- Lost and Found: Priestley & Dunbar’s 1907 Statue of Queen Victoria
The british have always been acutely aware of the visual power connected with public commemorative monuments. Like the Romans, they leveraged public statues to arouse patriotism. As the sun was waning on British dominion in India and calls for independence were becoming more widespread, the jubilees and, in time, the death of Queen Victoria provided opportunities for national and colonial campaigns to commemorate her legacy. In all, no less than seventy statues were dedicated to Her Majesty throughout India and Pakistan (Steggles, Empire 12–24). Most still exist; some were repatriated; and a few are missing or were destroyed. For decades, I searched, without success, for news of a statue erected in Cawnpore.
When Victoria Regina died, on 22 January 1901, committees were set up in each Indian province to oversee subscription drives to commemorate the Queen’s long reign. Some cities built hospitals; some erected statues. In Cawnpore, members of the community met on 8 March 1901 at the Station Theatre. Within days, the Cawnpore Queen Victoria Committee could boast that it had collected Rs. 81,500 and did not require any funds from the provincial coffers. As a result, the committee was well positioned to invite one of Britain’s most prestigious sculptors, Thomas Brock, to create a bronze figure for Queen’s Park. Even with its pedestal, the cost of the memorial totalled only Rs. 54,000 (“Queen’s Statue”). What was the committee to do with the remaining funds? After several meetings, the members decided that a second, less expensive statue should be commissioned, this one from a local firm, if possible.
Brock did not come to India but instead made the statue in London and then shipped it to India. In the crates with the statue of Queen Victoria, Brock included a set of drawings and the dimensions for the pedestal as well as notations on the inscription and four bronze panels representing the benefits of British rule: empire, education, science and art, and commerce. The Cawnpore Committee opted to give the job of installation to Albert Priestley, who had arrived in India in 1888. On his arrival, Priestley joined J. White & Co., European Sculptors, in Cawnpore. Priestley remained at White’s for one year before setting up his own firm, Priestley & Co., Practical European Monumental & Architectural Sculptors, Modellers & Founders, in 1889. Business was good, and Priestley required skilled help. He invited his friend George Dunbar, a master builder from Morayshire, Scotland, to come and join him (Dunbar). Everyone was pleased with the installation of the memorial designed by Brock, and the commission for the second statue of the Queen was duly given to Priestley & Dunbar (“Queen’s Statue”). [End Page 21]
A key aspect of public art is selecting and securing a prestigious and appropriate site. Queen’s Park was, quite logically, chosen for Brock’s figure of Queen Victoria. After some discussion, Sarsiaya Ghat, a bathing ghat on the Ganges, was deemed to be the best place for the second statue (“Queen’s Statue”). There were several reasons for choosing this location. First, it is where the local community came daily to pray and bathe. Second, it was the site of many Hindu religious festivals, including Holi and Ganga Mela. There was also a third reason. In his address at the unveiling ceremonies, the Honourable Mr. A. McRobert stated:
The site has been chosen with reference to the fact that the Sarsaiya Ghat, which it overlooks, is frequented every day by multitudes of devout Hindus of both sexes, who come to worship and bathe in the sacred Ganges. It is more especially intended to interest the Hindu ladies. . . . Therefore, this white monument, in enduring metal and granite, to the Great White Queen, will be admired every day by all women, gentle and simple, and it will become the subject of discussion in every zenana in Cawnpore. It may be that the beautiful life that is here commemorated will thereby become more of a reality in the homes of the poor, as well as the rich, and that future generations will know and feel her works do follow...