Sunday, 2 December 2018

Sunday 2nd December - Princess Helen Rundheer Singh Ahluwalia

Welcome back to Blogvent, and today we have a royal visitor, which has brought up a whole raft of other problems in research.  The main issue I normally have when looking into the lives of misfortune-strewn laundresses or virtue-ly-dubious artists' mistresses is that no-one cared enough to talk about them because they weren't important.  So, tracing the life of a properly important woman, an actual princess, would be a piece of cake, right? Damn it...

Princess Helen Randis Singh (1880s) Edwin Longsden Long
Here we have the lovely Princess Helen Randis Singh, or rather we don't, because that wasn't her name.  An exciting new problem I have encountered in researching women's history is when the woman is so important that no-one dares ask them how to spell their name or get them to write it down legibly, and that problem is amplified when that lady has a name more exotic than Mary Smith.  We better start at the beginning, over in Lahore...

Raja Randhir Singh (1831-1870)
Once upon a time in the Punjab there was a a Raja called Randhir Singh. He was the ruling Maharaja in the state of Kupparthalla (or Kapurthala) and was responsible for restoring the families power and position by aligning himself with the British Empire.  During the 1857 Indian Rebellion, Randhir Singh fought for the British, leading his troops at the Great Sepoy Mutiny.  He received the Indian Mutiny Medal with one clasp in 1858 and built many public buildings, established a legal and judiciary system and Anglo-vernacular schools (just in case you were wondering whose side he was on). He was married three times, his first two wives dying in fairly quick succession after having three sons and a daughter between them in less than a decade.  

Raja Randhir Singh (with impressive cloak)
The Raja had been taught by an English tutor, Robert Hodges, an Indian civil servant.  Hodges had a daughter who had been born in India, Henrietta Melvina, who became Rani number 3 in 1859 at Kaputhala Palace.  The Raja, although Sikh, had a Christian ceremony for this marriage.  The couple had three daughters, Melvina (1860-1919), Victoria (1861-1863) and last but not least, Helen Marion, born in 1864.

Rani Henrietta divorced the Raja in 1869, not long before his death.  In fact the Raja was on a trip to Europe when he died on his boat just outside Aden.  Henrietta took her daughters back to London to launch them on society, whilst bagging herself a second husband, this time a Royal Artillery Staff Assistant Surgeon called John Hamer Oliver, whom she married in Bloomsbury in 1871.  The girls were sent to school in London, then the hunt for husbands for them started.  The family wasn't rich anymore, but no doubt a title didn't harm the chances of the girls in the marriage market.  Melvina married Major Arthur Stronge Gilbert.  I've read reports that Gilbert met Melvina while serving in India but as Melvina was 9 years old when she left India, let's assume that a tad spurious, although Major Gilbert was 20 years her senior, so let's draw a veil.  It might have been that the Major had served in the same region and obviously been aware of the Raja and his family. The Major and Melvina had a son, born the same year of their marriage in 1883.  Arthur Stuart Ahluwalia Stronge Gilbert, despite having an unwieldy name, went on to join the Indian Civil Service and was close friends with James Joyce, translating his works into French.  

So what of Princess Helen?  The youngest daughter was schooled and launched into society but instead of finding a husband, Helen took to posing for an artist.  Edwin Longsden Long is not exactly a household name these days but back in the second half of the nineteenth century, he was a super star.  I think part of his fall from grace was due to the fact that an awful lot of his work is Biblical (look out for him in Victorian illustrated Bibles), or of now-obscure Victorian dignitaries,  and, as his name suggests, his paintings are very, very long...

Anno Domini (1883) Edwin Long

Anno Domini is almost 5 metres long which is spectacular in person but a bit dull shrunk down on a page because so much is lost in the shrinking.  Anyway, around 1880 Princess Helen Marion Randis Singh Ahluwalia was thrust upon the Society stage.  A quick word about 'Ahluwalia', which as you will have noticed featured in Melvina's son's name too (and Melvina's, before marriage).  It denotes that she is of the 'Ahlu' village, ancestral village of Sikh misl leaders.  In the 1881 census, the family were living in Redcliffe Road in Kensington...

Redcliffe Road, and very nice too.

Now, hang on, how can I just pull a photo of the lovely Redcliffe Road out of my personal photographs?  Well, because a few doors door in 1881 lived this lady...

La Ghirlandata (1871-4) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Alexa Wilding!  It's a small world, isn't it?  After I've written my sit-com all about how Karl Marx and Fanny Cornforth were neighbours in 1857, I'll write one about the artists' models of Redcliffe Road.  Anyway, Princess Helen went out into society but her behaviour was rather 'unchecked', shall we say? This was possibly because her mother's second husband John Hamer Oliver had died after only a couple of years of marriage, aged 36.  In a letter from the artist Mariquita Jenny Moberly, stories of Princess Helen's antics come across vividly to all who had ever met her.  Her mother allowed her to mix, unchaperoned, something frowned upon for the sake of reputation, and one story tells how she was seen in a room full of men, smoking!  She also performed in tableaux vivant, re-enacting the parts she played in the paintings of Edwin Long.

Jephthah's Vow: In the Wilderness (1885-6) Edwin Long
One role we know she played for Long is the illusive Judith of Israel, painted around 1884.  Taking the image that we have of her, together with Mariquita Moberly's identification of Helen in the Long paintings at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery (which has an enormous collection, in all senses, due to Merton Russell-Cotes firm belief that Long would be famous forever), I think it is fairly safe to say Princess Helen is Jephthah daughter, in the series of paintings Jephthah's Vow. For those who aren't familiar with the story, Jephthah promises to sacrifice the first thing he sees on his return from a mighty battle and of course, it's his daughter who runs to greet him.  T'uh.

Jephthah's Vow: The Martyr (1885-86) Edwin Long
So, that is Princess Helen, suffering a terminal wardrobe malfunction, as the poor, sacrificed daughter of  Jephthah.  I was slightly surprised at the combination of the prestigious model and the unnecessary boobness, but thinking about it, why not?  It's a bit like Princess Helen's slightly scandalous behaviour.  At the end of the day, as long as it stays on the risque rather than out-and-out appalling (by their standards) end of the scale, she's still got a fabulous title and is dashed pretty too. The newspapers liked to report her activities, no matter how small, including a trip to private view day at the Royal Academy in 1884.  Well-known to the art loving public as Mr Long's 'Judith', the snide newspaper account continued - 'I need hardly add that Mr Long has considerably idealised the subject of his canvas.  The Princess is somewhat short sighted and had to use eyeglasses to view the presentment of herself.' (from The Newcastle Courant, 9 May 1884).  Her various charity activities were listed including repeat performances as a fortune teller, consciously or not playing on her 'exoticism' among her peers.

All Saints Church, Doddinghurst

However, poor old Princess Helen did not have a long and happy life.  She died of tuberculosis aged only 23 on 16 October 1887 whilst staying in Brighton (probably for her health), leaving her wealth, such as it was at £118, to her sister Melvina. She was buried at All Saints Church, Doddinghurst, where she would be joined by her mother six years later.  If anyone has a picture of Judith by Edwin Longsden Long, I'd be fascinated to see it, but for the meantime, we will have to leave Princess Helen...

See you tomorrow.

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