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An Irresistible Memento

by Khaled Ahmed

Maharaja Sher Singh wearing the Koh-i-noor diamond and Timur ruby. Oil on panel by August Theodor Schoefft.

F.S. Aijazuddin’s ‘Studies in Majesty’ compiles invaluable insight on the life and works of European painter August Schoefft

Studies in Majesty, Paintings by August Schoefft and Related Portraits by Fakir Syed Aijazuddin is a rare pictorial treat, comprising pictures of paintings from Punjab’s twilight Sikh period, of a remarkable painter from Europe whose life was no less exciting than the subjects he bought to life forever.

A revised and expanded edition of Aijazuddin’s earlier work Sikh Portraits by European Artists, published in 1979, the book centers on 11 paintings by 19th century Hungarian artist August Schoefft, augmented by material highlighting new information about Schoefft, his subjects, and the Princess Bamba collection that contains these paintings.

That’s where Aijazuddin steps in, giving us a remarkably complete portrait of Schoefft, who is today the mainstay of the portraits contained in this book. Schoefft’s life is a litany of disappointments, of misplaced optimism as he searched for wealthy patrons who would make use of his talents and remunerate him, which they were not always prepared to do.

Odyssey of August Schoefft

During his trip to the Near East and India around 1842, Schoefft managed to accumulate enough wealth to buy on his return a grand palazzo in Venice. He died at the age of 79, at a charity asylum in London, far from the House of the Seven Owls in Pest in Hungary where earlier generations of his artistic family had lived before him. He was better known outside the country of his birth than within Hungary itself. Aijazuddin has dedicated the book under review as a homage to August Schoefft: “He deserves more than this simple dedication.”

The book contains primarily a cache of family portraits of the last Maharaja of Punjab, Duleep Singh (1838-1893), during his exile in the United Kingdom where he had been taken while still in his teens. Born on Sept. 6, 1838, he was, at the age of five, made to sit on the golden throne of his father Maharaja Ranjit Singh by the Sikh Khalsa. While still a minor, he witnessed carnage within his own family; saw two wars in 1845-46 and in 1848-49 fought in his name; was made to accept by Britain the one-sided terms by which he surrendered the Koh-e-Noor diamond to Queen Victoria; forfeited his kingdom to the East India Company; and resigned “for himself, his heirs, and his successors all rights, title, and claim to the sovereignty of the Punjab.”

He celebrated every birthday thereafter in exile, never returning to the Punjab and especially in his waning years, never relinquishing his claim to it. He died lonely and impoverished in Paris on Oct. 22, 1893.

The Bamba collection

The present volume highlights The Princess Bamba collection which consists of 18 oil paintings (of which 11 are by August Schoefft), 14 water-colors, 22 paintings on ivory, 17 photographs, some metallic objects, and 7 miscellaneous articles. It recalls that “when Schoefft was escorting his royal guest around his gallery, the annexation of the Punjab by the East India Company had not yet taken place.” The juvenile Duleep Singh, whom the British Prince was yet to meet, was still maharaja of a state that covered territory larger than the whole United Kingdom.

Prince Consort Albert was almost certainly aware of the Treaty of Amritsar, executed on March 16, 1846, under which the territory of Kashmir had been sold to the wily Raja Gulab Singh of Jammu. Prince Albert would have understood, therefore, why Schoefft put Gulab Singh—now Maharaja—center-stage in the painting, offering a Nazar to his previous benefactor, the late Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Gifted son of Hungary

August Theodor Schoefft (1809 -1888) was born in Pest (Hungary), into a family of artists. The fourth in a line of talented professional painters, he lived in the family home in the Pest side of modern Budapest. At the age of 19, he secured admission Into the Akademie der Kunste, Vienna. He stayed there for only 6 months, before returning to Hungary. Gradually, his skills improved, finally reaching a level of competence. He returned to Pest in December 1834. Count Szechenyl tried to get Schoefft to establish a Hungarian school of painting.

In 1836, he and his wife went to the capital of Moldavia, from where they traveled via Odessa to Constantinople. They joined a caravan that took them by stages to Syria, the Holy Land, Egypt and Baghdad, where Schoefft had his first encounter with the East India Company. Here he painted a portrait of the British Consul Colonel Robert Taylor. Succumbing to the lure of potential commissions from wealthy patrons in India, Schoefft and his wife arrived by ship from Cairo and landed at Bombay in early 1838.

In India, the reality awaiting such artistic carpet-baggers was at odds with their expectations. About 30 British portrait-painters had been to India, only to discover that the East India Company was a disappointing patron. Mildred Archer, in her unrivalled survey of the work of British painters in India, wrote that British patrons preferred artists from their own country while Indian patrons had their own misgivings.

Painting the Mughal king

Schoefft went wherever patrons were available—for example, to Pune to execute a portrait of John Vaughan, a judge. The princely state of Travancore promised to provide a rich harvest of commissions. Schoefft was invited to Travancore to paint portraits of the royal family and prominent courtiers. However, Schoefft had a difficult time when the Rajah refused to pay for the paintings. (The vernacular records mention that the painter had charged a hefty sum of 12,000 Company Rupees for seven paintings). It seems Schoefft left Travancore in dismay, taking the paintings with him, and went to Madras. Later, the Rajah released the amount after the Governor intervened in favor of Schoefft.

Schoefft managed to arrange an audience with the Mughal emperor-poet Bahadur Shah Zafar. It was easier than one would have imagined. Schoefft had to pay a nazrana of 300 francs equivalent for the privilege. The portraits of Bahadur Shah and of his two sons—Mirza Mughal and the emperor’s favorite Mirza Jawan Bakht—were completed after Schoefft returned to Europe.

Painting Sher Singh

Then came the peripheral adventure that was to become center-stage. Leaving his wife behind in British territory for safety, Schoefft crossed the Sutlej river border and entered the Sikh kingdom of the Punjab. On Nov. 14, Schoefft arrived at Lahore and was ordered to present himself at Amritsar. Schoefft set himself to work immediately and when he started to paint the portrait of Maharaja Sher Singh, he was given a pair of golden bracelets as a present. He produced an oil painting depicting the maharajah as a military leader on horseback, nearly a life-size portrait.

Schoefft stayed in Lahore for about four months, arriving in November 1841 and leaving before March 1842. He lived primarily in the cities of Lahore and Amritsar. There is no evidence—written or pictorial—to indicate that Schoefft ventured further, for example, to Peshawar or Kashmir. Neither, inexplicably, did he execute any portraits of Lahore city, as he had done of Calcutta and Delhi. Schoefft must have invested his time filling his notebooks with sketches and making small paintings such as Sher Singh in Council that he could take back to Europe with him. Earlier, the letter says: “Supposedly Schoefft takes a replica of this painting to Europe as he already has a nice collection of Indian pieces and portraits of various Indian princes he had already painted.”

The painter and his caravan

Schoefft returned to British territory, collected his patient wife and traveled via Agra to Bombay. His entourage by this time consisted of a caravan of 20 carriers and 10 pack horses. Schoefft rode on horseback and his wife was carried by porters in a palanquin. He returned to his home in Pest via Egypt, Trieste and Belgrade. He brought back with him beautiful water-color paintings, his album filled with sketches and his diary, which one suspects he had hoped to use to compile and then publish an account of his travels.

Schoefft’s earnings from his Indian trip must have been substantial, enough for him to buy a palazzo in Venice where he and his wife spent a “tranquil life,” despite opening a hotel. They divorced, leaving Schoefft with a recurring obligation to pay alimony of 8,000 florins to his former wife. However, she did not survive long, dying shortly after in a riding accident.

Schoefft goes bankrupt

Schoefft’s financial situation after affluence he experienced from India remained precarious. In April 1874, he was declared bankrupt. His own works and the collection of Old Masters he used as stock for trading were auctioned. It would have been of scant consolation to Schoefft at the time to recall that a number of British painters who had gone to India had suffered the same fate. Undeterred, Schoefft appeared in San Francisco and New York. The next one hears about him is from a report in a Sacramento paper that Schoefft had become “demented” and was “missing”.

By 1885, Schoefft had managed to return to London, somehow, where a scholar researching an orientalist Schoefft had painted in 1840 met him. He wrote afterwards: “This very old man is still living in London, but is no longer able to recall or remember things of the past.” Schoefft’s final years make sad reading. In October 1885, he was admitted as a penniless destitute in Nazareth House asylum. There, in January 1888, he died after a fall on a staircase. The last remaining batch of his paintings of oriental subjects were all sold.

Maharani Jindan Kaur

In the numerical list of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s queens (ranis) prepared by her son Duleep Singh, she appears at number 16 out of 34 Sikh or Hindu Rajput wives. Jindan’s fortunes changed dramatically in September 1843, following the assassination of Maharaja Sher Singh (Ranjit Singh’s second son), who, with his young heir Kunwar Pratap Singh, fell victim to a conspiracy between the Dogra faction and the Sandhanwalia sardars. To fill the suddenly empty throne, the Khalsa acting as a commonwealth, accepted then-5-year-old Duleep Singh as the Maharaja of the Punjab. His sponsor, the Dogra Raja Hira Singh became wazir, just as his father Dhyan Singh had assumed that role when his own protégé Sher Singh came to the throne two years earlier. Hira Singh shared the same fate as his father, being murdered by rivals in December 1844.

Rani Jindan’s frenetic attempts to keep her son’s fraying kingdom together were vitiated by her administrative incompetence and public profligacy. Her favorites-Raja Nihal Singh and a slave girl named Mungia eroded her reputation and authority. The First Sikh war of 1845-46, instigated by her, resulted in a permanent British presence in Lahore in the form of a Resident, Henry Lawrence. Rani JIndan became a prisoner in her own palace and found her powers and allowances uncomfortably curtailed.

Jindan inclines son to rebellion

In August 1847, her son Duleep Singh was required to apply in open darbar the saffron mark signifying wazir-ship on the forehead of Raja Tej Singh, the British nominee. She tutored the young boy to withhold consent. That proved too much for the Resident Henry Lawrence. Lawrence ordered her to be detached from her son and removed to the Sheikhupura fort. From there, she bombarded the Board of Administration with remonstrance. On Aug. 30, she complained to John Lawrence (then Acting Resident) in a letter fringed with sarcasm: “You write to me that on account of the friendship between the two Governments you are very particular of the welfare of the Maharaja. How far you look to the welfare of the Maharaja is well-known throughout the world. Weeping, he was torn away from his mother and taken to Shalamar Garden, while his mother was dragged out by her hair. Well has the friendship been repaid.”

From Benares, Maharani Jindan was sent to nearby Fort Chunar. She remained there until April 1849, when she escaped by exchanging clothes with a visiting menial. She fled to Nepal where she stayed as a pensioner of the Nepali ruler until 1861. Ironically, she found herself in the care of Dr. James Login, the younger brother of Dr. John Login, who in Lahore became guardian of her son Duleep Singh.

She spent the next 12 trying years in Nepal. In 1861, when she heard that Duleep Singh would be traveling from England to India (ostensibly on a shooting trip) she returned to India to be reunited with her son at Calcutta. She had last seen him when he was nine years old. They met at the Spence’s Hotel on Jan. 16, 1861. The 23-year old who introduced himself to her had become an Anglicized Christian gentleman, a displaced royal on first name terms with Victorian nobility.

Reunited, the son and mother traveled to England. Duleep struggled to find suitable accommodation for her. Used to being portrayed by famous painters he sought to have a portrait done of his mother.

The family Duleep Singh

If there was a moment that Duleep Singh’s life shifted in the direction of its true spiritual north, it was when he was reunited with his mother Rani Jindan at Spence’s Hotel, Calcutta, on Jan. 16, 1861. Before that, the Punjab had been an appendage to his social identity; after that meeting, its retrieval became an obsession.

Duleep Singh married not into the British aristocracy, as he might have done but a 15-year-old illegitimate child of Abyssinian-German descent whom he chose out of a chattering gaggle of schoolgirls in a mission school in Cairo. Psychologists might be better qualified to analyze why Duleep Singh—traveling to India with the remains of his mother in the ship’s hold—should have taken such an extraordinary decision on such a doleful trip. Having taken it, though, he saw it through. He arranged his mother’s cremation at Nasik and returned with unseemly haste, disembarking again at Cairo to retrieve Bamba Mullen. He brought her back to the enormous unmanageable mansion he had acquired as their new home in Norfolk, for which the Government had advanced him 110,000 pounds.

This oddly mismatched couple had seven children: the first survived only one day, after whom came Victor Albert Jay (1866), Frederick Victor Jay (1868), Bamba Sofia Jindan (1869), Catherine Hilda (1871), Sophia Jindan Mexandrovna (1876), and finally Albert Edward (1879). The burden of an expanding family compounded by Duleep Singh’s extravagance strained his resources and the patience of the British Government that since 1857 had taken over responsibility for his pension.

Duleep Singh and the Queen

The seeds of rebellion sown in his mind by his mother Rani Jindan before her death germinated into open revolt against the British Government. The harder Duleep Singh tried to obtain what he saw as just recompense for the injustices caused to him during his helpless minority, the further their resolution moved out of his grasp. Exasperated, he tried to storm the Bastille of the Establishment by writing an open letter to The Times newspaper. It appeared on Aug. 28, 1882 and resulted in a flurry of refutations. “If I might advise you,” Queen Victoria wrote to a wounded Duleep Singh, “it would be better not to write in the papers. It is beneath you to do so. Is there no one on whose wise and impartial opinion you could rely and whose advice in these difficult questions would be of use to you?”

Queen Victoria hoped that Duleep Singh would listen to someone—anyone. Despite his reluctance to heed her advice, she continued to proffer it. In 1884, when he announced his intention of renouncing Christianity and returning to Sikhism, she cautioned him: “You mentioned the possibility of returning to your own faith. Now, considering what a fine and fervent Christian you were between 30 and 40 years, I cannot believe you would forsake the blessings of that pure Religion—for one that offers none of its comforts and blessings.”

Duleep Singh persisted in his determination to become a Sikh, to combat as “England’s Proud Implacable Foe”, and to return home to the kingdom he had been forced to forfeit. The rest of his life makes sad reading. He abandoned his mansion, took his family with him and then subjected them and himself to the indignity of being detained at Aden. While his family were repatriated to the United Kingdom, Duleep Singh persisted in his quixotic ambitions. He sought aid from Czar Alexander III who declined, and after being swindled by unscrupulous middlemen, Duleep Singh retreated into penury in Paris.

The downfall

His wife Bamba died on Sept. 18, 1887, evoking an effusion of regret from Queen Victoria who wrote in her journal: “The unfortunate M. D. S. [Maharaja Duleep Singh] has published a most violent, crazy letter, speaking of being the lawful Sovereign of the Sikhs” and “England’s Implacable foe.” Heard this evening that his poor abandoned wife, Bamba, had died quite suddenly yesterday. How terrible for the poor children, who are quite fatherless and motherless”.

On May 21, 1889, Duleep Singh married former actress Ada Weatherill, thus legitimizing their two children. He wanted her to receive the same recognition Queen Victoria had accorded his first wife. Queen Victoria declined, but she did on his appeal restore him as a Grand Commander of the Star of India, to which he had been admitted as one of its first 25 members by her and Prince Albert when it was instituted in June 25, 1861.

On March 31, 1891, she received a semi-paralyzed and repentant Duleep Singh at her hotel in Grasse. She wrote to her elder daughter Vicky afterwards: “He is quite bald and very grey but has the same pleasant manner as ever. When he came in, I gave him my hand which he kissed. No sooner had he sat down than Duleep Singh burst into a most terrible and violent fit of crying almost screaming and I stroked & held his hand, and he became calm.” Two years later, Duleep Singh, forgiven but still embittered and impoverished, died on Oct. 22, 1893 in Paris. His body was brought for burial in the graveyard within the grounds of Elveden Hall—the home that had bankrupted him.

Princess Bamba (1869-1957)

Of Maharaja Duleep Singh’s children, only Princess Bamba had an enduring connection with Lahore. In 1915 she married Lt.-Col. D. S. Sutherland, Principal, King Edward Medical College, Lahore (1909 -1923). In the 1940s, she bought a house in Lahore, “The Gulzar”, at 16 Jail Road. She returned to England in September 1946, but came back to settle in Lahore in a new home 104-A, Model Town. She was tended to by her secretary Pir Karim Bakhsh until her death on March 10, 1957. She was buried in the Jail Road Christian graveyard. There were no Sikhs representing her ancestry at her graveside.

The flap of FS Aijazuddin’s latest volume pays tribute to “the under-appreciated talent of the Hungarian master artist August Schoefft.” His 19th century compatriot and host in the Punjab, Dr. Martin Honigberger, said of him: “He has a high reputation all over the peninsula, and it gives great credit to our own country to give such men to the world.”

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