Victoria and Albert Art and Love

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

  • Fig. 1. The Royal Family in 1846 by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805–1873), 1846. Inscribed “Prince Albert, Queen Victoria, The Prince of Wales, Prince Alfred/The Princess Royal, Princess Alice & the infant Princess Helena/painted by F. Winterhalter/Dec. 1846” on the back. Oil on canvas, 8 feet 3 inches by 10 feet 5 inches. The objects illustrated are from the Royal Collection © 2010 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
  • Fig. 2. Cimabue’s Madonna Carried in Processionby Frederic Leighton (afterward Lord Leighton of Stretton; 1830–1896), 1853–1855. Initialed “FL” (in monogram) at center left. Oil on canvas, 7 feet 7 inches by 17 feet 1 inch.
  • Figs. 3, 4. Queen Victoria [r. 1837–1901] and Prince Albert [1819–1861] by Charles (Károly) Brocky (1807–1855), 1841. Colored chalks on paper, each 22 ⅛ by 16 ¾ inches.
  • Fig. 5. The Ballroom, Buckingham Palace, 17 June 1856 by Louis Haghe (1806–1885),1856. Signed and dated “L Haghe [18]56” at lower right. Watercolor on paper, 12 ½ by 18 ¾ inches.
  • Fig. 6. Triptych: The Crucifixionand Other Scenes by Duccio di Buoninsegna (d. 1319) and assistants, c. 1302–1308, as framed, probably by Ludwig Gruner (also Grüner; 1801–1882), c.1847. Tempera and gold on wood, 24 ¾ by 32 ⅜ inches including frame.
  • Fig. 7. Jewel cabinet designed by Gruner and manufactured by Elkington, Mason and Company, Birmingham, 1851. Electroplated white metal, gilt bronze, enameled copper, and porcelain; height 38 ¼, width 52, depth 31 ⅞ inches.

     

  • Fig. 8. Ramsgate Sands: “Life at the Seaside” by William Powell Frith (1819–1909), 1852–1854. Oil on canvas, 30 ¼ by 61 inches.
  • Fig. 9. Morning in the Highlands: The Royal Family Ascending Lochnagar by Carl Haag (1820–1915), 1853. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 30 ¼ by 52 ⅝ inches.
  • Fig. 10. Osborne House: Prince Albert’s Dressing and Writing Room by James Roberts (c. 1800–1867), 1851. Inscribed “Osborne/ J Roberts/Mar 1851” at lower right. Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, 9 ½ by 14 ½ inches.
  • Fig. 11. Highlander candelabra designed by Sir Edwin Landseer (1803–1873) and manufactured by Minton and Company, Stoke-on-Trent, and R. W. Winfield and Company, Birmingham, 1854. Porcelain, electro-cast copper, silverplate, partly patinated and gilded; height of each 37, width 15 inches.
  • Fig. 12. The Great Exhibition: The Transept by Joseph Nash (1809–1878), 1851. Signed and dated “Joseph Nash. 1851” at lower right. Watercolor on paper, 15 ½ by 20 ¾ inches.
  • Fig. 13. Antler sofa made by Wilhelm Ranff, Gotha, Germany, 1845. Staghorn, bone, teeth, and hoofs; height 43 ¼, width 81 ½, depth  35 ½ inches.

“I was very much amused,” wrote the fourteen-year-old Princess Victoria of Kent, later Queen Victoria, after she returned home in the early hours of June 28, 1833, from a gala performance at the King’s Theatre in London.1 In fact, she was an opera addict. Few of us today can claim, as she could, to have heard Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots eighteen times (and per-haps few would wish to), but this is only one example of the future queen’s insatiable appetite for spectacle and high emotional drama. If Victoria’s own adult life and reign were to be considered in operatic terms it would fall readily into two acts. The first, beginning in 1837 with her accession to the throne at the age of eighteen, and continuing with her marriage in 1840 to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and the steady arrival of their nine children, would consist of rousing choruses, ballroom scenes, and bel canto love duets. The death of her belovedPrince at the age of 42 in December 1861 would bring the first act curtain down with a sudden, cruel finality.  The challenge for the composer and librettist would then be what to make of the next forty years.

Inevitably today, the Queen Victoria who comes first to mind is the tiny, aged, reclusive widow of the 1880s and ‘90s.  When we remember our own grandmothers we generally have in mind an old woman, and barely ever think to imagine the life they led when young.  This is all the more true with Queen Victoria, the Grandmother of Europe.

When we started to prepare the exhibition about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and the arts which opens at The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace in London on March 19, we set out to try and forget Act Two; to forget that we knew what came next, and to live with these two people in the excitement of their twenties and thirties.  What we found was remarkable story with few parallels in the history of collecting.

Portraiture is one of the areas in which the Royal Collection is richest, if only in numerical terms, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert added countless examples.  But what is remarkable is the radical direction in which they took this royal tradition, immediately commissioning life-size ‘Grecian’ marble statues of themselves for Buckingham Palace, and a few years later a huge canvas by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (Fig. 3) in which they appear in evening dress surrounded by gambolling children.  Winterhalter here created something quite new, an image which evokes both the private and public sides of the sovereign’s life.  It is fresh, lively and optimistic, and the onset of Queen Victoria’s reign was all of these, following as it did many decades of rule by elderly Hanoverian kings.  More significantly, Prince Albert was the first male consort of a British sovereign since 1708, and nobody, himself included, had any idea what his role or duties should be.  In Winterhalter’s composition he is slightly more prominent than the Queen, but set a little apart from her and their eldest son, who represent the dynastic line.  Prince Albert rules the family but not the nation.  The picture was immediately placed on display at St James’s Palace, where reportedly 100,000 members of the public saw it.  This was a couple who completely understood the role of art in the business of monarchy.

Inevitably today, the Queen Victoria who comes first to mind is the tiny, aged, reclusive widow of the 1880s and 1890s. When we remember our own grandmothers we generally have in mind an old woman, and barely ever think to imagine the life she led when young. This is all the more true with Victoria, the Grandmother of Europe.

When we started to prepare the exhibition about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and the arts that opens at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace in London on March 19, we set out to try to forget act two—to forget that we knew what came next, and to live with these two people in the excitement of their twenties and thirties. What we found was a remarkable story with few parallels in the history of collecting.

Portraiture is one of the areas in which the Royal Collection is richest, if only in numerical terms, and Victoria and Albert added countless examples. But what is remarkable is the radical direction in which they took this royal tradition, immediately commissioning life-sized “Grecian” marble statues of themselves for Buckingham Palace, and a few years later a huge canvas by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (Fig. 1) in which they appear in evening dress surrounded by gamboling children. Winterhalter created something quite new, an image that evokes both the private and public sides of the sovereign’s life. It is fresh, lively, and optimistic, and the onset of Victoria’s reign was all of these, following as it did many decades of rule by elderly Hanoverian kings. More significantly, Prince Albert was the first male consort of a British sovereign since 1708, and nobody, himself included, had any idea what his role or duties should be. In Winterhalter’s composition he is slightly more prominent than the queen, but set a little apart from her and their eldest son, who represent the dynastic line. Prince Albert rules the family but not the nation. The picture was immediately placed on display at Saint James’s Palace, where reportedly a hundred thousand members of the public saw it. This was a couple who completely understood the role of art in the business of monarchy.

As we worked on the selection we noticed time and again the extraordinary number of works of art of all kinds that entered the Royal Collection as gifts from the queen to her husband or vice versa, on her birthday (May 24), his birthday (August 26), their wedding anniversary (February 10), or at Christmas. And they routinely gave each other presents on their own birthdays. The statistics are extraordinary: over a period of twenty-one years the queen gave her husband 188 paintings, 35 sculptures, and 35 works of art of other kinds; the prince in turn gave the queen 100 paintings, 102 sculptures, 25 other works of art, and quantities of jewelry. The two of them talked about art, visited exhibitions, befriended artists to an unprecedented extent, and delighted in the architectural and decorative projects they undertook together. At Osborne on the Isle of Wight they built an entirely new house in the 1840s, and at Buckingham Palace they created a sequence of grand assembly spaces brightly decorated in the style of the Italian Renaissance (Fig. 5).

Our exhibition is the first to focus attention equally on both partners. There have been many studies of the prince’s role as a patron in both the private and public realms. As a member of the first generation of German university students to hear lectures in the new discipline of the history of art, he brought to England a scholarly approach to the formation and arrangement of collections, whether private or public, and he was active in the founding of the national museum of the decorative arts at South Kensington (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), and in the development of the National Gallery.

Following the prince’s death in December 1861 the pace of acquisitions, commissions, and of decorative projects slowed down, and this has invariably led to the conclusion that the Victorian contribution to the Royal Collection was in fact an Albertine contribution; the queen herself said as much after her husband’s death, declaring that she had no taste and had deferred to her husband in all artistic matters.

I do not believe that is what this story is about. The formation of the collection, it seems to me, was most unusually, if not uniquely in the history of collecting, a mutual process. This comes out again and again in the queen’s journal and correspondence, where she describes the two of them at work together organizing miniatures, pasting watercolors or photographs into albums, or classifying their huge collection of engravings of historical rulers. They worked together as artists, he as a painter and sculptor and she as a painter, and they both learned the basics of etching. Together they played through classical and romantic symphonies and overtures at the piano.

Victoria and Albert were first cousins. Each was brought up by a single parent. Victoria’s father Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent (1767–1820), died when she was only eight months old, and her education was directed at home by her mother, Victoria Mary Louisa, Duchess of Kent (1786–1861). Albert’s father, Duke Ernest I of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (later Saxe-Coburg and Gotha) was the elder brother of Queen Victoria’s mother. Ernest and his wife Louisa (1800–1831) were separated and then divorced by the time Albert was five. Their two sons were educated together at Rosenau, a miniature castle in the countryside near Coburg in Bavaria, which their father had restored in a romanticized Gothic style with mural decorations inspired by the works of Sir Walter Scott, the international best-selling author of the day. The boys’ grandmother regularly read the novels of Scott to her grandsons, as Princess Victoria’s tutors did to her. We might see this common interest in the romantic Middle Ages as the inspiration for the costume ball at Buckingham Palace in 1842, at which they and other members of the royal household appeared in costumes of the fourteenth century (frontispiece). But whereas Albert was to make a grand tour of Italy and to study at universities in both Bonn and Brussels, the princess, who from the age of eleven was effectively heir to the throne, was educated on a far more restrictive principle, what her biographers have called the Kensington System. Her artistic tastes were formed at the exhibitions she saw in London and from what she saw at the great houses such as Chatsworth where she stayed with her mother. She was taught painting by Richard Westall (1766–1836), and following her accession in 1837, art collecting and taste were often subjects she discussed with her mentor William Lamb, Lord Melbourne (1779–1848).

The spectacular canvas that the young Frederic (later Lord) Leighton submitted as his first exhibit at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1855, Cimabue’s Madonna Carried in Procession (Fig. 2), is an example of a work that appealed equally to the queen and her husband, but for different reasons. For the prince, it was redolent of the lives of the artists of Renaissance Florence, which had come to be generally studied in England only recently through Mrs. Jonathan Foster’s translation of Giorgio Vasari. The queen admired its theatrical quality and compared the painting to the works of Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), and was encouraged in its purchase by the knowledge that it would help to launch Leighton’s career, as indeed it did.

The queen bought regularly from the annual exhibitions at the Royal Academy, which she and the prince always visited just before the opening date. Despite this they sometimes found that the picture that caught their eye had already been secured by another collector. Thus it was with W. P. Frith’s Ramsgate Sands: “Life at the Seaside” (Fig. 8), the first of a famous series of paintings that form a visual counterpart to the novels of Charles Dickens in their evocation of all that was good and bad in Victorian society. The original buyers, the dealers Messrs. Lloyd, agreed to withdraw but retained the lucrative right to sell engravings after the work.

By the standards of their day the queen and Prince Albert had comparatively little to spend on art. Aristocratic collectors like George Sutherland Leveson-Gower, second Duke of Sutherland (1786–1861), and Francis Charles Seymour Conway, third Marquess of Hertford (1777–1842), and new industrialists like Colonel Edward Douglas-Pennant (1800–1886) (at whose Welsh castle the royal couple stayed in 1859), commanded the London market for old masters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought very little in this area. Although they had their favorites among contemporary artists, especially Landseer, Winterhalter, and watercolorists such as Edward Henry Corbould (1815–1905) and Carl Haag (see Fig. 9), many were represented in their collection by just one work, as if they were trying to spread their limited means to give maximum benefit.

The market for much earlier works, of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was still comparatively weak, and Prince Albert made use of the knowledge and connections he had gained on his student tour of Italy to build an impressive collection of “primitives,” including the first acknowledged work by Duccio di Buoninsegna to enter a British collection (Fig. 6). This was one of many pictures that the prince acquired through his adviser Ludwig Gruner, who was probably also responsible for their distinctive framing, with carved and gilded ornaments applied over an azure ground.

Gruner had begun his career as an engraver, chiefly of the works of Raphael, contributing illustrations to the first modern book on the artist, written by Johan David Passavant (1787–1861) in 1839. Through his subsequent work on illustrations of Renaissance architecture in the new vivid technique of chromolithography, Gruner developed an interest in polychromy in decoration, which he applied in the service of Prince Albert to the interiors at Buckingham Palace (see Fig. 5) and Osborne House, and also to the design of candelabra, carpets, vases, and pietre dure tabletops. The jewel casket (Fig. 7) he designed for the queen, which was displayed in a place of honor in the nave at the Crystal Palace in 1851, is a sort of outsize dynastic reliquary combining influences from both the Renaissance and the Middle Ages.

Osborne House remains the single most important example of the shared tastes of the queen and Prince Albert. As a seaside home with extensive grounds and its own beach and landing stage, it provided a perfect retreat from official life in London, but it was also designed expressly for the display of serious works of art. Be–sides the impressive cabinet of early paintings upstairs (Fig. 10) there was on the ground floor a lengthy gallery or corridor, built to accommodate a growing collection of marble statues commissioned from sculptors working in Rome.

A significant number of the works of art kept at Osborne House were reminders of the life the royal couple enjoyed at the opposite end of Great Britain, at Balmoral Castle in the Highlands of Scotland. Carl Haag’s Morning in the Highlands (Fig. 9) and Winterhalter’s portraits of tartan-clad children were all kept here, and it was at Osborne, not Balmoral, that the royal couple created their Horn Room, furnished almost entirely with objects made from antlers (see Fig. 13), admittedly in Germany rather than Scotland, but probably the only manifestation of this taste on the Isle of Wight.

Balmoral was first leased by Prince Albert in 1848 and then purchased in November 1851, as a sporting estate. The new furniture for the castle was supplied by the versatile London firm of Holland and Sons, and the decorations were determinedly Scottish, with tartan curtains and carpets, and candelabra supported by porcelain figures of Highlanders (Fig. 11) from designs by Landseer. Indeed, as one guest wearily remarked of the decorations as a whole, “Thistles are in such abundance they would rejoice the heart of a donkey.”2

Our exhibition, which also encompasses jewelry, porcelain, books, manuscripts, and musical instruments, concludes with a group of remarkable watercolors commissioned as a record of the prince’s greatest enterprise, the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (see Fig. 12). It was not, as its title reminds us, an art exhibition in the modern sense. There were no paintings, but works of art of every other kind were dispersed throughout the vast Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, proudly exhibited either by their creators or as part of a national display. There was, in theory, a prohibition on the sale of works exhibited. The queen, who visited the exhibition more than forty times, as a major lender and with an appropriate sense of ownership stemming from her husband’s involvement, clearly considered that the rule did not apply to her. She made dozens of purchases, of sculpture, jewelry, textiles, and porcelain, many of which will be on display once again in this exhibition. If we cannot hope to amaze our visitors with the sort of spectacle recorded in these watercolors, we hope that our show will engender wider interest in the young Victoria and Albert as passionate patrons of the arts, and in the substantial contribution they made to the Royal Collection.

The exhibition Victoria & Albert: Art & Love is on view at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, from March 19 to October 31. The catalogue of the same title, edited by Jonathan Marsden, is published by Royal Collection Publications and distributed in the United States by the University of Chicago Press.

1 Entry for June 28, 1833, in Victoria’s journal, Royal Archives, Windsor Castle, Windsor. 

2 Quoted in Delia Millar, Queen Victoria’s Life in the Scottish Highlands: Depicted by Her Watercolour Artists (Philip Wilson, London, 1985), p. 68.

JONATHAN MARSDENis the director designate of the Queen’s Works of Art, the Royal Collection.