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The Most Happy Couple

Victoria and Albert: Art and Love

an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, London, March 19–October 31, 2010
Catalog of the exhibition edited and with an introduction by Jonathan Marsden
London: Royal Collection, 480 pp., £35.00

The Young Victoria

a film directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
filler_01-081910.jpg
The Royal Collection
Franz Xaver Winterhalter: The First of May, 1851, 1851. Queen Victoria is holding her third son, Prince Arthur, who is being presented with a jewel casket by his godfather, the Duke of Wellington. Behind her is Prince Albert; on the left is the Crystal Palace.

1.

Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India, reigned over her worldwide dominions from 1837 to 1901. Christened Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent, she gave her second name to an age. In its adjectival form, it became a portmanteau term for a half-century’s worth of fussily ornate, historically eclectic architecture and design, as well as a byword for quaint, antiquated, repressed, or repressive attitudes toward modern manners, mores, and morals.

On the other hand, Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, is best remembered, if at all, as the subject of a corny old joke based on a once-popular brand of tobacco: “Do you have Prince Albert in a can? Well, you’d better let him out!” To a younger generation, he is perhaps more famous for allegedly employing a genital ring called the Prince Albert—secured by a piercing through the glans penis, and said to enhance sexual pleasure.

Whether or not that royal provenance is true, it is no news that the Victorians, eminent or otherwise, were hardly the celibate prudes of popular myth. That was amply established four decades ago with the publication of Steven Marcus’s The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England1 and Ronald Pearsall’s The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality.2 As if to ratify their findings, the same has been proven more recently by close reading of Victoria’s private journals.

Although her youngest child, Princess Beatrice (who lived until 1944), assiduously burned many of the old queen’s letters and ruthlessly bowdlerized her diaries in the name of propriety, enough slipped through Beatrice’s busy fingers to confirm that Victoria and Albert were mad about sex. The virginal young queen exhibited unmistakable signs of sexual anxiety, as recorded in her diaries and correspondence. But it is also obvious that once Victoria married her Prince Charming, she got the hang of things very quickly and became what the English call a “goer.”

One gets a good idea of the couple’s interactive physicality from the dust jacket of the superb exhibition catalog for “Victoria and Albert: Art and Love,” the latest in a continuing series of magnificent thematic exhibitions drawn from Britain’s enormous Royal Collection and displayed, one per year, in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. It was edited by Jonathan Marsden and enriched by the contributions of an exceptional band of scholars. (This exemplary endeavor also indicates that although the subjects’ current successors and great-great-grandchildren, Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, are often accused of philistinism, they are following excellent advice from their art consultants.)

The book’s front cover features a febrile oil portrait of the plump-faced twenty-four-year-old Victoria by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, and on the back Charles Brocky’s meltingly beautiful colored-chalk sketch of the twenty-two-year-old Albert (see illustration on page 68). The latter makes it easy to understand the Duchess of Bedford’s avowal that he possessed “the most bewitching countenance I ever saw.” We can also accept the widely held perception of Albert during his lifetime as the “uncrowned king of England,” so thoroughgoing was his influence over his impressionable wife.

The couple had nine children, all of whom reached adulthood, but she was much less thrilled about the consequences than the means by which they were created. Victoria hated being pregnant, which she was for nearly a third of her twenty-one-year marriage; yet she and her scientifically minded spouse seemed remarkably ill-informed about birth control. But the lady couldn’t help it. As today’s sharpest analyst of the British monarchy, Piers Brendon, writes in Our Own Dear Queen:3

Victoria had fallen passionately in love with the Prince. She filled her journals with glowing tributes to his beauty, commenting artlessly on his elegant white pantaloons with “nothing under them,” and gushed incessantly of her adoration for him: “My dearest Albert put on my stockings for me. I went in and saw him shave; a great delight for me.”

This titillating 170-year-old piece of information appears nowhere in Victoria and Albert: Art and Love.

Albert and Victoria, both born in 1819 (she was three months older), were first cousins; her mother and his father were siblings. Almost since the children’s birth, their families plotted to unite them (and the tiny, poor duchy of Coburg with the huge, rich British Empire) through marriage. When Albert was three, his nanny is said to have informed him that he would one day wed “the little English May flower.”

Victoria, though born in London and heiress presumptive to the British throne, was actually as German as Albert. The first Hanoverian king of England, George I, from whom she was directly descended, had been imported from Germany to ensure a Protestant succession. He and the Georges II through V all married German princesses, as did Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent (one of George III’s younger brothers), who died when his only child was eight months old.

Especially eager to make the Victoria-and-Albert match was their dour, ambitious Coburg uncle Leopold. He had been married to George IV’s heiress and only child, Princess Charlotte, who (along with their stillborn son) died before she could ascend the throne. Though Leopold became royal in his own right when elected king of the newly created Belgium in 1831, he never got over losing the biggest regal prize of all, and was determined to win it back for Albert.

Not for nothing did Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor and grand old cynic of realpolitik, baldly but not inaccurately call Coburg—half as large as the Isle of Wight and with but one major export—das Gestüt Europas (“the stud farm of Europe.”) And not just Europe: besides Portugal’s Ferdinand II, expatriate Coburg royalties included Leopold’s daughter Charlotte, later Carlota, consort of the doomed Emperor Maximilian of Mexico.

The xenophobic British viewed the unequal union of Victoria and Albert with suspicion, reflected in this bit of doggerel: “He comes to take ‘for better or for worse’/England’s fat Queen and England’s fatter purse.” Nevertheless, such dynastic transactions could be mutually beneficial. The United Kingdom’s Royal Marriages Act of 1772 forbade those in line to the throne to wed Roman Catholics. No longer could France and Spain serve as happy connubial hunting grounds for the English court, as they had before the Reformation. Thus the (breeding) stock of German Protestant principalities, some very minor indeed, shot up precipitously.

Worries about inbreeding between first cousins seem to have been beyond the Coburg family. When Victoria broached to her first prime minister, the avuncular Lord Melbourne, the subject of marrying Albert, he muttered that “cousins are not very good things,” adding (with an eye toward geopolitics) that “those Coburgs are not popular abroad; the Russians hate them.” Though both were long aware of the planned match, Albert and Victoria harbored qualms about each other until they met again when he came to England for a final once-over from her when they were twenty.

Lytton Strachey—whose classic 1921 biography Queen Victoria remains psychologically insightful despite some now-outdated scholarship—believed that Albert “was not in love with her.” He goes on to explain:

Affection, gratitude, the natural reactions to the unqualified devotion of a lively young cousin who was also a queen—such feelings possessed him, but the ardours of reciprocal passion were not his.

However, Albert gave at least a convincing impersonation of passion in the royal bedchamber. For Victoria, though, it was a coup de foudre. As she breathlessly confided to her journal:

Albert really is quite charming, and so excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate mustachios and slight but very slight whiskers; a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist; my heart is quite going.

2.

For two pivotal decades at the height of the Industrial Revolution, Albert exerted a salutary influence on the development of the arts, sciences, and technology in Britain. Unrivaled in the breadth of his interests and the industriousness with which he sought to improve every aspect of the nation’s life—from affordable workers’ housing to free trade, from modern urban sanitation to hygienic dairy farming—he was another of those intellectually omnivorous polymaths who flourished in nineteenth-century Britain.

Deeply musical and an accomplished amateur composer, Albert befriended Felix Mendelssohn, who reported that the prince played the organ “so charmingly, precisely and accurately that it would have done credit to a professional.” Mendelssohn arranged a piano duet version of his Lied ohne Worte (Song without Words) for the royal couple (the manuscript is in the current show). Albert was also a director of the Concerts of Antient Music, at one of which Mendelssohn played a J.S. Bach organ work that furthered the renewed appreciation of the then- neglected eighteenth-century German master.

As a connoisseur of art, Albert was well served by his private cultural adviser, the German artist Wilhelm Gruner. The prince had grown up in Coburg palaces surrounded by portraits of his Saxon forebears by the Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. Albert arrived in England with two Cranachs, and Gruner helped him buy about a dozen more, of which two superb examples—Apollo and Diana and Lucretia, each depicting a bare-breasted woman—are on view in the present exhibition.

Gruner encouraged Albert’s interest in other early Northern European and Italian painters—“primitives” who, like Cranach, were then not much prized by mainstream collectors. The prince paid £190 for a Duccio gold-ground triptych of the Crucifixion (circa 1302–1308), the first of the artist’s works to come to Britain, and also included in “Victoria and Albert: Art and Love.” Sadly absent is Hans Memling’s powerful Virgin and Child (circa 1475), because it is no longer in the Royal Collection, from which the Queen’s Gallery shows are solely drawn. Victoria gave the Memling to the National Gallery in her husband’s memory after his death in 1861, at the age of forty-two, from what was long believed to be typhoid, but has since been hypothetically diagnosed as stomach cancer.

The couple also delighted in the big, crowded genre scenes that were a staple of British Victorian painting, a prime specimen being William Frith’s Ramsgate Sands: ‘Life at the Seaside’ (1851–1854). A panoramic view of middle-class holidaymakers fully dressed on the shore of a Channel resort that had lately been made more accessible by the coming of the railway, this bustling tableau perhaps gave its royal purchasers a comforting if condescending illusion of keeping in touch with their average subjects, much like the late Queen Mother, who was said to have faithfully watched the long- running TV soap opera East Enders to find out what the common folk were doing.

Tellingly, Victoria and Albert stopped using her uncle George IV’s over-the-top orientalist Royal Pavilion at Brighton after that once-exclusive coastal town was overrun by hordes of day-trippers taking advantage of the new cheap train travel. To ensure greater seclusion by the sea, the royal couple bought a large estate on the Isle of Wight and ordered a capacious Italianate villa, Osborne House of 1845–1846, from Thomas Cubitt, the London builder who developed Belgravia (and was a direct antecedent of Prince Charles’s second wife, Camilla). It was at Osborne that Victoria was to die, at the age of eighty-one, in 1901. She and Albert also built another, more remote rural retreat in the Scottish Highlands: Balmoral of 1851–1856. William Smith was the nominal architect of this Scottish Baronial fantasy, though as with Osborne House the prince took such an active part in the project that he should be credited as codesigner.

  1. 1

    See the review by Frederick Crews, The New York Review, August 18, 1966.

  2. 2

    See the review by Noel Annan, The New York Review, February 12, 1970.

  3. 3

    London: Secker and Warburg, 1986.

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