian but still a `native’ and thus could not marry an Englishwoman. But Duleep was not enamoured of the princess - and at first refused to meet her. Duleep later married Bamba Muller the daughter of a Coptic Christian Ethiopian and a German merchant father. The Maharani Bamba bore two sons and three daughters.
A dark political conspiracy gathered. Rebellious emissaries from the Punjab sought him out. In 1886 he abjured his wife and family - `because they were Christian’ and declared himself a remade Sikh. He ventured to St Petersburg, then Moscow, posing as an Irish revolutionary offering to lead an invasion of British India. It was a stunt cooked up by HM Foreign Office’s intelligence department to discredit an inconveniently warlike Russian newspaper magnate writes Christy Campbell.
He is buried, as a Christian, at Elveden church close to the Hall which is now the home of the Guinness family. Sikh pilgrims from around the world seek out the grave - and reflect on the fate of their fallen king.