Victorian Visual Culture
Representations of Queen Victoria in Official Painted & Photographic Portraits
Queen Victoria reigned from 20th June 1837 until her death on 22nd January 1901, making her the longest reigning British monarch to date ('Kings and Queens of the United Kingdom: Victoria', The Official Website of the British Monarchy, 2008). Throughout her long life her image was depicted in official portraits, both in photography and painting. Queen Victoria married Albert in 1840, who then became her Prince Consort. They experienced a very close bond, with Victoria becoming extremely reclusive after Albert's death in 1861, such was the devastation of losing her husband.
Roger Fenton - 'Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace'
Fenton was known mainly for his photography of the Crimean War, though this photograph of Victoria and Albert is undoubtedly one of the most significant ever taken of the Royal couple, clearly demonstrating their deep love for each other (‘Roger Fenton Exhibition’ Tate Britain, 2006). The scene depicted is often mistaken for a wedding day photograph. However, it was actually a posed scene with Victoria dressed in her wedding dress fourteen years after the couple’s actual wedding. The reason for this was that photographic techniques when they were married in 1840 meant that there were very long exposure times. It was in 1854, when this photograph was taken, with the delay meaning that exposure times had reduced significantly (‘Royal Weddings: 1840-1947’, The Royal Collection, 2008).
Photographs of the Royal Couple were obviously very important in allowing the public access to their private moments. Fenton’s photograph clearly captures an intimate, though posed, moment between the couple. Interestingly, Queen Victoria is not presented as monarch, but as wife to Prince Albert. Indeed, the positioning of Albert gazing downwards at Victoria, yet not looking directly at her, places him in the dominant role in the marriage. To heighten this interpretation, it is also worth noting that Albert is in full military regalia, with numerous honours on his jacket. Arguably, this would have helped to present Albert favourably to the public as a strong military man, fit to protect Queen and country. In terms of gender politics, then, this photograph is very interesting, especially as Victoria is feminised and softened. This is achieved both through her feminine wedding dress and her pose, looking upwards to Albert, as if she is subordinate to him. Nevertheless, the fact that Albert does not meet Victoria’s gaze could suggest that, though it is not presented as such in this photograph, Victoria may have the upper hand in the marriage, as well as in her role as monarch.
Franz Xavier Winterhalter - 'The Family of Queen Victoria'
Franz Xaver Winterhalter painted numerous portraits of the Royal Family, having been commissioned extensively by Victoria and Albert. Julia Treuherz argues that it was Winterhalter’s “flattering and expensive-looking style” and unfailing ability to capture a good likeness that encouraged Victoria to patronize Winterhalter so frequently (Victorian Painting, 1997: 16). This is certainly evident in ‘The Family of Queen Victoria’, which is also full of symbolic importance.
In many ways, this painting by Winterhalter is similar to Fenton’s photograph in the positioning of Queen Victoria as feminised. Essentially, though, Albert and Victoria are shown as more equal, both in a parenting role. Of course, Victoria was not just parent to her children but matriarch to the Commonwealth, with the crown signifying her status as monarch. In the Victorian era the man was seen to be head of the household, the patriarch, yet essentially in this image there are two heads of the household, owing to Victoria’s position as Queen. Interestingly, Albert is depicted in profile watching his children, whilst Victoria is gazing out of the painting towards the viewer. This further suggests that Victoria is carer not only to her biological children, but also to the nation.
Other interesting points to consider about this painting include the fact that Victoria’s eldest son, Edward, is positioned standing beside Victoria. This was probably to symbolise the fact that he was the heir to the throne. The young girls in the painting are also positioned in a motherly, nurturing role towards Victoria’s youngest child. This suggests that they too would make suitable candidates for the throne if required. Additionally, as if to emphasise the closeness of the couple and their family, hand gestures are significant. Victoria and Albert’s hands are almost touching, suggesting their love, whilst Victoria’s other arm is around Edward’s shoulder and Albert’s left hand is reaching towards the baby. This all suggests the closeness of the Royal Family and their suitability in offering future security for the nation.
Queen Victoria in the year of her Diamond Jubilee (1897) - Photographer unknown.
The Importance of Official Portraits of Queen Victoria
The significance of the portraits of Queen Victoria should not be underestimated, as arguably they did much to affect her reputation throughout her reign. After Prince Albert's death Victoria withdrew from appearing in public for a number of years. During this period photographs and paintings helped her to maintain contact with her people, essential in a time when her popularity was severely threatened. When she gradually returned to public life in the 1870s support for her began to increase again and it could be argued that the vast public celebrations for both Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887 and her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 were what helped to finally cement her reputation as one of the most important British monarchs of all time ('Historic Figures: Victoria, 1819-1901, BBC History, 2008).
Photographs such as this one (pictured left) helped to emphasise Victoria's role as monarch and to ensure that the public were rightfully proud of her long reign. This was achieved by positioning Victoria in this upright, regal pose, seemingly deep in thought. She could be reflecting upon her long reign, along with the loss of Albert. Certainly, as previously mentioned, Victoria was deeply affected by Albert's death to the extent that she wore black for the rest of her life without him. This can be seen clearly in the photograph, and along with the distant, perhaps even sad look of the Queen, serves to demonstrate an emotional person, who the public could connect with. Alternatively, however, the Queen's face could be said to be stern, emphasizing the sense of duty she felt for her country and a determination to govern Britain to the best of her ability.
It has been clearly demonstrated, then, that the role of official portraits, both in the photographic and painted form, revealed much about Queen Victoria and the image she wanted the public to see. Symobolism and imagery are present in both forms confirming that, in official portraiture at least, both photography and painting were useful in providing what were often subtle insights into Victoria's life. All of her portraits, of which these are only a very small selection, have clearly been created to send a specific message. This is the reason they continue to be so interesting and informative about Victoria's many different attributes and personalities - as monarch, mother, wife and widow.
Benjamin, Walter, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations. London: Fontana, 1992.
BBC History (2008) Historic Figures: Victoria, 1819-1901 [online] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/victoria_queen.shtml
Longford, Elizabeth. Queen Victoria. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2005.
Tate Britain (2006) Roger Fenton Exhibition [online] http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/fenton/default.shtm
The Official Website of the British Monarchy (2008) Kings and Queens of the United Kingdom: Victoria [online] http://www.royal.gov.uk/output/Page118.asp.
The Royal Collection (2008) Royal Weddings: 1840-1947 [online] http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/microsites/royalweddings/object.asp?row=21&exhibs=WedQVPA&item=22
Treuherz, Julian. Victorian Painting. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1997.
This page was written by Matthew Avenell.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
Email Dr Litvack with your comments: L.Litvack at qub.ac.uk
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