The maharaja's gift March 28 2016

Charlotte Burford, Conservation and Engagement Assistant Charlotte Burford Conservation and Engagement Assistant
A historic illustration of the Taj Mahal

This Easter at Polesden Lacey the whole property has been exploring Mrs Greville's travels in India and visits from Indian princes to Polesden Lacey. Maharajas were regular visitors to Polesden Lacey and between 1927-1938 Maggie hosted 5 maharajas for weekend house parties and dinners. One particular object, a woven carpet, is presumed to be a gift from a maharaja. Last year one of our interns explored the story behind the carpet.

Inside Mr Greville’s delightful little tea room, amongst the exquisite collection of furniture and delicate ceramics, lies an extraordinary piece of hand woven textile measuring 3.63m in length and width. The majestic 19th century Indian carpet was made in one of the great carpet weaving cities, either Agra or Jaipur.

The carpet is believed to have been a gift presented to Mrs Greville by the Maharaja of Agra and Jaipur, Sahib Bahadoor during his visit to Polesden Lacey. The carpet previously lived in the study but was moved to the tea room due to its delicate condition where it is currently kept monitored behind a red rope.

Bright colours and geometric designs

A visually stunning piece of textile, the carpet’s beautifully designed abstract white central motif is dotted with small red petals. The navy blue background is showered with a multitude of interchangeable shapes linked with red or white lines.

The 3 borders are covered with a detailed geometric design and filled with the primary colours of red, white and blue. The carpet sits comfortably with the interior’s feminine pastoral colours of soft pinks, creamy whites and yellows, refreshing hues of blues, greens and sparkling gold.

The tea room carpet
The tea room carpet
The tea room carpet

Capet weaving in India

The history of the carpet is rather difficult to ascertain fully, predominately because we lack any primary material revealing its buyer and origin. What we have found is that the carpet was made in either Agra or Jaipur, two cities richly embedded in the textile industry for centuries.

As the history of the region goes, when the great Mughal Emperor Akbar invaded India in the 16th century, he decided to import carpet weavers from Persia to establish carpet centres in Agra, Delhi and Lahore.

Akbar instructed some of the weavers to teach the prisoners in jails, some carpet making skills, in order to quell unrest. The jail carpets were brought to lavish the grand Indian Palaces and were also more importantly, exported abroad as gifts.

The mystery of the royal gift-giver?

This is where our story of the maharaja’s gift comes in. We believe that the carpet was given by the Maharaja of Agra and Jaipur Sahib Bahadoor who has been noted visiting Polesden Lacey in the summer between 1935 and 1937, and Charles Street with the Maharani on April 30th 1937.

However, there were several other noted individuals who may also have been the gift givers. The Maharaja of Kapurthula attended Mrs Greville’s famed dinners at Charles Street 8 times between 1927 and 1934. He also visited Polesden Lacey once in 1933 and for a weekend in 1934.

As one of the richest rulers, the Maharaja of Mysore Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV could well have been the gift giver, although he was a less frequent visitor. The maharaja was praised by many international statesmen, including Lord Wellington, who said that Mysore was ‘the best administered state in the world’.

Another, the Aga Khan Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah, a racehorse owner and equestrian, was yet another frequent visitor at Polesden Lacey and at Derby during the summer. As you can tell, each individual possessed enough wealth to lavish his host with ostentatious gifts as a customary thank you. 

A cross-cultural relationship

Giving a carpet was equal in meaning to the giving of a Faberge egg or a custom-made brooch, which reflected one’s status and wealth in society. In fact, it also signified a cross-cultural relationship between two individuals of a very different background.

The tea room carpet is a reminder of Mrs Greville’s friendship with the maharaja and her own visits to his palace when she travelled to India.

Mrs Greville, Mrs McNaughton and Mr Alan Horne travelling to India on the SS Morea in 1921
Mrs Greville, Mrs McNaughton and Mr Alan Horne travelling to India on the SS Morea in 1921
Mrs Greville, Mrs McNaughton and Mr Alan Horne travelling to India on the SS Morea in 1921

The danger of UV light damage

Sitting comfortably in the tea room, the Indian carpet is in a very fragile condition, particularly vulnerable to light damage. There is visible damage on the blacks of the borders, which have particularly worn away and the warps and wefts are exposed.

Underneath the legs of the Louis XVI gilt wood canapés are small round caster cups, which create a stable base evening out the pressure on the carpet. To protect the carpet from light damage, black-out blinds are placed on each one of the French windows and the south-west window to block out the light. 

UV light has invisible components that can cause great damage to sensitive objects in the collection. Due to its poor condition, we're no longer able to walk on the carpet. The level of footfall, amount of dust and general damage would eventually lead to swift erosion of the warps and wefts and beautiful colour.

Throughout the Easter holidays you can explore the house and see and hear all about Mrs Greville's travels in India. Don't forget to check out the wonderful Easter trail outside in the gardens too.

Blog originally posted in February 2015 by Ghazala Jabeen (Intern at Polesden Lacey)

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