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The Stately Domes

By Carol Wright

The establishment of the British Empire greatly influenced the architecture and culture of India and led to a fusion of styles

Mughal architectural splendour epitomised in the Taj Mahal and Akbar’s deliberate mixture of Islamic and Hindu elements had a compelling influence on nineteenth century English architects and designers. The most impressive examples, sitting quaintly in England’s damp green landscape are Sezincote House, the Royal Pavilion and Osborne House.

The rich and royal created these but Indian decorative motifs inspired by the Indian Pavilion at the 1851 Great Exhibition filtered down to everyone. Most could afford a Paisley shawl based on Indian designs and named for the Scottish town where they were made. Two men helped spread the passion for Indian style. Samuel Bourne (1834-1912) established a photographic company in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, and his detailed studies of architecture, people and the first images of the Himalayas were eagerly viewed in Britain. Thomas Wardle (1831-1909), owner of two textile print works, had a lifetime fascination for India. He imported Indian silk, e0ponto which he printed Indian designs and perfected the dyeing and printing of India’s wild silk; tussore.

The drawings of India by Thomas and William Daniell particularly influenced architects providing tempting new ideas they couldn’t resist. The forerunner of neo-mughal architecture was Sezincote (pronounced seas-in-cot). This Cotswold estate was bought by Colonel John Cockerell on retiring from the East India Company in Bengal. After his death, his brother Sir Charles commissioned another brother, Samuel Pepys Cockerell to build a house ‘in the Indian manner’ completed in 1810. Samuel, though an East Indian Company surveyor, had never visited India and obtained his ideas from Thomas Daniell’s drawings. He had already experimented with Indian elements at nearby Daylesford built for Warren Hastings. For Sezincote, he substituted the marble and red sandstone of the Taj Mahal with stained stone from a nearby quarry and copper on a turquoise topped dome and minarets. Large windows had shell-like fan detailing typically Mughal. An impressive orangery stretches out on one side of the house and the gardens, designed by Humphrey Repton, have Hindu touches including lingam shaped fountain, a temple and crescent bridge with nandi bulls.

John Nash, Regent Street’s designer also came under the spell of Daniell’s work. For the Prince Regent, the future George IV, he created the Royal Pavilion at the seaside resort of Brighton. Its extraordinary flamboyance has drawn criticism; ‘an exotic madhouse’; ‘masterpiece of bad taste’ and ‘it looked as if Harrods had gone to Brighton and mated with the Taj Mahal’. A former farmhouse was Cinderella-like transformed to a magic pavilion with 10 domes and 10 minarets supported by a cast iron frame giving a light, airy impression of a huge temporary tent compared to Sezincote’s solid block firmly anchored to its Cotswold hill. A wing of stables and riding school ‘in the Indian style’ completed the facade.

Queen Victoria wasn’t amused by the Royal Pavilion but loved her own holiday home of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight designed as an Italian Renaissance palazzo by Prince Albert and built 1845-1851 and it was where she died in 1901. Though she was unable to travel to India, she became fascinated by its culture, learnt Hindustani with Abdul Karim, her Indian secretary, employed many Indian servants and smothered Osborne House with Indian design chintz.

In 1890, she commissioned an Indian banqueting hall, which became known as the Durbar Hall seen in the recent Victoria and Abdul film. This wasn’t derived from drawings but created by those who knew India intimately. Designed by John Lockwood Kipling, father of Rudyard, and director of the Mayo School of Art in Lahore, the magnificent plaster work of the coffered ceiling was the work of Bhai Ram Singh, a master craftsman from the Mayo School.

The fireplace overmantle features a peacock that took 26 men 500 hours to make. Ganesha, for good fortune, guards the doors to the minstrels’ gallery where bands played during formal dinners. The room was the first in Osborne House to be lit by electricity in the form of six Kipling designed Indian-style standard lamps and hanging lanterns.

The hall also displayed caskets of loyal greetings sent from India for the Queen’s 1887 and 1897 jubilees. Designs range from a velvet covered, gold decorated box from Hyderabad to a cylindrical casket set on two silver elephants from Kutch. Taken with the glorious backdrop of the Hall, the collection displays the brilliance of Indian craftsmanship and design at the end of the nineteenth century.


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