When in Thetford, Norfolk, we visited the Ancient House Museum of Thetford Life, and they had a leaflet about one Duleep Singh, and somehow, I remembered him! The winter before, I had seen a small but really interesting exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, the title of which I couldn’t remember exactly, but I knew it was about people from different parts of the British Empire, who had been in London and how they had been perceived through the eyes of the Londoners of colonial times. Among them, a Maharadjah from Punjab, Duleep Singh who had become one of Queen Victoria’s favourites.
How strange to see him mentioned there at Thetford.
It turned out that he had at some point lived in Thetford and that somewhere in town, there was a statue of him.
Well, if Thomas Payne’s statue was easy for everyone to see, it wasn’t the same for Duleep Singh’s, which it took us time to discover, in the middle of a small island. Exiled there, so to speak.
Back home, I googled his name, trying to find the name of that exhibition had seen, and it was this morning, searching The Times online, that I finally found it.
The National Portrait Gallery has a wonderful website, in which they keep track of former exhibitions, so there it was: Between worlds, voyagers to Britain, 1700-1850
Why did he make such an impression on me, in the course of that exhibition, I don’t know. Maybe that portrait of him by Winterhalter, in which he wore a piece of jewelry that is described in The Times
It was Victoria who commissioned Singh’s portrait from Franz Xavier Winterhalter. It’s a flattering piece, but it hides secrets: one assumes that the exiled ruler must be in full possession of his earthly powers — he’s easy and comfortable in traditional dress. But, look just below his chin and you see the symbol of his subservience, the miniature of Queen Victoria. Then look at the diamonds on his turban and you see jewels that the British confiscated and held in the Tower and returned to Duleep only for the purposes of the portrait.
Such an unusual destiny.