Shining brightly in the middle of an atmospheric exhibition is a gold lotus flower throne, on a rare loan that, for the first time, lets us see the intricately decorated back, which is even more impressive than the front.

This is the throne of Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire, which stretched across parts of modern-day northern India and Pakistan. Normally kept in the V&A Museum, it’s very rarely loaned out to a London museum. Here, it’s freestanding instead of up against a wall, as in the V&A, so this is a rare chance to walk around the whole thing.

It’s currently sitting in the Wallace Collection, in an exhibition about the man who probably never sat on the throne made for him.

Ranjit Singh, born in 1780, survived smallpox in infancy but lost sight in his left eye. He would go on to fight several wars to expel the Afghans and later absorb a number of smaller kingdoms into his new Empire. It didn’t last long after his death, though, ripped apart by the Anglo-Sikh wars, which were more a civil war between a number of competing sides, but which saw the side led by the East India Company come out on top.

The exhibition though looks at the man, not the empire, and ranges from his clothing, lots of armour and weaponry, but also many touching and enjoyable paintings, even a handful of very early photographs.

It opens with an open book illustrating the climatic battle that gave rise to the first independent Sikh state in Punjab and an early war quoit used to deadly effect in the battles.

The paintings range from when Ranjit Signh was just 5 years old and getting engaged to marriage — to his death, surrounded by his female warriors and, more troubling, an example of suttee by four of his countless wives throwing themselves onto the funeral pyre.

Considering the era in question, it’s easy to assume that many of the objects in the main exhibition are spoils of colonialism, but it’s much more complicated as many of them were gifts to the mainly French and British soldiers who also served in his armies.

The impressive throne, which was colonial booty, was seized by Lord Dalhousie and used by him as his personal throne until he was ordered to ship it to London. He liked it so much that he had a replica made of the throne that Ranjit Singh almost certainly used, which is far plainer and almost easy to overlook.

However, that simple throne was the real seat of power — and for all his authority as the governor-general, Lord Dalhousie only owned a copy, which is also in the exhibition.

Although considered humble in some regards, he wasn’t averse to bling at times, and apart from his famous acquisition of the Koh-i-Noor diamond – there’s an example of a horse harness with gigantic emeralds in it. A mere horse harness!

Smaller jewels are here, including a set worn by one of his wives who later retired to London, and there’s a charming sketch of her made just a couple of years before she died. Possibly for a painting that was then never needed.

As an exhibition, it’s a mix of the warlike man, the family man, and the ruler man, and gives a vivid insight into the person at the heart of a period of history that’s not that well known in the UK, despite our involvement in it.

The exhibition, Ranjit Singh: Sikh, Warrior, King, is at the Wallace Collection until 20th October 2024.

Adults: £14 | Students: £10 | Young person / Art Fund: £7 | Under 12s: Free

As you leave the museum, notice the small sign next to the entrance – the museum is on the Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail.


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