John Gibson RA A marble bust of Duleep Singh mid 19th Century
Lot 385
John Gibson RA (1790-1866) Maharajah Duleep Singh, Last Ruler of the Punjab (1838-93), a portrait bust sculpted in Rome, 1859-60
Sold for £ 1,700,000 (US$ 2,239,764) inc. premium

Lot Details
John Gibson RA (1790-1866) Maharajah Duleep Singh, Last Ruler of the Punjab (1838-93),  a portrait b John Gibson RA A marble bust of Duleep Singh mid 19th Century John Gibson RA A marble bust of Duleep Singh mid 19th Century John Gibson RA A marble bust of Duleep Singh mid 19th Century
John Gibson RA (1790-1866)
Maharajah Duleep Singh, Last Ruler of the Punjab (1838-93), a portrait bust sculpted in Rome, 1859-60
white marble, in two sections, signed verso I. Gibson fecit Romae
74 cm. high


  • Provenance:
    Maharajah Duleep Singh until 1893;
    Prince Frederick Duleep Singh until 1926;
    Sotheby’s, Victorian Paintings and Sculpture, 12 June 1985, lot 246;
    Private UK collection.

    John Gibson RA (1790-1866)

    John Gibson was born near Conway in Wales, but moved to Liverpool when he was nine years old. At fourteen, he was apprenticed to a firm of cabinet makers, portrait and miniature painters. His dissatisfaction was soon apparent, and a year later he began to work for a Liverpool firm of statuaries, Messrs Franceys. This was to be the beginning of his true artistic vocation. While under their apprenticeship, he attracted the attention of the historian, William Roscoe, for whom he carved a bas relief for a chimney piece, now in the Liverpool museum. His first important independent work was the monument to Henry Blundell, which was erected in Sefton Church, Lancashire in 1813.

    In 1816, Gibson had work accepted by the Royal Academy and went to London the following year. However, he had set his heart on going to Rome, 'even if he went there on foot', and in October 1820 he at last arrived there. He was accepted in the studio of Antonio Canova, the renowned Venetian sculptor of The Three Graces, who gave him instruction, and also at the Academy of St Luke, where he assisted Thorwaldsen. Gibson began to receive commissions, and early patrons included the Duke of Devonshire and the King of Bavaria.

    Gibson was now on the road to success and was urged to return to London where he might make more money. True to principle, he refused and wrote in a letter, 'I thank God for every morning that opens my eyes in Rome'. In 1833 he was elected an Associate and in 1838 a full member of the Royal Academy. He exhibited there from 1816 until 1864.

    He did not return to England until 1844 at the command of Queen Victoria to execute a statue of her. He visited England again in 1850 to model another statue of the Queen, this time for the Houses of Parliament, and took five years to complete the work. He became a favourite of Queen Victoria, for whom he made a number of works, including a bust of the Princess of Wales. Gibson’s life revolved around his dedication to his work and he lived a simple but happy life. He was so focused on his work that he was quite helpless outside his studio. Having got off a train at the wrong station, a porter asked him, 'Pray, Sir, are you a foreigner?', to which Gibson answered, 'No, I am not a foreigner, but a sculptor'.

    Gibson died in Rome in 1866 and in his will left the bulk of his fortune and the contents of his studio to the Royal Academy. During his lifetime, he created a large body of work, including statues, busts, groups, monuments and reliefs. The most famous of these is perhaps the statue of Queen Victoria supported by Justice and Clemency in the Houses of Parliament. He achieved fame – indeed notoriety- for his Tinted Venus (1854), now in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, when he moved away from the convention of classical white marble in suggesting how ancient Greek sculpture might have appeared originally. His statue of William Huskisson stands in Pimlico Gardens, London and plaster versions of smaller, perhaps more lifelike works such as Narcissus, Venus, Cupid Pursuing Psyche and Nymph Untying her Sandal, can be seen in The Sackler Wing of The Royal Academy, London.

    Maharajah Duleep Singh (1838-93)

    The portrait bust of Maharajah Duleep Singh made in Rome in 1859 by the Welsh-born Royal Academician John Gibson provides a tantalising glimpse into the story of a lost kingdom - and of the man who tried to win it back.

    The circumstances of its making, on a trip to Italy in company with the Prince of Wales, found the subject at perhaps the happiest time in an otherwise turbulent life. And a letter from his royal protector shows just how enamoured Queen Victoria still was with the 'pretty and graceful' Sikh prince when the sculpture was created.

    The Boy King
    When Duleep Singh was born on 4 September 1838 there was rejoicing in Lahore, capital of the great Sikh kingdom which stretched from the Indian Ocean to the Himalayas. It was the creation of his father, Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the 'Lion of the Punjab', who had began his career as warrior-king aged barely nineteen - driving out the Afghans and uniting the jealous Sikh clans or 'Misals'. Almost four decades later the Sikh army, the 'Khalsa', officered and trained by men who had once served Napoleon, had become a formidable force. The court of Lahore glittered with wealth and culture. The British East India Company, whose expanding territories now abutted Ranjit's realm across the Sutlej river, took covetous notice.

    Duleep's mother Jindan Kaur, the last wife taken by Ranjit, had been the beautiful daughter of the royal kennel keeper. On the king's death in 1839 the court fell into a bloody internecine battle for power. The Maharani Jindan was proclaimed regent, but her sexual and political intrigues outraged the sternly moralistic regiments of the Khalsa.

    The Sikh army was dispatched to the border to fight a brave but disastrous war with the East India Company's troops. By the Treaty of Lahore in 1846, the Sikhs were made to give up Kashmir and to accept a British resident in their capital. Jindan was dragged away from the side of her son. The boy-king lived a life of pampered luxury but ruled over nothing more than his palace nursery.

    In 1849 Sikh chieftains rebelled - giving the British Governor-General, Lord Dalhousie, the chance to invade ('The Second Anglo-Sikh War') and annex the Punjab outright. The Koh-i-Noor diamond was taken from the treasury and presented to Queen Victoria as a symbol of dominion over the whole of India. It remained her personal possession up to her death in 1901. Last worn by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, today it resides in the state crown kept in the jewel house of the Tower of London.

    Queen Victoria's Favourite

    The eleven year old Duleep was himself to be made a similar symbol of subjection. He was removed from the Punjab to Mussoorie in the mountains and put in the care of Dr (later Sir) John Login, a Scottish army surgeon, and his wife. He was taught Christianity and played cricket with English boys of the garrison. It was thought right and proper that he should visit England and thus in 1854 began his extraordinary journey through fashionable society. Darkly handsome in his oriental finery, he caused a sensation on the streets of London.

    Whether through a sense of guilt or a girlish crush, Queen Victoria was enraptured from their first meeting. '[He is] extremely handsome and speaks English perfectly' she wrote 'and has a pretty, graceful and dignified manner...I always feel so much for these poor deposed Indian princes.'

    Iconic images were made of him by the court painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter (now in the Royal Collection) and in portrait photography by, amongst others, that keen amateur cameraman, his friend Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. Queen Victoria also commissioned the Italian sculptor Baron Carlo Marochetti in 1856 to make a marble bust of the Maharajah, the original of which is now in Osborne House and a maquette in the Princess Bamba Collection at the Lahore Fort Museum, and which is quite different in style to the present lot.

    Government ministers in London meanwhile considered how to ensure the exile should have no residual political power. It was thought unwise to send him to Eton (where 'he might be thrashed') or thereafter to university. In the Great Mutiny of 1857, the Sikh regiments of the East India Company’s army stayed loyal. That saved British rule. The Sikhs might not do so again if a new challenge should arise.

    It was to be hoped that the 'savage-natured' young man could be made an English gentleman. He attended fashionable salons and went shooting on Perthshire grouse moors wearing the kilt.
    He was taken by his appointed mentors, the Logins, on an educational grand tour of Italy, where on his first trip to Rome he 'fell in love' twice over.

    Meanwhile he was in need of a wife - and as his age of majority approached he was now the recipient of a huge government pension. As a rite of passage he embarked in December 1858 on a winter hunting trip down the river Danube into Asia Minor with the swashbuckling adventurer Samuel Baker (a friend from the Scottish grouse moors) who ended up buying a girl in a 'white slave' market in Turkish Wallachia - whom eventually he would make his wife. The Logins were meanwhile back in Rome installed in a rented palazzo accompanied by the thirteen year old Princess Victoria Gouramma, daughter of the former Rajah of Coorg. She was the god-daughter of the Queen, who thought her highly suitable as a bride for Duleep. He was a Christian but still a 'native' and thus could not marry an Englishwoman. Duleep arrived from Constantinople, but was not enamoured of the princess and at first refused to meet her.

    The alarmed Queen asked her son, the eighteen year old Prince of Wales (who was also in Rome on an 'educational' visit accompanied by his Governor, the stern General Robert Bruce) to intervene. He reported that the greatest moral threat to Duleep seemed to be a new found fascination with Roman Catholicism. She replied in a letter dated 16 April 1859 that there 'was little the Maharajah thought it so like the Hindoo religion which he himself abjured.' She added this fascinating postscript:

    'Would you tell Gibson that when he has finished the Maharajah's bust - that I should like him to send me a cast of it.'

    The letter (quoted as being from the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle in the book Queen Victoria's Maharajah by Michael Alexander and Sushila Anand, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980) demonstrates that the work clearly had royal inspiration. The fashionable sculptor had earlier made a full size statue of the young Queen for the Palace of Westminster and would go on to make a marital bust of Princess Alexandra of Denmark on her marriage to Prince Albert Edward in 1863. The letter also shows Victoria's continuing fascination with the handsome young man. If a new likeness of Duleep was being made - she must have a copy.

    If the marble study of Duleep, turbanned, bearded and swathed in pearls was commissioned as a token to entice the Princess Victoria Gouramma or any other bride-to-be, it failed. Duleep spurned her as too young, instead he spent two more months mooning about Rome looking for maturer girls 'to buy bracelets for' .

    A restless spirit
    The restless Duleep had a new journey to make - to find his mother. He sent an emissary to Nepal where she had fled into exile, having escaped her British imprisonment. The alarmed Viceroy discovered the overture but was reassured by the news 'she is much changed - she is blind and takes but little interest in what is going on'. A return by the Maharajah to his birthplace of the Punjab, however, was forbidden.

    To avoid the attention of government agents, Duleep had declared the reason for his journey as a hunting trip. His mother was summoned from the Himalayas for a meeting at Spencer's Hotel in Calcutta. He found India a 'beastly place.' 'The heat is dreadful, I hate the natives,' he wrote.

    It was resolved that he would return to London and install the ailing Maharani in a house in Lancaster Gate, Kensington, attended by Soortoo, her slave girl and a retinue of servants who, because of caste, could not stand on the same carpet. They made a strange sight walking each morning in line of precedence round Hyde Park.

    Jindan was dead within two years, during which time she had filled her son with stories of the lost kingdom, of the jewels, the palaces, the salt mines with their tremendous income, and she spoke of the Koh-i-Noor diamond.

    Duleep took her body in a lead casket by sea to Bombay to be cremated according to Sikh rites. On his way out, at Cairo, he became enamoured of a pretty sixteen year old, the daughter of a Coptic Christian Ethiopian and a German merchant father. On the way back he married Bamba Muller at Alexandria - then brought her 'home to England'.

    The Maharajah and his wife resided on a vast shooting estate in Norfolk, Elveden. The house was extensively remodeled in the oriental taste. The Maharani Bamba bore three sons and three daughters. But the squire of Elveden had a secret life - pursuing chorus girls from the Alhambra Theatre. No longer the beautiful youth, he relieved his frustrations with his passion for lavish shoots. He wrote to the Queen demanding the return of the Koh-i-Noor. When she refused, he took to calling her 'Mrs Fagin'.

    A dark political conspiracy gathered. Rebellious emissaries from the Punjab sought him out. In 1886 he abjured his wife and family 'because they were Christian' as he declared in a public notice in The Times and declared himself to be a remade Sikh. He ventured to St Petersburg, then Moscow posing as an Irish revolutionary - in company with a teenage cockney chambermaid called Ada Wetherill - offering to lead an invasion of British India. It was a stunt cooked up by HM Foreign Office's intelligence department to discredit an inconveniently warlike Russian newspaper magnate.

    Ada bore two daughters. Duleep died penniless in Paris in October 1893, still raving about the Koh-i-Noor. India Office ministers made crude jokes, although the Queen mourned his passing. He is buried, as a Christian, at Elveden church close to the Hall which is now the home of the Fourth Earl of Iveagh and the Guinness family. Sikh pilgrims from around the world seek out the grave - and reflect on the fate of their fallen king.

    The Gibson bust meanwhile stayed in the family - in spite of all its travails. The Maharajah’s eldest son, Prince Victor, went to Eton and Sandhurst and married the youngest daughter of the Duke of Coventry - then promptly gambled away whatever fortune was left. Prince Frederick, his second son, became a noted East Anglian antiquary and in 1909 became the tenant of the famous medieval manor house Blo Norton Hall near Diss in Norfolk. A photograph circa 1920 of the gallery shows court paintings of Sikh notables made around the time of Duleep's birth in Lahore - and the Gibson bust perched casually on a table. Prince Frederick died in 1926 aged fifty-eight. He never married. His sisters, Princesses Bamba, Catherine and Sophia were the chief mourners. The male line of Sikh kings was extinct.

    The marble likeness of the youthful Duleep survived. The probate value of the Hall's entire contents of was assessed at £9,631, nine shillings and three pence - that of the Gibson bust just five pounds. Prince Frederick left his possessions to his sisters and it is assumed that the bust remained in their possession until Bamba died in 1957.

    For further information , see Christy Campbell, The Maharajah’s Box: An Imperial Story of Conspiracy, Love and a Guru’s Propechy, London, 2001; Peter Bance, The Duleep Singhs. The Photographic Album of Queen Victoria’s Maharajah, Stroud, 2004.

    We would like to thank Christy Campbell for his assistance in cataloguing this lot, and also Peter Bance and Oliver Bone of Ancient House, Museum of Thetford Life for the loan of images and additional information.
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