27 January 2015

A sterling silver dinner-set fit for a maharaja

One of the questions I was asking in Maharaja splendour in Canada  was how many Princely States were there in India and how wealthy/influential were the maharajas. Wiki estimated that the number ranged from 160 princely states in 1872 to 202 in 1941.

Maharaja Bhupinder Singh (1891–1938) was the ruler of the princely state of Patiala in the south-east of the Punjab. He served on the General Staff in France, Belgium, Italy and Palestine in WW1 and he represented India at the League of Nations in the years after the war. But I had initially been very interested in this Maharaja because he was the one who had bought the most fabulous De Beers jewellery from Cartier of Paris in 1928 - five rows of diamonds encrusted in a platinum chain.

And since Patiala was said to be among the wealthiest princely states of British India, I am once again very interested in him because of the banqueting service hallmarked by the Goldsmiths’ and Silversmiths’ Company of London in 1921. It had been commissioned by the Maharaja of Patiala in honour of the Feb 1922 tour of India by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII. The entire dinner service must have arrived in India in time; it was indeed used at the State Banquet held in Prince Edwards's honour. Some sources say that once the three days of royal feasting was over, the set was never used again.

gold-plated silver dinner service created for the Maharaja of Patiala
photo credits: Daily Mail

Each piece with a scroll and foliage border above cast and chased panels of animals, separated by cast daggers, variously engraved or with coat-of-arms, crown and initials. The most impressive object was the centrepiece, formed as three bowls supported on a shaped conforming stand. The flower and foliage decorated feet were applied with cast elephant's mask and the handles of the bowls with cast lion's masks. The stand was not small, being 115 cm wide. I was also very impressed with the pair of soup tureens that had lion mask-capped handles, detachable covers and quatrefoil ogee loop handles. Each was 45 cm wide over the handle.

Needless to say, not even a maharaja’s dining table could hold all the 1400 pieces at one time. Alas some of the pieces went missing eg there are 183 dinner-plates, all that is left from the set that was orig­in­ally designed for 200 guests. Follow the Christie's reference for further information.

Clearly this Maharaja was not an ordinary man. He was captain of the Indian cricket team, the first individual in India to own his own plane and he definitely loved the 20 Rolls Royce cars that he drove. So perhaps it was not surprising that £2 million (USA $3.25 million) paid at the July 2013 auction set a new world record for an English dinner service. Impressive!

I had assumed that times must have been tough for the family, after Bhupinder Singh’s death in 1938. Otherwise why else would they sell the dinner service? But since his son Maharaja Yadavindra Singh was the first Indian prince to sign the Instrument of Accession, thus facilitating the process of national integration after independence in 1947, perhaps the family was actually well looked after by the modern state.

The princely state of Patiala was in the south-east of the Punjab

24 January 2015

Brisbane 1919 - racist red flag riots

This history comes from: The red flag riots: a study of intolerance by Raymond Evans, Riot Acts: The History of Australian Rioting by David Lowe, the SBS television programme Remembering Brisbane's anti-Russian Red Flag Riot and from my own Russian-Australian family. For a more personal history, see the work done by Marett Leiboff:  “The main thing is to shut them out: The Deployment of Law and the Arrival of Russians in Australia 1913-1925". Your Brisbane Past and Present provides good information on Brisbane's Russian Orthodox Cathedral and Russian Jewish Synagogue in the post WW1 era.

Brisbane was a gateway into Australia. In the years 1908-14, Australia operated an Immigration Bureau in Brisbane for eastern immigrants who were largely Russian - intellectuals, profess­ionals, workers and political prisoners from Siberia. They were searching for freedom yet they were not warmly welcomed; they were not British-Australian, were not Anglican and were not truly white. Worse still, these new immigrants wanted equality for all the workers.

Even though Brisbane was not a large city, a Russian com­mun­ity of 3,500 formed there with Merivale St as its centre, in the vicinity of their synagogue. In 1913 a Russian Club was established in South Brisbane, for coffee, discussion and reading Russian newspapers from abroad. A Russian language play was produced and staged in Brisbane. A local Russian newspaper began regular publication.

When WW1 broke out, Russian-born Australians quickly enlisted. [The book Russian Anzacs in Australian History by Elena Govor is recommended]. Then came the extraordinary news of the 1917 Revolution, greatly exciting workers across the country. A ship was soon chart­ered and 500 Russian im­migrants from across Australia returned to the country of their birth. Meanwhile all non-British immigration into Australia stopped.

When Leon Trotsky signed an early truce with Germany to end WW1 in Dec 1917, the Brisbane Russians became enemy aliens. People who hated the idea of non-British immigrants attacked the new commun­ity in newspapers and suggested that all Russian-born Australians be interned. The Governor-General of Australia contacted the Secretary of the State for the Colonies in London to ascertain that Britain's recent deportation of 100 "Russian Jew Bolshevist Propagandists" could serve as a precedent for Australian deportations to proceed. The Daily Mail called for the same deportation of socialist leaders from Brisbane, and 8 of these men were promptly deported by the Federal government.

Raymond Evan's book, The Red Flag Riots,
University of Queensland Press, 1988

Meanwhile the working people of Brisbane became divided over the symbolism of the red flag. While many workers’ organisations proudly flew it, others bitterly opposed what the flag represented. The conservative press grew more virulently anti-socialist.

Since May 1918 sections of the Commonwealth government’s Military Intelligence, the Special Intelligence Bureau and the Commonwealth Police were promoting anti-revolutionary initiatives by encouraging right-wing vigilante activism. Brit­ish loyalists merged with the rightist Returned Soldiers' Organisations. The Queensland Commissioner of Police, Frederick Urquhart, organised an anti-socialist, paramilitary vigilante force to defend loyalty to Britain and to ensure White Australia. Common­wealth surveillance identified the activist Alexander Zuzenko and Peter Simonoff, the new Soviet Consul in Queensland as particularly problematic.

Consul Simonoff was interned. In protest, a peaceful march wound its way through Brisbane’s streets, led by Russian-Australians. After the march, lists of dang­erous Russians who had taken part were compiled. Military raids seized revolutionary mater­ial. The Russian Hall was wrecked; the Russian community faced evictions from their rented homes and job dismissals; their newspaper was closed; their leaders in prison, with some facing deportation. The synagogue was threatened. What shocks me is that most of the rest of the local labour movement did not rush to their aid.

New Russian club premises were established in Merivale St.

But it was now illegal to march under the red flag. In March 1919 a 400 workers met outside Brisbane Trades Hall. Police looked on. Surveillance agents mingled with the crowd. Suddenly Alexander Zuzenko and his followers opened three large red banners for the crowd. The march began and increased in size as the marchers app­roached the Domain. Police on horses attempted to move against the workers, but they were hopelessly outnumbered. The Russian-born workers seemed safe.

That night, several thousand ex-servicemen violently attacked a union meeting at North Quay. Russians and workers were seized, mauled and stabbed. Then 2,000 men crossed Victoria Bridge to attack the Russian headquarters. Police stood by and watched.

Early next day military police ransacked the treasured workers’ lib­rary stored at Merivale St and Russian homes were ruined. That night, fuelled by alcohol, anti-Russian editorials and an inflammatory meeting at North Quay, 7,000 British-Australian ex-servicemen and loyalists marched on the Russian Club chanting ‘Burn their meeting place down!’ and ‘Hang them!’ Commissioner Urquhart was seriously wounded.

After the Brisbane Courier defended the actions of the pro-British mob, further violent riots went for three days. The riots were followed by months of intimidation and individual assaults upon people who were, or might have been Russian-born. For the terrified Russian community, the Brisbane pogroms had started.

The Brisbane Courier Mail
25th March 1919
The police force was not mustered to protect Russians, so this was confused reporting.

Instead of punishing the rioters, commonwealth and state authorities turned against the victims i.e the Russians and the workers who had been the target of public attack. They gaoled 15 workers for flying banned red flags. The state govern­ment offered its police forces and gaols to the Commonwealth, helping in the deportation without trial of eleven Russians. Lists were compiled for the expulsion of sixty more, but this was thwarted by British Authorities. For more than two months after the riots, enormous rallies loyal to British Australia decried anything foreign or radical in their midst.


In what context can we possibly understand these racist riots in Brisbane? By early 1919 local fears of the Bolshevik Revolution became mixed up in conservative minds with hatred of non-British immigration. Feeding these fears was the local conservative press, describing revolut­ionary Russians as Bolshevik swine, guilty of repulsive bestial­ity, lawlessness and lust. And leaders of the Catholic and Protestant churches were preach­­ing against the alarming spread of ungodly, atheistic communism.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the civil liberties march of workers, including Russian-born Australians, from Trades Hall on the 23rd March 1919. The march was planned to protest the continuation of the draconian War Precautions Act in peacetime and internment of the Russian Consul Simonoff. But what chance did these young migrants have? The vast crowd was literally screaming for lynchings.

Both newspapers, the Brisbane Courier and the Daily Standard, reported the following day that something quite exceptional had happened. The Daily Standard viewed the rioting as one of the maddest and most disgraceful scenes ever witnessed in any part of Australia. But The Brisbane Courier saw only wild and thrilling magnificence in the riots. Nothing approaching it, the editor gushed, had ever been witnessed in Brisbane before.

20 January 2015

Arts and Crafts, De Stijl and Bauhaus - chair design

I know a great deal about Arts and Crafts and a great deal about Bauhaus but nothing about De Stijl. This is strange.. since all three movements were European, and all three were late 19th century or early 20th century.

So many thanks to Bronwyn Watson who wrote about the influential member of De Stijl (1917-1932), the architect and designer Gerrit Rietveld. Rietveld had a great belief that furniture should be democratic — that is it should be simple, clean and functional, not ostentatious, not dripping with status. Therefore the furniture had to be cheap to make and should not have required the top craftsmen in the nation. His furn­iture had enduring appeal because it valued concepts like truth to materials, honesty to construction, revealing structure, no upholst­ery, nothing unnecessary, it was flexible and had movability, and it did not use extravagant materials. Note that this furniture was that nothing was hidden - it had a pared-back sensibility.

De Stijl painter Piet Mondrian went even further in describing a theory base for the movement. In the middle of WW1 carnage, he had the utopian belief that art could transform life by resolving all conflicts. He aimed for pure abstraction with a framework of formal geometric patterns that became objects of contemplation on the cosmic order.

Berlin Chair by Rietveld, 1925
De Stijl
National Gallery of Australia
How comfortable was this pared-back, no upholstery chair?

What made De Stijl immediately recognisable was that these Dutch artists and architects shared a collective passion for primary col­ours and black and white, and for the geometric forms of the square, the rectangle and the straight line. They were full of idealism, but idealism based on pure geometric abstraction. And on a strong asym­metricality.

Rietveld’s Berlin chair (see photo above) was designed for an art exhibition in Berlin in 1925. Note this was Rietveld's first asymmetrical chair. And note that each element was painted in a single colour, black, white or grey.

De Stijl's design language all sounded very familiar to me. The Arts and Crafts movement (c1870-1914) advoc­at­ed economic and social reform; ideology and practicalities were more important than a desire to create top-end, expensive decorative art objects. The designers wanted to avoid industrialised objects that demeaned traditional craftsmanship, so handcrafted work became val­uable in its own right. Arts and Crafts theorists valued the concept truth to materials.. with respect to the profound and innate characteristics of materials. In seeking essence and simplicity, the Arts and Crafts movement rediscovered the valuable qualities in simple and common materials.

Morris Chair, c1890
The design was adapted by William Morris & Co.
Arts and Crafts

Not only did machine-made products demean the craftsmen; machines also created mass-produced, poor quality substitutes of the hand­crafted arts. Yet handcrafted work was slower and therefore more expensive than machine­-made work. So it is ironic that Arts and Crafts designers found they were pricing themselves out of the very family market they had so keenly aspired to.

The Morris chair (see photo above) had a seat with a hinged reclining back and high armrests. The reclining angle adjusted through a row of pegs and holes in each arm. Or it could be controlled by a metal bar set in hooked back racks. In a design where comfort and versatility were paramount, this chair was most popular in c1890.

Depending on your perspective, the Bau­haus movement (1919-1933) also either gave birth to, or nourished modern design, a de­sign style recognised by its clean, simple lines and truth to mater­ials. The honest and integral design style allowed Form to Follow Function in the design process. So normally hidden materials such as steel had be exposed, and not covered, within the interior framework of furniture.

Bauhaus designers realised that most objects in the post-WW1 era were going to be machine-made. So they adapted the form of the objects to modern industrial processes and materials. The forms in the Bauhaus chairs (see photo below) were expected to be simple and light without decorative addit­ive, giving the sitter comfort, versatility and a fair price. Modern materials like steel, glass, bent wood and serviceable leather were preferred over richer, heavier mahogany etc.

Wassily Chair, designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925.
Note the modern chrome-plated tubular steel frame.

In the end I needed to pull these three separate but seemingly overlapping movements together. The director of Bauhaus Walter Gropius decided that his academy had to generate simple, rational designs for mass-production that would be available to ordinary working families. He wanted designers like Marcel Breuer, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, whose thinking already incorporated existing modernist movements like De Stijl, and who saw the machine as a force for aesthetic and social good. Bauhaus designers created prototypes for industrial production, their work based on simple geometric shapes and primary colours.