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 …