A small part of this discussion is based on my article, "Women of Affairs: Contrasting Images of Empire in Paul Scott's The Raj Quartet," in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 44/3 (2009): 69-85.

The Imperial Assemblage held at Delhi, 1 January 1877, painted by Valentine Cameron Prinsep, 1838-1904. Signed and dated 1877-80. Oil on canvas: 304.8 x 723 cm (frame, 415 x 901.5 x 21.6 cm). Source: the Royal Collection (RCIN 407181), downloaded by kind permission of the Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020. Prinsep's massive 27-foot-long canvas hangs in the Banqueting Hall of St James’s Palace. It takes up most of the wall along one side of the banquet table, and commemorates the ceremony in Delhi on 1 January 1877 at which Queen Victoria was officially proclaimed Empress of India. [See bibliography for link to the Royal Collection, and click on this and the following images to enlarge them.]

The first Viceroy himself, Lord Lytton, summoned Prinsep to Delhi to record this momentous event for the Queen. Wilfrid Meynell takes up the story: "Lord Lytton, with all the imagination of the poet, suggested in his telegram that Mr. Prinsep 'would be able to mako all necessary memoranda during the week the assemblage had to last.' No such delusion flitted through the brain of the resolute artist, who, however, set out without delay for what was, after all, the land of his birth [Prinsep came from Anglo-Indian stock]" (406). As for the scene of the assemblage itself, Meynell imagines that Prinsep must have been taken aback by it. This is an understatement: "Oh, horror ! what have I to paint?" complained the artist in his journals. "A kind of thing that outdoes the Crystal Palace in 'hideosity.' It has been designed by an engineer, and is all iron, gold, red, blue, and white. The dais for the chiefs is 200 yards across, and the Viceroy's dais is right in the middle, and is a kind of scarlet temple 80 feet high. Never was there such Brummagem ornament, or more atrocious taste" (20). Later he complains, "of the really splendid and impressive there was an utter want” (36).

He therefore jumped at the Viceroy’s suggestion that he should make “rather a fancy picture of it ... a picture commemorative of the Assemblage rather than a faithful reproduction of the scene” (35). This gave him some freedom, but even then, the task at hand was an enormous one. According to the Delhi Gazetteer, 79 ruling princes attended, along with 1200 civil servants and "14,000 splendidly equipped British and Indian troops" (93). As many as 68,000 spectators converged on the site. Prinsep had had his paintboxes out since arriving in Bombay in November, but his little bit of preparatory work was nothing compared to what he had to undertake now. The Royal Collection commentary explains that he managed to acquire photographs of some of those who attended, but then needed to spend months travelling the length and breadth of the sub-continent painting the rest of the participants. Meynell conveys something of the effort involved:

a whole year was devoted to making the portrait studies which were to appear a little later in the great canvas occupying a wall to itself in the Royal Academy; and during that period Mr. Prinsep saw as much of India as has perhaps been seen by any one man; and what he saw he put down in a diary, which was subsequently published under the title of "Imperial India." In that volume we are allowed to accompany the artist on the travels which his great undertaking involved. We follow him from Bombay across the great continent eastward to Allahabad, northward through Rajpootana and the Punjab into the high valleys of Kashmere, down through the plains of Southern India to Madras and Mysore.... [406]

Close-up of Lord Lytton being addressed by the Chief Herald, Major Osmond Barnes of the Tenth Bengal Cavalry, the tallest officer in the Indian army (see the Delhi Gazetteer, 94).

In this way, Prinsep managed to include "nearly 160 recognisable portraits in the finished painting" ("Description"). The result was a semi-circle of individually painted and identified Indian princes under draped banners facing the bearded Lord Lytton on the Viceregal throne, a panoramic view referred to in Vanity Fair as “that Eastern monstrosity” (qtd. in Dakers 208). The word "monstrosity" may be at least partly a comment on its size: "Back in London, the painting entirely filled the artist's especially enlarged studio. It took 14 skilled men to move it 'in a folded shape' to the Royal Academy in 1880, and Prinsep had to finish it there, after the exhibition had closed" ("Description"). Perhaps it was inevitable that such a painting should seem rather too "posed" — rather stiff and formal.

Left: The Imperial Assembly at Delhi: The Vice-Regal Procession passing the Clock-tower and Delhi Institute in the Chadnee Chowk. Source: Illustrated London News, January 1877, p. 92. Right: double page chromolithograph from the Urdu translation of James Talboys Wheeler’s The History of the Imperial Assemblage at Delhi (1877). Source: Wikipedia; in the public domain.

In contrast to Prinsep's set piece, other scenes capture the excitement of the occasion, showing British dignitaries and especially the Indian princes and their entourages pouring into Delhi and then into the parade ground for the ceremony. The graphic coverage of the event in the Illustrated London News of early 1877 includes several such scenes, and there were at least two other attempts at a panoramic view of the scene: a painting of Native Princes Arriving in Camp for the Imperial Assemblage at Delhi by Sir Edwin Landseer's nephew, George Landseer (1829-1878), dated 1877; and a chromolithograph in James Talboys Wheeler’s The History of the Imperial Assemblage at Delhi, also of 1877. The former is said to be at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but is not separately recorded there, or among its digitalised images. Wheeler's work was published in an Urdu translation in 1883, and this too shows a great variety of figures, under a Royal Standard fluttering high in the cloudy skies. Prinsep's painting speaks of hierarchy and homage, the imposition of a system of rule which the artist himself felt was damaging to human relations between the two countries: “There is no denying the fact that lately the distance between the races has been much increased, especially on the English side," he said (38). The other representations, while portraying very few recognisable personages besides Lord Lytton and Major Barnes, have a more festive air, speaking of energy and diversity, and celebrating the common humanity of the participants.

Prinsep's, then, is the official painting, perfectly placed for visitors to the royal palace of St James to admire it, and catch a glimpse of one of the high points of empire, the very occasion when Queen Victoria was first formally granted the title that she took in the later part of her reign. In this position the massive oil painting was darkened over the years by the smoke of candles, and has had to be carefully restored. But, like the representations of the 1903 and 1911 Durbars that followed, its show of pomp and ceremony now looks like a sham, and is inevitably shadowed for us by the postcolonial recriminations and self-recriminations of the present age.

Related Material


Chopra, Deepak, ed. Gazetteer of India: Delhi. Delhi: Delhi Administration, 1976. Google Books, from the University of Michigan Libraries. Web. 22 January 2020.

Dakers, Caroline. The Holland Park Circle: Artists and Victorian Society. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999.

"Discussion." The Royal Collection website. Web. 22 January 2020.

"The Imperial Assembly at Delhi." The Illustrated London News, Vol 70. Google Books: 90.

Meynell, Wilfrid. "Val Prinsep A.R.A.: Painter and Dramatist." Magazine of Art. 6 (1883): 405-09. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Toronto Library. Web. 22 January 2020.

Prinsep, Val C. Imperial India: An Artist’s Journals. London: Chapman and Hall, 1879. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of California Libraries. Web. 22 January 2020.

Created 23 January 2020