The Durbar Room, Osborne House

3rd June 2019 Architecture, Art History, Essays, Open University Comments (0) 63

This essay formed part of my Open University study for the module A344 – Art and its Global Histories and was my final essay at the end of the unit. For this essay, we had to formulate and research a subject based on the shift of art history away from a western viewpoint, and look at the different issues this involves. I chose to study the Durbar Room at Osborne, and compare this with the Viceroys’ house in New Delhi. I scored 80/100 which I was pretty chuffed with.



How has the viewing, interpretation and/or display of works of art and visual culture been transformed by considering them in a global context?

Compare the influences of different architectural styles with two examples from India and England.

This essay will discuss two different examples of architectural design that were constructed between 1890 and 1930 during the British colonisation of India. This first is the Durbar Room at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, designed by Bhai Ram Sing and John Lockwood Kipling, the second is the main façade of the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi by Edwin Lutyens. Key to understanding both examples will be the themes of colonialism and imperialism, as well as those of Orientalism and transculturation. Underpinning the discussion will be how these examples can be considered within a global context, and how this influenced their conception and their interpretation at the time they were made, as well as in a modern society. The art historian Monica Juneja writes, ‘According to Ruskin the “poetry of architecture” lay in its expressive power to speak for the time and place in which it was created’ (Juneja in Humphreys and Wagner, 2013, p.31). This essay will show that the two examples above support this statement. The creation of a piece of architectural design can take influences from different cultures and histories and create a unique design that places it where it was intended.

Main façade of the Viceroy’s house (Rashtrapati Bhavan), New Delhi

The two examples were chosen as they both share common theme: influenced by Indian architecture and designed to impress. As Julius Bryant, Keeper of Word and Image at the V&A, comments about the Durbar Room at Osborne, ‘It was designed for imperial hospitality, to impress (and even intimidate) at the highest level’ (Bryant & Weber, 2017, p.453). Lutyens’ Viceroy’s House is a prime example of imperial building designed not only to impress upon a colonised nation, but also to impress upon the colonisers as well. (Bremner, 2016)

The interior of the Durbar Room at Osborne House, Isle of Wight was designed and built by John Lockwood Kipling and Bhai Ram Sing between 1890 and 1892 for Queen Victoria for hosting and to display the Queen’s Oriental collection. Kipling was working in the department of Science and Art in the South Kensington museum when he was recruited, along with two others, to teach in the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art and Industry in Bombay. Kipling’s appointment was to teach architectural sculpture but he also ‘contributed to the architectural decoration of the city, both directly and through the work of his assistants’ (Bryant and Weber, 2018, p.41).

Durbar Room, Osborne House, IW

The creation of art schools by the British was intended to help India preserve its traditional arts and crafts culture from Western modernisation by learning decorative arts and architecture through education. This based its teachings on the study and drawing of objects and depiction of natural forms. However, this method of teaching meant that ‘early schools operated largely as vehicles for a kind of cultural imperialism in which curiously misplaced models of Western academic art were imposed on Indian students to the detriment of any training whatsoever in native techniques’ (Tarapor, 1980, p.62). This shows that far from attempting to preserve Indian crafts, Indian art education was instead replacing them with that of British and European styles, which could then be exported back to Europe for commercial gain.

Kipling however, ‘opposed the tide of Victorian imperialism and its concomitant attitudes of cultural superiority’ (Tarapor, 1980, p.54) and through his appointments in Indian art schools, helped to record and preserve the traditional Indian crafts culture. Kipling’s teaching methods were based on the study of existing Indian artworks, from which new works could improve. This idea had also been formed by the architectural historian James Fergusson, who classified the architecture of India in the mid-nineteenth century discovering the different religions and cultures that made up India all had distinct architectural styles. Fergusson’s research highlighted the importance of Indian architecture as a way studying and understanding the vast history and culture of India, as well as ‘offering many suggestions, which, if adopted in a modified form, might tend considerably to the improvement of our own architectural designs’ (Fergusson, 1886, p.23).

When Kipling became principle of the Mayo School of Art in Lahore in 1875, he taught traditional Indian craft skills based around workshop instruction rather than observational drawing (Tarapor, 1980, p.68). Among one of Kiplings’ students at the Mayo School of Art was Bhai Ram Sing, a carpenter and woodcarver who through the Mayo School became one of the most prolific architects in the Punjab (Tillotson, 2007, p.209).

The inspiration for the creation of an Indian room at Osborne House came first from Queen Victoria’s son, Arthur, Duke of Connaught. Connaught was in India commanding a division of the Indian Army, and with his wife visited the Mayo School and central museum in Lahore and met Kipling in 1884. The Connaught’s, after seeing the carvings at the Mayo School, decided to have the billiard room and adjoining corridor at their English home, Bagshot Park, decorated with Indian wood carvings designed by Kipling, and carved by Ram Sing and other students of the Mayo school. The Queen must have been inspired by the billiard room for the decoration of the new banquet hall that had been built at Osborne. She wrote in her journal for August 1890, ‘I went with Louise, Arthur, Louischen & Mr Kipling, (a gentleman Arthur knows well, who is at the head of the School of Art at Lahore, & who arranged things for him) to the new building. I want Mr Kipling to design the decoration of the interior of the new room, which is to be Indian. We agreed upon what was to be done.’ (Queen Victoria, 1890, p.2).

Victoria became Empress of India in 1876, and famously took on Indian servants. The creation of the Indian Room, or Durbar Room, was designed for state banquets and as a room in which to display the Queen’s Indian gifts she had been presented during her Jubilee of 1887. It would also serve as a ‘tangible reminder of the land she would never visit’ (Turner, 2007, p.23). The design itself was inspired by designs from northern India, ‘of Islamic forms, and detail from Hindu and Jain temples, which looks back to the Mogul architecture of the 16th and 17th Centuries’ (Turner, 2007, p.24). However, the initial designs were not to everyone’s taste. Sir Henry Ponsenby, the Queen’s private secretary, wrote that Princess Louise ‘sent for me to discuss Kipling’s designs. She certainly is clever, with 2 or 3 marks with a pencil she showed how Ram Sings ugly Mooresque designs could be made really beautiful & oriental-like’ (Bryant and Weber, 2018, p.455). This shows that despite Ram Sing’s designs being traditionally Indian, there was a perceived idea in England of what Indian designs should look like, and it is this Orientalised version of Indian design that would become the Durbar Room. Princess Louise (herself an accomplished artist) suggested a peacock over the fireplace, a fireplace being one feature that would not be present in a traditional Indian room. This again is an example of the transplant of the design made to fit in an English setting, and with the addition of the peacock, symbolising the exotic, a much more Orientalised version. Bryant calls the Durbar Room ‘a mixture of Mugal and Hindu décor […] layered over a very British baronial hall’ (Bryant and Weber, 2018, p.461), and ‘a fusion of British-Indian design crafts, and techniques’ (Bryant and Weber, 2018, p.462).

Unlike Bagshot Park, where nearly all the wooden panelling was carved in India by Ram Sing and other students, Osborne’s ornate plaster and carton-pierre decoration was produced in England, with Ram Sing carving the wooden moulds. The dado panels are inlaid with stones, similar to those found in the Taj Mahal and framed with teak. The cornice took inspiration from 12th century Islamic designs, and other elements such as wall lights mirroring domed canopied chhatris from Mughal architecture (Turner, 2007, p.24). This production in England of the plaster panels to an Indian design, mostly for time and cost reasons, also demonstrates the global nature in the production of the room.

Michael Turner, the curator at Osborne House, describes the room ‘Indo-Saracenic’, (Turner, 2007, p.24) a style which was ‘considered the most appropriate architectural style in British India between the 1860’s and 1900s’ (Dohmen, 2017, p.90). Indo-Saracenic drew on a mix of styles from different periods from Northern India mixed with Neo-Gothic to create a design that became the hallmark of architectural design for public buildings in colonial India. Because of this, using an Indo-Saracenic design for the Durbar Room seems a strange choice for Ram Sing to use, but it was similar to architecture that was being used in India at the time, such as the Albert Hall in Jaipur designed by Swinton Jacob. Perhaps this was intentional to appeal to his Royal clients hence the meld of Mugal, Islamic and Hindu styles. These individual styles may not have been of interest to the Royal family, only that the result was Indian, emphasising how the English understood Indian architecture with an Orientalised version of it. The finished design was very elaborate with lots of decoration, mirroring the intricate carving and surface detail work on many of the Queens Indian gifts that would be on display in the completed room.

Albert Hall in Jaipur, designed by Swinton Jacob

The Durbar Room, as impressive at it is, shows that the transplant of Indian design, however sympathetic, into an English country house will always become, even unintentionally, Orientalised. This despite Kipling’s teaching traditional Indian techniques at the Mayo School of Art, and the designs of an Indian designer and architect. However, as Bryant states, ‘it did not start a new fashion, except in India where (perhaps ironically) several maharajas commissioned their own durbar halls in cast plaster’ (Bryant and Weber, 2018, p.463). This demonstrates the transcultural nature of the design, although, the adaptation of this Indo-Saracenic style by maharajas showed they ‘well understood the advisability of appearing to be appropriately traditional in compliance with British expectations of them’ (Dohman, 2017, p.89).

The historian Jane Ridley argues that Indo-Saracenic architecture ‘implied a political aspiration of Anglo-Indian co-operation’ (Ridley, 1998). So, in 1911 when it was announced that a new, imperial, Indian capital was to be built, the Public Works Department of the Indian Government and the Viceroy Lord Hardinge pushed for an Indic style as being politically appropriate. Hardinge insisted that the design was to be a hybrid of classical architecture as favoured in the West, alongside Indian elements based on Moghul and Hindu designs. This was echoed by E. B. Havell, who had worked at the Calcutta School of Art, that an Indic style would help revive Indian arts and crafts. Havell however conceded ‘that it might well be necessary to employ the “Orientalised” designs of a British architect’ (Metcalf, 1992, p.217).

A decision on which architectural style would best represent British rule in India was not easy to find. As the historian Thomas Metcalf writes, ‘the assertive imperialism of the Edwardian era […] insisted the forms of European classicism alone could adequately represent empire in stone’ (Metcalf, 1992, p.212). One of the architects chosen to carry out the building of New Delhi was Herbert Baker who had made his name in South Africa before being appointed alongside Edwin Lutyens. Baker wrote to Lutyens that New Delhi ‘must not be Indian, not English, nor Roman, but it must be Imperial’ (Metcalf, 1992, p.222). Lutyens was not in favour of traditional Indian design either, writing on his first trip to India, ‘I do want old England to stand up and plant her great traditions and good taste where she goes and not pander to sentiment and all this silly Moghul-Hindu Stuff’ (Metcalf, 1992, p.219). But after his second tour of India in 1913, Lutyens found inspiration from early Buddhist styles and by building on the work of Fergusson, Lutyens termed this Indian ‘classical’ (Juenja in Humphreys and Wagner, 2013, p.39).

Despite the lack of Buddhist followers in India to appeal to, Lutyens could use an Indic style to appease the likes of Havell and Hardinge, but one more to his classical taste and vision for the Viceroy’s House. Lutyens was insistent that the Orientalising of a classical design like Havell had suggested, ‘by capturing Indian details and inserting their features, like hanging pictures on a wall’ (Metcalf, 1992, p.231) was not the right way to construct an imperial building. The fact that a classical design was still to be used, was because ‘the British chose a classical style […] in some measure, simply because that was the medium through which Europeans apprehended empire’ (Metcalf, 1980, p.12).

Architectural historian G. A. Bremner remarks, the Viceroy’s House was to be a ‘symbolic emblem of British rule, its epic scale and dauntingly impressive dome marked it out as the building to and from which all lines of authority led, not just within the capital but across British India’ (Bremner, 2016, p.116). The façade is imposing in its grandeur: the wide staircase leads up to a row of large columns, designed by Lutyens which ‘bypassed the neo-classical order […] and instead created a new “Delhi Order”’ (Juneja in Humphreys and Wagner, 2013, p.47). These sit between two thick, wide walls themselves supporting a deep chujja running around the top of them, flanked by rows of more columns either side.

Chujja came from Mugal architecture and projected out around the building to cast a deep shadow. Lutyens made his much deeper, being ‘treated as an organic element within the dominant order’ (Juneja in Humphreys and Wagner, 2013, p.46). Above the chujja, runs a plain wall with details in courses of red brick. The large dome with red, cream and black stone with the merest hint of detail in a band below. Bremner writes, the ‘great dome itself appears like one giant chattri, melding seamlessly Buddhist, Hindu, and Mughal vernacular traditions.’ (Bremner, 2016, pp.119-120). This meld of traditions could have produced a dome that was unsuccessful in its treatment of both classical and Indic architecture, however the critic Robert Byron said of the dome, ‘Amidst all the cacophony of standardized allusion and whining reminiscence which the present age calls art, Lutyens’s dome strikes a clear note of true aesthetic invention’ (Byron, 1931, p.22).

At first glance the Viceroy’s House would not look out of place in imperial Rome, however Lutyens has been clever to meld his classical ideas with those from Indic architecture, creating a hybrid of styles that manage to avoid the Orientalised classical look that Havell was initially suggesting. Lutyens Viceroy’s House was successful in ‘assimilating Indic forms […] with European classical idiom to create an architecture expressive of the ideals of the British Empire’ (Metcalf, 1992, p.236).

The examples of the Durbar Room and the Viceroy’s House both demonstrate how architecture, when considered in a global context, can give a greater understanding as to the styles used and for what reasons. Both the examples were produced while India was under British rule, and as such could be considered as British Indian or colonial architecture and in the case of the Viceroy’s House, imperial. However, the Durbar Room is an example of a hybrid of Indian architecture, designed to show an Orientalised version of Indian architecture to a private, predominantly English audience. The Viceroy’s House was designed to show a colonised nation who was governing them by combining the classical style of British authoritarian architecture with Indic designs, in an effort to be the culmination of centuries of Indian architecture.

Both examples are equally successful examples of British Indian art, but for different reasons. The Viceroy’s House was considered successful in creating ‘an architecture expressive of the ideals of the British Empire’ (Metcalf, 1989, p.236) where Lutyens had managed to combine European classicism with recognisable Indic forms to create an imperial style of architecture that avoided any Orientalist connotations. As Robert Byron said of Lutyens’ design, ‘Taking the best of East and West, bests which are complementary, he has made of them a unity, and invested it with a double magnificence’ (Byron, 1931). The Durbar Room at Osborne House, in its time may not have had such praise lauded on it, mostly as it was private until 1904. Sir Guy Lacking wrote that ‘the interior decoration is well worth a close inspection, the ornamentation being typically Indian, and carried out under the guidance of Bhai Ram Singh, a foremost authority on Indian architecture’ (Lacking, 1933, p.13). However, as understated as the reports are, the Durbar Room’s ornate Indian style decoration sits in stark contrast to the rest of Osborne House’s Italianate style. The room became one for staging theatre performances by the Royal household, but ‘by most accounts, no efforts were made to acknowledge the material significance of the room while interacting with the space itself’ (Palmor, 2015, p.69).

In a post-colonial society, the Durbar Room is interesting in its almost stand-alone representation of colonial Indo-Saracenic architecture undertaken in England by an Indian architect. While in India, the opposite was often true with English architects using Indo-Saracenic architecture to appease Indian sentiments for colonisation. This difference in contexts means that in India, Lutyens design of the Viceroy’s House, given that it was considered imperial architecture, has had a negative effect. ‘A younger generation of Indians see Lutyens’ ‘arrogant’ domes as symbols of alien imperial rule’ (Ridley, 1998, p.67). Whereas in England, who were the colonisers rather than the colonised and the colonial encounter is more displaced, the Durbar Room is considered more of an ornate, aesthetically pleasing representation of Indian craftsmanship, rather than the result of Empire.

The Viceroy’s House and Durbar Room show the influence of Indian design during the colonial era which should be more accepted within the realms of British art. Only by placing them in the context of colonial rule and the architectural history of India and Britain, do these examples start to make sense as to why they ended up being designed as they are. This makes them more appreciated as the result of a much greater understanding of British Indian architectural design.



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