Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata

Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata [formerly Calcutta). Sir William Emerson (1843-1924), with input from the supervising architect, Vincent Jerome Esch (1876-1950). 1903-1921. Indian marble from the Makrana quarries, as used in building the Taj Mahal. Queen's Way, Kolkata. Photographs taken in June 2004 by Ramnath Subbaraman, text by Jacqueline Banerjee.. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL or cite it in a print document.]

The idea for this monument came originally from Lord Curzon's secretary, when Calcutta was still the seat of government. The Viceroy took it up enthusiastically, saying: "Let us, therefore, have a building, stately, spacious, monumental and grand, to which every newcomer in Calcutta will turn, to which all the resident population, European and Native, will flock, where all classes will learn the lessons of history, and see revived before their eyes the marvels of the " (qtd. in Dutta 130). On Christmas Day 1905 The Times duly reported that the then Prince of Wales, while visiting Calcutta, would lay the foundation stone of the hall, "a magnificent public monument which, it is hoped, will serve for all time to remind India of the great Empress whose name is so inseparably bound up with the most important events of her modern history" (9).

Left to right: (a) One of the "faintly Moghul" corner domes (Davies 212). (b) Entrance surmounted by the royal coat of arms. (c) A British lion, with the massive Angel of Victory in the background. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Through the recommendation of Lord Esher, the recently knighted Sir William Emerson was chosen to design the building. Emerson is on record as having believed that "it was impossible for the architecture of the west to be suitable to the natives of the east" (qtd. in Metcalf 1), but Curson had other ideas here: "In Calcutta — a city of European origin and construction — where all the main buildings had been erected in a quasi-classical or Palladian style, and which possessed no indigenous architectural type of its own — it was impossible to erect a building in any native style" (qtd. in Davies 212). Nevertheless, it is not quite true to say that Emerson's love of the Indo-Saracenic was suppressed in the interests of this "imperial enterprise" (Metcalf 210). Even apart from the Moghul-style corner domes, there are many Saracenic touches, like the carving round the window arches, which reveal the sympathies of both architects involved. Esch, a much younger man, had also left London for India in his early twenties, in his case to work with the Bengal-Nagpur railway project, but he had stayed on and built up a highly successful practice in Calcutta. He is credited with the redesign of the foundations to take into account local soil conditions (see Tillotson), as well as with much of the detailing; he would become one of the most vocal supporters and practitioners of the Indo-Saracenic style in the later years of the Raj.

Four photographs of Frampton's Queen Victoria: (a) The statue. (b) The statue on its base and in situ. (c) Two images including a rear view from the 1898 The Studio. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

The Victoria Memorial is topped by an enormous (16' high, 3-tonne) bronze Angel of Victory, which is capable of revolving, though in recent times grease has had to be used to facilitate this. By its very nature the whole structure has "represented always an imposed power" (Metcalf 210). Nevertheless, it is a striking monument, and a few years ago, when conservation became a major issue, it was pointed out that an average of 35,000 visitors came to its gardens and/or galleries daily, rising to 100,000 on occasion ("Report of the Committee on Improvement of the Environment of Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata").

References

Davies, Philip. Splendours of the Raj: British Architecture in India 1660-1947. London: Penguin, 1987.

Dutta, Krishna. Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History. Oxford: Signal, 2003.

Metcalf, Thomas R. An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain's Raj. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Morris, Jan. The Stones of Empire: The Buildings of the Raj. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.

"Report of the Committee on Improvement of the Environment of the Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata." February 2004. This has images showing conservation and maintenance work, crowds of visitors and hawkers, and the various problems (litter and so forth) then being faced. Web. Viewed 3 September 2010.

Tillotson, G. H. R. "Esch, Vincent Jerome (1876-1950)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. Viewed 3 September 2010.

"The Victoria Memorial Hall." The Times. Monday 25 December 1905, p. 9.

"Victoria Memorial Hall, India" (official site). Web. This has Emerson's original plan for the building and many interesting close-ups. Viewed 3 September 2010.


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Last modified 2 September 2010