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Empire and Commonwealth

Episode 7 of 8

30 minutes
First broadcast:
Saturday 24 March 2012

The Royal Collection is one of the most wide-ranging collections of art and artefacts in the world and provides an intriguing insight into the minds of the Monarchs who assembled it.

In this series, BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz encounters dozens of these unique objects - some priceless, others no more than souvenirs - each shedding light on our relationship with the monarchy and giving a glimpse into the essential ingredients of a successful sovereign.

In this programme, Will looks beyond these island shores to see the Monarchy as a global force. The monarch was a symbol of imperial expansion, in the form of the British Empire, for 300 years. But Will begins with the current reign, which has seen a retreat from Empire and the development of the modern Commonwealth, exemplified in the Royal Collection by a small woven cloth made with yarn spun by Gandhi, which contains an anti-imperial message written in Hindi. Centuries ago, the Queen's predecessor and namesake, Elizabeth I, presided over the very beginning of England's experiment in empire. We see the world as she understood it, in the form of an early atlas. As he explores Britain's involvement in world affairs Will examines a shard of wood from the coffin of George Washington, a print of a merino ram which illustrates George III's impact on the Australian wool trade, and a brightly painted chess set, presented to the Duke of Edinburgh by President Mandela in 1996.

Each of these objects has its own story to tell and each reveals another aspect to the art of monarchy.

Producer: Neil George.

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  • Dorsaywala Gordenji - a tailor in the service of the Maharaja

    Dorsaywala Gordenji - a tailor in the service of the Maharaja, from a series of 82 portraits by Rudolph Swoboda

    A Peep at the Train, Bakshiram, Dorsaywala Gordenji and Sirinbai Ardeshir from a series of 82 portraits depicting Indians by Rudolph Swoboda (1859-1914). The sitters in this extensive series of portraits are generally ordinary Indian subjects. Bakshiram was a potter, alleged to be over 102 years old, from Agra; Dorsayawala Gordenji was a 50 year old tailor in the service of the Maharaja; and Sirinbai Ardeshir was a 14 year old Parsi from Nemuch.


    From: India. Commissioned by Queen Victoria (1819-1901)

    Date: c. 1886-8

    Material: Oil on panel

    Size: 261 x 151 mm and 297 x 188 mm


    The Royal Collection



  • Woven shawl

    Woven shawl Presented to Her Majesty The Queen, when Princess Elizabeth, on the occasion of her marriage in 1947

    The shawl encorporates a rectangular panel woven with the words 'JAI HIND', a salutation meaning 'Victory to India'.


    From: Presented to Her Majesty The Queen, when Princess Elizabeth, on the occasion of her marriage in 1947.

    Date: c.1947

    Material: Cotton

    Size: 570 x 570 mm


    The Royal Collection




  • Theatre de l'univers by Abraham Ortelius

    A map of 1587 from the book Theatre de l'univers by Abraham Ortelius

    Book, Theatre de l'univers: contenant les cartes de tout le monde, avec une brieve declaration d'icelles, Abraham Ortelius (1527-98). During the sixteenth century, the flourishing printing industry played a central role in disseminating maps, images and accounts of distant lands.


    From: The Netherlands. Probably acquired after 1830

    Date: 1587

    Material: Printed paper bound in black calfskin

    Size: 423 x 298 x 68 mm


    The Royal Collection




  • Fragment of George Washington's coffin

    Fragment of George Washington's coffin

    Fragment of George Washington's (1732-1799) coffin. King Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, was the first member of the royal family to visit the United States of America. The shard was presented by Washington's great, great nephew, John A. Washington Jr.


    From: United States of America. Presented to the future King Edward VII in 1860

    Date: 1799

    Material: Wood

    Size: 12 x 170 x 30 mm


    The Royal Collection





  • A Merino sheep. George III had his own flock at Windsor Castle

    Print depicting a Merino sheep from 'The Bee' or literary weekly intelligencer; volume 10, by James Anderson (1739-1808).

    Print depicting a Merino sheep from 'The Bee' or literary weekly intelligencer; volume 10, by James Anderson (1739-1808). George III was keenly interested in improving crops and stock-breeding. In 1804 a group of Merino sheep from George III's flock at Windsor Castle was exported to Australia where it laid the foundations of fine wool production in that country.


    From: England. Acquired before or during the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901)

    Date: 1792

    Material: Printed paper bound with brown calfskin

    Size: 188 x 121 mm


    The Royal Collection





  • Chess set presented by Nelson Mandela

    Chess set presented to The Duke of Edinburgh by Nelson Mandelain in 1996

    In 1995 Her Majesty The Queen paid an historic visit to South Africa to celebrate the country's return to the Commonwealth after 33 years. The following year the President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, made a return visit to the U.K., when he presented this chess set.


    From: Presented to His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh by Nelson Mandela

    Date: 1996

    Material: Wooden box with terracotta and painted figures

    Size: 115 x 434 x 435 mm


    The Royal Collection



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    Slavery and Empire

    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss slavery and empire; two themes that run right through this country’s history. Britain’s imperial project dominated at least the last three centuries of our national life. Its advocates claim it was a civilising mission by which Britain spread enlightenment and improvement across the globe. Opponents have long seen it as a brutal business, with Britons cast as cruel oppressors out to exploit a conquered world. Is our imperial history so clear cut?


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    The Art of Monarchy

    Will Gompertz enters the Royal Collection to examine some of the objects that have adorned, defined…

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