UK wants to preserve rare World War I portrait of Sikh soldiers

UK wants to preserve rare World War I portrait of Sikh soldiers

A rare portrait depicting two Sikh soldiers who fought in World War I as part of the British Indian Army has been placed under a temporary export bar by the British government to allow time for a UK institution to acquire the work to prevent it leaving the country.

The unfinished portrait by Anglo-Hungarian painter Philip de László valued at around £650,000, depicts cavalry officers Risaldar Jagat Singh and Risaldar Man Singh – junior troop commanders in the British Indian Army’s Expeditionary Force who served at the Battle of the Somme in France and are presumed to have died in action. The painting is extremely rare in depicting active Indian participants in the First World War.

Lord Stephen Parkinson, UK Arts and Heritage Minister said: “This wonderful and sensitive portrait captures an important moment in our history as soldiers were drawn from across the globe to help fight in the trenches of the First World War.

“I hope this magnificent painting can remain in the UK to help tell the story of those brave soldiers and the contribution they and so many others made to Allied victory.”

Around 1.5 million Indian soldiers were deployed during World War I and according to records, the two soldiers in the painting sat for the artist in London two months before being sent to France to fight in the trenches. It is described as a fine example of a portrait by a renowned 20th century artist which captures an important moment in British history as soldiers from across the British Empire came to fight in Europe. The painting appears to have been created for de László’s own collection and it remained in his studio until he died in 1937.

The UK government’s decision to impose an export bar follows the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA). The committee made its recommendation on the basis of the criterion for its outstanding significance to the study of the Indian contribution to war effort and the individuals involved.

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“Philip de László was one of Britain’s most distinguished society portrait painters of the early 20th century. But this sensitive portrait, all the more powerful because it is unfinished, offers an exceptionally rare glimpse not of maharajahs or generals but of two ‘ordinary’ middle-ranking Sikh soldiers about to depart for the horrors of the Battle of the Somme,” said RCEWA Member Peter Barber.

“The enormous contribution made by them and millions of other Indians to Britain’s war effort between 1914 and 1918 has until recently been largely overlooked and the life stories of de László’s sitters remain to be uncovered. Yet numerous descendants of Indian soldiers now live in Britain, rendering the portrait ‘British’ at several, increasingly significant, levels,” he said.

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The decision on the export licence application for the painting will be deferred for a three-month period ending on July 13, 2023, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has said.

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