Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Mastery of Design: The Lahore Emerald Girdle, c. 1840

Crown Copyright
The Royal Collection
via The Royal Collection Trust
Image Courtesy of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The emeralds in this exquisite piece were inherited by India's Maharajah Sher Singh from Ranjit Singh, his father known as the "Lion of the Punjab."  "The Lion," it is said, had used the emeralds to decorate his horse harnesses.  The maharajah had the emeralds made into this exceptional girdle circa 1840.

Nine years later, the Directors of the East India Company obtained the belt and presented it to Queen Victoria in 1851.  

As we know, the East India Company was chartered, as early as the Seventeenth Century, to encourage trade between Britain and the East Indies.  The Company eventually came to rule huge geographic areas of India with its own private armies, and, in doing so, exercised military power while assuming administrative functions.

Company rule of India  began in 1757 after the Battle of Plassey and remained strong until 1858 when, after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the "Government of India Act 1858" concluded with the British Crown assuming direct control of the land under the new British Raj.

During this period of Company rule, India's leaders were often stripped of their treasures for the benefit of the Company.  This piece was one such treasure.

The Royal Collection states simply that the emerald girdle was...

"taken (as part of the Lahore Treasury) by the Directors of the East India Company, 1849; by whom given to Queen Victoria in 1851."

In short, many British royal jewels originating in India were legitimately given as gifts to the Company or to the Crown, but some were simply war booty, essentially taken from the Indian Maharajahs.  The largest collection of such treasures was taken from the Lahore Fort, just as this girdle was.  The exact number and nature of the jewels taken from the Lahore Treasure was closely guarded by 
 jewellers to the Royal family, Messrs Garrads & Co.  In fact, to this day, an official count is unknown.

Regardless of the manner in which they came into the collection over a century and a half ago, the curators of the Royal Collection have preserved and protected the jewels of The Lahore Treasury, and, in doing so have ensured their survival for future generations to study them.  This is the "give and take" of seized artifacts.  The way they were obtained may not have been too pleasant, but, ultimately, seizing them proves to protect them.

That's how I look at it, anyway.  But, enough of that, let's look at the girdle.

Crown Copyright
The Royal Collection
via The Royal Collection Trust
Image Courtesy of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The jeweled belt is comprised of eighteen rectangular gold sections separated by gold links and a buckle.  Each section is edged with diamond and pearl links and set with square or hexagonal emeralds, and four with engraved oval stones. The buckle of the girdle has a square emerald between rows of diamonds in a flowerhead design.  The diamonds are either flat-cut (lasques) or more regularly faceted stones cut either in the West or in India for the Western market. The pearls are probably Eighteenth Century or earlier.

On her visit to the Great Exhibition on 22 May 1851, Queen Victoria was particularly struck by the the magnificence of the items from the Lahore Treasury.  She wrote of the...

 "jewels & ornaments from Lahore, [which] are quite magnificent, - such pearls, - & a whole girdle of emeralds."

When the Great Exhibition concluded,  as I said, the Directors of the East India Company presented the Queen with a splendid selection of these jewels, including a quantity of emeralds, which she described as "wonderful and of immense value."

A good many of the loose emeralds were re-cut and set by Garrards in a new emerald and diamond parure, consisting of a tiara, stomacher and a pair of bracelets, which Victoria wore on her State Visit to Paris in 1855. 

This girdle, which the Queen had so admired, was among the other treasures from Lahore which remained unchanged, and therefore, afford us a window into the style and brilliant craftsmanship of Nineteenth Century Indian goldsmiths.

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