Posted by: Singh Is King | Sunday, July 29, 2007

Uk Finds Art Trove And The Passion Of An Sikh Prince

Before he died in 1926, Prince Frederick Singh, grandson of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, collected priceless English oil paintings that gathered dust for years in a small county town

Prince Frederick Singh, Courtesy Norfolk Museums and Archeology Service

LONDON, JULY 22: At a time when Indian artists are beginning to warm up the international art market, comes a story of a princely Indian connection to a discovery in British art.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s grandson, Frederick, has been identified as a patron of the arts, and a collector of a series of priceless English oil paintings that have been gathering dust in a small county town north-east of London.

Prince Frederick Singh, educated at Eton and Magdalene College, Cambridge, was the younger son of Ranjit Singh’s son and heir, Duleep Singh, and his German-Ethiopian wife Bamba Muller. His brothers Victor and Edward pre-deceased him. One older sister, Bamba Jindan, married a Dr Sutherland and was allowed by the Pakistani government to return to Lahore where she died in 1957.

Unlike his father who rejected the Christian vows of his pre-teen years and returned to Sikhism, just as he denounced his English patrons prior to a series of failed attempts to return home for good to India, Frederick lived and died the life of a perfect English gentleman.

A portrait capturing his likeness shortly before he died at the age of 58 in 1926 depicts an Edwardian gentleman in a bowler hat with a twirling moustache and a stiff collared shirt with a tie. He could easily pass for an upper class gentleman visiting the Baker Street apartment of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional hero, Sherlock Holmes.

A much earlier portrait of the young Frederick identifies him more clearly as a young Sikh boy with long flowing hair and the features of his father and grandfather.

By the time of Duleep Singh’s death in 1898, however, Frederick appears to have lost all contact with his Sikh roots and was living the life of an country squire. He volunteered to fight against the Germans in World War I and, prior to that, purchased an English country mansion, Blo’ Norton, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Local legend has it that Frederick’s sole concession to his Sikh roots was the construction in the grounds of his house of a small, white pillared ornamental building — a “folly” — in memory of the “Divine Winds of Heaven” designed to recall his father’s religion.

One published account of Frederick’s day-to-day life describes how his home was hung with portraits of Bonnie Prince Charlie and other members of the Stuart dynasty, “while a portrait of Oliver Cromwell was hung head down”. Among his collection of Stuart relics was a pendant containing a piece of the wooden block on which Charles I was executed, including a locket with a ringlet of his hair.

It is a measure of how absorbed he was by English culture that Frederick started collecting paintings of local, East Anglian artists, including a 16th century portrait of Elizabeth I, as part of a private passion to stop them being disbursed when the local gentry sold their country houses.

When he died in 1926, some 70 oil paintings were handed over to the town of Thetford for display in the local Guildhall. Subsequently, another 70 paintings from his collection were also gifted to Thetford.

Unfortunately for local art lovers, the paintings were never properly displayed. They were either stored in the Guildhall attic or the basement where they suffered from leaking water, humidity, vandalism and fly droppings.

A decade ago at least a dozen paintings were stolen from the basement collection.

Most of the surviving paintings remain in storage, although about a dozen have gone on display at Thetford’s Ancient House museum, a local merchant’s 15th century home that was purchased, refurbished and gifted to Thetford by Frederick in 1923.

Museum curator Oliver Bone has disclosed that Thetford Council plans to build an extension to the Guildhall, so as to facilitate the freeing up of gallery space for Frederick’s collection.

“Prince Frederick would have been very disappointed to know that his portraits have been taken down for so long,” Bone commented. “There is a real need for a secure, public space to display the collection.”


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