The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace hosted a superlative exhibition in 2010, entitled, Victoria & Albert: Art & Love. The exhibition brought together works commissioned and collected by the royal couple. To be in the midst of a collection so vast and personal was to be brought into a sort of rare proximity to Victoria and her age. Or so it felt to me when I toured the gallery. One of the revelations of this exhibition was the extent to which the royal couple not only encouraged but guided the development of British and European art in the nineteenth century.
Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were passionate in their patronage of the arts. The contemporary painter William Powell Frith observed that their “treatment of artists displayed a gracious kindness delightful to experience.” They both had substantial training in the field. Queen Victoria had received drawing lessons for almost ten years from Richard Westall, an RA famous for his portraits of Lord Byron. She subsequently learned oil and watercolor technique from the Scottish landscape painter William Leighton Leitch, with whom she studied for over twenty years.
For his own part, Prince Albert was among the best-educated patrons of his day. As explained in the curatorial notes for Art & Love, His Royal Highness
belonged to the first generation of students to hear lectures in the new discipline of Art History. Visiting Italy as a nineteen-year-old he had steeped himself in Renaissance painting and made contact with leading scholars, many of them German expatriates. Ludwig Gruner, an engraver from Dresden famous for his prints after Raphael, became the Prince’s artistic adviser in 1842. Gruner acquired for Prince Albert twenty-seven Italian pictures of the kind then known as ‘Primitives’…
The Prince was an avid collector of Medieval and Renaissance art, and a champion of modern practitioners of the style, including the painter William Dyce, to whom he awarded the commission to paint the interior of the Palace of Westminster. Frith’s daughter, Jane Ellen Panton, recalled that, “[Albert] honestly loved art for art’s sake, and…did more for artists than any king or prince ever did before or since.”
The royal couple often met artists and visited their studios in person, an unusual practice for royalty. They were known to offer frank critiques and even suggestions. Frith commented on their extensive knowledge. He was specifically impressed by Albert’s ability to discuss the composition, light, and shading of a painting. Frith afterwards followed some of Albert’s suggestions, as did the painter John Martin, who affirmed that they were thoughtful, valuable, and reflected well on the Prince’s understanding of art.
Victoria cannily worked with Franz Xaver Winterhalter and other court painters to portray the royal family in such a way as to reflect both the Queen’s political supremacy and the Prince’s authority as pater familias. From the same curatorial notes quoted above:
Queen Victoria was the first Queen Regnant, and Prince Albert the first male consort, since the early 1700s. This presented a challenge to portrait painters, since the conventions that had been appropriate for Victoria’s male predecessors no longer applied.
Winterhalter looked for inspiration to the Dutch and Flemish old masters, especially Van Dyck, but his Royal Family in 1846 was a brilliant and original response to the challenge. The viewer is left in no doubt that the Queen and her eldest son represent the royal line, while Prince Albert rules the family.
Winterhalter’s family picture quickly became famous through public exhibition and engraving.
It was not only the traditional arts which attracted royal attention and patronage. Prince Albert was interested in how art could be related to manufacturing, making practical items beautiful, and beautiful items available to a broader section of the public. He wanted to encourage the development of good taste even among those whose surroundings and possessions were primarily practical or commercial. The royal couple encouraged the development of electroplating and electroforming as well as ‘Parian ware,’ a type of porcelain made to imitate marble. They often allowed manufacturers to replicate items from the Royal Collection by these new methods.
In her catalogue, Passionate Patrons, Leah Kharibian writes that,
art played a key role in every aspect of their daily lives. As patrons and collectors their tastes were exceptionally wide-ranging, taking in all types of art from early Renaissance panel paintings to sculpture, furniture, jewellery, miniatures, watercolours and the new art of photography. As a couple they took a keen interest in the serious endeavors of cataloguing, conserving and displaying both their new acquisitions and the magnificent inheritance of the Royal Collection. But they enjoyed themselves immensely, too. A large proportion of their purchases were bought as gifts for each other – often as surprises. They took great delight in planning and participating in magnificent balls and fancy-dress parties, musical evenings and theatrical experiences.
Victoria went to the theater or opera on thirty-six occasions during her coronation year alone, and she and Albert were patrons of both. They held many formal dances, including three costume balls. The most famous of these was a Medieval-themed ball at Buckingham Palace in 1842 to benefit the silk weavers of Spitalfields. The royal couple received guests in the Throne Room, on a raised dais under an ornate Gothic canopy, dressed as King Edward III and his consort Queen Philippa of Hainault. Their splendid costumes were based on the real tomb effigies of their predecessors.
The design and decoration of the royal residences also engaged the Queen and Prince. They expanded Buckingham Palace, adding the east wing and the Renaissance-revival ballroom. In Scotland, they erected the current Balmoral Castle, which they decorated in a fanciful Scottish vernacular, with tartan and thistles. Prince Albert contributed to the design of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. This included a sculpture gallery and served as an important showcase for the art that they collected.
The death of Prince Albert in 1861, at the age of forty-two, was a shocking blow for the Queen personally, and for the country. He was in my opinion the greatest public servant that Britain has ever had. Queen Victoria remained in mourning until her own death in 1901. She continued to advance the artistic genres and artists that he had championed, and that together they had cultivated, for the rest of her reign.
Jones, Kathryn. (2012) “‘To wed high art with mechanical skill’: Prince Albert and the industry of art,” in Victoria & Albert: Art & Love, Essays from a study day held at the National Gallery, https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/themes/exhibitions/victoria-albert-art-love/the-queens-gallery-buckingham-palace/contents
Kharibian, Leah. (2010) Passionate Patrons: Victoria & Albert and the Arts. London: Royal Collection.
Marsden, Jonathan. (2010) Victoria & Albert: Art & Love. London: Royal Collection.
Remington, Vanessa. (2012) “Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their relations with artists,” in Victoria & Albert: Art & Love, Essays from a study day held at the National Gallery, https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/themes/exhibitions/victoria-albert-art-love/the-queens-gallery-buckingham-palace/contents