Regina Pinxit

Queen Victoria’s Sketchbook

by Marina Warner
Crown, 224 pp., $17.95

The wind is knocked out of a critic’s sails when a book provides nothing but pleasure. Clichés threaten dangerously (“delightful!”; “a treasure trove!”). Queen Victoria, who was a much better artist than writer, solved the problem with her usual directness when as a stage-struck teenager she described evenings at the theater in her diary: “very much amused” (one underlining), “VERY VERY MUCH AMUSED (two), “VERY VERY MUCH AMUSED INDEED” (three). Well, I certainly VERY MUCH ENJOYED the royal artist’s work, to the point of being almost converted to monarchism. If she had not been a monarch, would Victoria have had the training and time to indulge in her hobby, the self-confidence to persevere in it, the variety of subjects to draw from; and would the results have been preserved? (Perhaps the answers are yes, yes, not quite, and yes; if so, what has become of other amateur albums that are as gifted and revealing as this?)

One has to distinguish here between straightforward visual appreciation, the attraction of period detail, the historical interest of many of the artist’s subjects, and the dog-walking-on-its-hind-legs effect (“you are surprised to find it done at all”). To take her purely as an artist, Victoria is most visibly amateurish in her landscapes, most of which are no better than the worst of the Victoriana that still circulates in the minor sale-rooms, and constantly aspire toward green bice and mauve (all that heather at Balmoral). Fortunately she was immensely interested in the people around her—children and statesmen, ballet dancers and royal relatives—and her figure drawings are generally light and fluent, especially when left unspoiled by the blobby, flushed style of mid-nineteenth-century watercoloring.

The most interesting, I think, are the drawings done in the royal nurseries; partly because there the draftswoman was most engaged and successful, partly because they throw light on Victoria and Albert as parents and on the remote territory of the nineteenth-century nursery, where in spite of the taboo-ridden adulthood awaiting them the Victorians started life as permissively indulged primitives. We see “Pussy” (the Princess Royal) being dried after her bath, and her own firstborn being held by Victoria’s youngest, an aunt at four years old; observe the frills and bonnets worn by even the youngest baby, and the off-the-shoulder party dresses of three-year-olds; compare the royal cradle—seventeenth-century gilded rococo lined with red velvet—with the wooden one of a keeper’s child at Balmoral.

The royal couple had nine children in seventeen years, all of whom survived (the girls to carry hemophilia to two other royal houses). Marina Warner’s text, which could scarcely be bettered, draws on the queen’s letters and diaries to show the mixture of pain and pleasure her career in maternity brought her. Under one aspect she felt it to be the “shadow side” of life; to a daughter she wrote of

aches—and sufferings and miseries and plagues—which you must struggle against—and enjoyments etc. to give up…I had 9 times for 8 months to bear with those abovenamed enemies and real misery, (besides many duties) and I own it tried me sorely; one feels so pinned down—one’s wings clipped….

There is a hint here of why the future Edward VII was the least favored child; Victoria was depressed at becoming pregnant for the second time only three months after her daughter’s birth, and perhaps resented his existence from the start.

Yet on the other hand she delighted in the children and filled many albums with these appealing drawings and with descriptions of her offsprings’ charm and beauty. She was totally unselfconscious in this as in other ways and did not pretend to feelings she did not have. Leopold, the fourth son, was “a very common-looking child, very plain in the face,” she wrote—“clever but an oddity”; and she advised one of the daughters against overdoing “the passion for the nursery.” She was more sexual than maternal. “All the numerous children are as nothing to me when he is away; it seems as if the whole life of the house and home were gone.”

Marina Warner writes with sympathy of the lonely, clever, hard-working consort. He was no remote and stern paterfamilias; he too liked to sketch in the nursery, and among recent British royal fathers seems to have been the most approachable. He took the children to the zoo and the waxworks, and spent an hour a day giving them lessons himself. Surely he was unusual in staying with his wife throughout labor, as modern young husbands sometimes do today. (It seems to have consoled Victoria for the fact that he was responsible—“I don’t know what I should have done, but for the great comfort and support my beloved Albert was to me during the whole time.”) Certainly he was unusual in having himself painted by Landseer holding his baby daughter in his arms, for I cannot remember seeing another male portrait in this pose. In the light of our assumption that young people are particularly precocious today, it is interesting to consider this couple in, say, 1840: in constant touch with state affairs, reading official papers and drafting memoranda, parents of one child and expecting another, and for recreation drawing, singing duets, studying pictures, opera, ballet. They were both twenty-one.

It is a young Victoria we meet in the sketchbooks, for in her widowhood—and she was only forty-two when Albert died—she painted much less, and no longer cared to record the children. The earliest sketches include affectionate portraits of Lehzen, the possessive governess whom Albert sent packing, and two uncertain self-portraits done during her teens. A later one done when she was twenty-five shows a solemn girl with a distinct hint of the petulant old face to come. But, as Marina Warner reminds us, we only think of Victoria as perpetually solemn because in early photographs no one smiled; the exposure took so long. There is plenty of evidence here of an unsolemn queen.

Many sketches record the family’s passion for dressing up: tableaux vivants at Chatsworth (drawn at fourteen); her friend Victoire Conway in nun’s robes (the two girls used to come down to dinner in borrowed shawls and necklaces as “Italian brigand’s wife” or “Turkish lawyer”); later, her own children as eighteenth-century lairds, Thuringian peasants, and, for Mamma and Papa’s wedding anniversary, acting a German play in the miniature theater at Windsor. Brisk little sketches of horses record her enjoyment of riding. Colorful foreigners were pressed into service: Maharajah Dhuleep Singh, son of the Sikh leader; a pigtailed Chinese boy; Norman peasant women in national costume, and French fishermen (“very picturesque”; they spoke “in such a fanny naïf way”). Gypsies who camped near the country house where she was staying, the year before she became queen, inspired a number of drawings from memory. She must have got to know them: the children’s names—Dinah, Job, Britannia, Emmeline—can just be deciphered on the drawing; and when a new baby was born she had food and blankets supplied.

One whole chapter, with twenty-seven drawings, is devoted to drama, opera, and ballet. Victoria in her teens was as stage-struck as a Who groupie. In the late 1820s and 1830s the romantic ballet had arrived; there is an exquisite Taglioni here, in knee-length flowered muslin, jewelled, posies in her smooth hair, perching in the miraculous new way on the point of one tiny foot; in the rival style, Pauline Duvernay is done in her “Cachuca” costume—flounces, red roses, mantilla. Two hasty sketches give an excruciatingly vivid suggestion of contemporary melodrama: a heroine, in a dead swoon, is on the point of being abducted in one, and in the other weeps in the arms of her gallant rescuer.

Victoria was also a devotee of opera, and on her sixteenth birthday had had a brilliant collection of singers assembled for a celebratory concert. The bass Lablache, painted most successfully in purple robe as the Doge in Marino Faliere, came to the palace for years to give her singing lessons. They had discussions about opera, Victoria recorded in her diary; she had doubts about Mozart, for “I am a terribly modern person and I must say I prefer Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, etc., to anything else; but Lablache, who understands music thoroughly, said, ‘C’est le Papa de tous.”’

Another success is a watercolor of her adored favorite, Grisi, in Bellini’s Norma. The classical costume and pose suggest the influence of her first tutor, Richard Westall, who harked back to the firm, histrionic, neoclassical style of Flaxman and Fuseli. Two other influences are visible: William Leighton Leitch, most typically Victorian of landscape watercolorists, taught her for many years; and she had some lessons in draftsmanship from Edward Lear, who preserved in the crisp outlines and translucent washes of his watercolors something of the eighteenth-century mastery. At one time, too, both Victoria and Albert were greatly taken up with etching, and had a copper-plate press set up at the palace. “Spent a delightful, peaceful morning—singing after breakfast, and etching together,” she wrote in 1840.

Curiously, the divine Albert—“such beautiful blue eyes, and exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate mustachios…beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist”—scarcely appears in the sketchbooks; perhaps he disliked being drawn. There are some charming pictures, though, of Melbourne, including one with Victoria’s terrier Islay sitting up and begging on his lap. A few sketches are included of the coronation costumes and ceremonies; one shows Victoria herself praying before the crowning, with her robes hoisted up at the back over a chair. And there are royal acquaintances and relatives: Napoleon III and the Empress Eugénie, and a fine drawing of Charlotte of Belgium, later the tragic Empress of Mexico.

The book makes an easy introduction to Victoria’s life, and corrects the deadly “widow of Windsor” image that lingers from the second half of her reign. It does not reveal a clever woman, or a sophisticated or humorous one, but it does show someone extraordinarily unselfconscious among the court grandeurs that surrounded her, a woman of naïve enthusiasms and unstifled vitality. As Marina Warner points out, “the same absence of obliqueness that made her peremptory and sometimes wrong-headed as a queen, that led her to declare her likes and dislikes so imperiously, gives her assurance and freshness as a draughtsman.” We can see how she was before she was changed by Albert’s shocking, never-to-be-forgiven dereliction of duty that left her, in middle life, with a kingdom and a nurseryful of children on her hands.