In the past few years, Queen Victoria’s popular image has undergone a sea-change. For most of the 20th century she was imagined and often portrayed as the elderly, dour imperial matriarch (“We are not amused”), scorned by enlightened Bloomsberries and the object of exasperation and rage by the sexually liberated. A new generation has now drawn a different portrait of the monarch focusing on her youth and good looks, the years of her happy marriage—and, indeed, her sex life. Films and TV programmes—“Mrs Brown” (starring Billy Connolly and Dame Judi Dench, 1997), and the box-office hit, “The Young Victoria”, a movie produced by the unlikely combination of Martin Scorsese and Sarah, Duchess of York (2009)—are a couple of examples of the ways in which the public has been persuaded to “rethink” Queen Victoria.
This exhibition of 400 items from the Royal Collection takes advantage of this trend (“The exhibition challenges the popular image of Victoria—the melancholy widow of 40 years—and reveals her as a passionate and open-minded young woman”): it aims to show us the range of the couple’s tastes and interests; the high degree of their knowledge of the arts and the enthusiasm with which they embraced international contemporary art, architecture, music and the applied and decorative arts from the time of their marriage in 1839 to Prince Albert’s untimely death, aged 42, in 1861. From 1841 to 1855, Prince Albert’s artistic adviser was the Dresden print specialist Wilhelm Heinrich Ludwig Gruner, who in 1845 was also appointed the Queen’s Adviser in Art. He was responsible for the acquisition of some 60 paintings and sculptures, directed the decoration of Buckingham Palace (above, Louis Hague, Buckingham Palace: the New Ballroom, 1856) and Osborne House, and designed the Frogmore mausoleum.
The lion’s share of the exhibits are the paintings—examples of the Italian “primitives” (by, for example, Duccio, Bernardo Daddi and Zanobi Strozzi), then in the first flush of fashion, bought by Prince Albert; his acquisitions of German Renaissance works (such as Apollo and Diana by Cranach the Elder), and many works by the couple’s favourite artists, Sir Edwin Landseer and Franz Xaver Winterhalter, as well as works by William Powell Frith, Frederic Leighton and John Martin. Queen Victoria’s own not inappreciable works are also shown (she was taught by Winterhalter). The royal couple also acquired a considerable quantity of contemporary sculpture, of which the 1849 life-size marble statue of Prince Albert as a Greek warrior by Emil Wolff, along with John Gibson’s pendant of Queen Victoria, dominates the display. Furniture commissioned by the Queen and the Prince Consort also features in the show. Some of it—such as an ivory throne and footstool from the Maharajah Martanda Varma, 1850, and an 1845 upholstered sofa, the frame made from deers’ antlers and legs—may occasion viewers to fine-tune their understanding of the Queen as “a passionate and open-minded young woman”. Jewellery, fancy-dress-ball costumes, objets de vertu and ceramics are also featured.
The 480-page catalogue edited by Jonathan Marsden is for sale at the special exhibition price of £29.95 (Royal Collection Publications). This excellent exhibition goes a long way to taking the “Victorian” out of Queen Victoria, but it will probably take another generation to understand and plumb the depths of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha taste: there are 200-plus paintings by contemporary German and Austrian painters, bought by Victoria and Albert, that languish in the Royal Collection uncatalogued and undisplayed.