I recently finished reading Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, (Bloomsbury, 2017), in which I learned that this gemstone – thought in the nineteenth century to be the largest and most valuable in the world – was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations (1 May to 15 October 1851).
Less than a year earlier, the diamond had been presented to Queen Victoria by the East India Company having been surrendered by its previous owner, ten-year-old Maharaja Duleep Singh, under the last Treaty of Lahore (1849).
Displayed prominently in the centre of the nave in the eastern transept, the celebrated Koh-i-Noor (‘Mountain of Light’) proved to be a popular draw for the duration of the Great Exhibition, although most who saw it – and had swallowed the pre-exhibition hype about its size and lustre – were disappointed. According to The Times (13 June 1851):
After all the work which has been made about that celebrated diamond our readers will be rather surprised to hear that many people find a difficulty in bringing themselves to believe, from its external appearance, that it is anything but a piece of common glass.
Initially, the Koh-i-Noor sat on a plush red cushion beneath glass and within a large gilded birdcage-like structure. It enjoyed the latest in state-of-the-art security: ‘The Koh-i-Noor is not the solitary occupant of the formidable cage and safe which has been provided for it by Chubb. On either side shine two “lesser lights,” and the whole collection, like other radiant bodies, descends into darkness when the time for its exhibition has closed, and emerges again from its cast-iron prison when it is proper that the public should see it’ (The Times, 3 May 1851).
The iron safe, designed by the locksmith Jeremiah Chubb, acted as both a night-time receptacle and an anti-theft device: if the glass was touched, the diamond would drop into the safe below.
Following its poor reception in the press and by the visiting public, however, the Koh-i-Noor was promptly redisplayed inside a small tent which, through the addition of six gas lamps and twelve small mirrors, it was hoped would ‘develope [sic] its beauties as a gem of the purest water, with a certainty and splendour which undoubtedly are not attained at present’ (The Times, 13 June 1851). The mount, which consisted of two small prongs, which gripped the extreme points of the diamond, survives in the Natural History Museum.
When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made a return visit to the Great Exhibition on 14 June, they made a beeline for the newly displayed diamond. And yet, in spite of the work to improve its visual impact, the critics couldn’t agree on the outcome: ‘The diamond … has fully redeemed its character’ (London Evening Standard, quoted in Dalrymple and Adand); ‘the result still remains unsatisfactory’ (The Times, 16 June 1851).
Following the close of the exhibition, The Times declared somewhat hyperbolically that the Koh-i-Noor ‘had inflicted more disappointment than anything of its size ever did since the world was created’ (13 October 1851). Stung by this negative reaction, Prince Albert decided to have the diamond re-cut, which resulted in a marked increase in its brilliance but a significant reduction in its weight. It was mounted as a brooch, which you can see Queen Victoria wearing in this portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.
Someone at the South Kensington Museum, as the V&A was known until 1899, clearly took an interest in the recutting of the Koh-i-Noor, as s/he pasted a story from The Times (29 July 1852) into an album of press cuttings for posterity (archive ref. MA/49/2/29).
So what bit part did Henry Cole play in this story? Knowing that the Great Exhibition, the first of the World’s Fairs, was the brainchild of Prince Albert and Henry Cole, the latter of whom would shortly become the V&A’s first director, I wondered if there was any record of Cole’s encounter with the diamond. It seemed like a long shot but even so I was disproportionately pleased to read this diary entry for 17 October 1851:
Koh-i-Noor removed, examined it carefully, & had it in my pocket for a moment!
In spite of the shortness of the entry, Cole’s giddy excitement at having handled the diamond – and even secreting it briefly in his coat or trouser pocket – in the course of its de-installation is unmistakable.
This did not mark the end of Cole’s association with the diamond, however. In his diary entry for 21 June 1860, Cole wrote:
Conversazione at Mus: for Female School: Kohinoor &c exhibited. 1200 persons or more present.
The conversazione had been organised to help raise £2,000 for the Female School of Art on Gower Street, which had recently had its annual Government grant discontinued. Consequently, the School was in quick need of a building fund ‘to escape the expense of house-rent’ (The Spectator, 23 June 1860). The fund raiser was held at the South Kensington Museum, under the patronage of Queen Victoria, who also agreed to lend the Koh-i-Noor, which was displayed alongside a collection of ancient and modern jewellery assembled by members of the Fine Arts Club, and two other renowned jewels: the ‘blue diamond’ belonging to Henry Thomas Hope (the famous Hope Diamond, now owned by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History) and the English Dresden diamond, which was owned by Edward Dresden (now in a private collection in India). In fact, Dresden believed that his diamond was superior to the Koh-i-Noor: ‘I matched my drop with the ‘Koh-i-Noor’ at Garrard’s one day, and to the surprise of all present, the latter’s colour turned to yellowish, a proof of how perfectly white my diamond must be’. As a group, however, these must have made for a sparkling triad of jewels.