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.
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.
A principal preoccupation of rulers since ancient times has been the control and diffusion of their images. Thus much of the current exhibition is devoted to depictions of the queen, her prince, and their progeny. Understandably, Victoria and Albert were early enthusiasts of photography, which was perfected around the time of her accession. In 1853 they became patrons of the newly established Photographic Society, which, the historian Roger Taylor has written, “proved crucial in making photography socially acceptable.” The royal couple were especially taken with the great photographer Roger Fenton, whose arresting portraits, both formal and informal, were the best ever made of either of them, but which are alas underrepresented in this show.
By far the most amusing family picture on view is Winterhalter’s The First of May, 1851 (1851; see illustration on page 67). This tableau of Victoria and Albert with their then-youngest child on the opening day of the Great Exhibition is so closely based on traditional iconography of the Holy Family as to seem almost blasphemous. While a preoccupied Albert stands in the shadowy background like the superfluous Saint Joseph and gazes off distractedly toward the sun-struck Crystal Palace in the distance, the queen lifts her third son, Prince Arthur (whose first birthday the titular date was, and who clutches a sprig of lily of the valley, the May Day flower) toward the hook-nosed Duke of Wellington, who turned eighty-two also on that day. The Iron Duke reverently proffers a bejeweled gold casket to mother and child, like one of the Three Magi. All that is missing are nimbuses, although Victoria’s glittering diamond diadem provides a nice substitute.
This risible scene brings to mind the wry aperçu of the social theorist Harriet Martineau, who attended Victoria’s coronation and observed that the service inverted accepted hierarchies by emphasizing God as king and implying the temporal sovereign as divinity incarnate. Winterhalter’s fanciful exercise in royalty worship caused its youngest participant some later disappointment. Arthur had been led to believe that Wellington’s “gift” box (in fact a royal table ornament that Albert suggested as a prop) contained a legacy he would receive when he reached twenty-one. As that day approached, Victoria was compelled to disabuse her overeager son of his long-cherished but baseless notion.
The crowning achievement of Albert’s public life was the Great Exhibition of the Art and Industry of All Nations in London in 1851, now considered the first world’s fair. Strachey rather overstated things when he wrote that Albert “mused, and was inspired: the Great Exhibition came into his head. Without consulting anyone, he thought out the details of his conception with the minutest care.” In truth, the idea for a grand festival of modern industrial ingenuity and artistic creativity bubbled up among others in the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, the progressive group Albert had presided over since 1843.
The queen’s husband, incomparably prestigious and irreproachably disinterested, made the ideal front man for this organization, yet he was anything but a mere figurehead. During the first two years of the royal marriage, Albert had been a stranger in a strange land, his official role beyond procreation almost wholly undefined. Even his marital status was humiliatingly subservient until he seized control of family matters by giving Victoria’s intrusive old German governess, Baroness Lehzen, the boot.
However, in the fraternal company of his fellow Royal Society members—an astounding convocation of polymaths that included the multitalented design reformer Henry Cole, the horticulturist- botanist Joseph Paxton, the chemist and parliamentarian Lyon Playfair, and the railway engineer Robert Stephenson, among others—Albert found for the first time in his adopted country due respect for his estimable intellectual capacities. With the Great Exhibition, Albert was at last able to give full rein to his long-thwarted executive skills. Even if he was not the project’s prime mover (as believed by his awestruck wife and credulous chroniclers), he nonetheless was instrumental in the triumphant outcome of a very risky enterprise.
It was a logistical tour de force to identify, assemble, and display more than a hundred thousand objects of every possible description, useful and ornamental, beautiful and bizarre, novel and curious. Centerpiece of this omnium-gatherum was a dazzling cut-glass fountain seventeen feet high and forty-six feet around. There was also a ship’s bed that turned into a life raft, the American sculptor Hiram Powers’s marble nude The Greek Slave, a Manchester-made knife with three hundred blades, a collapsible piano, and the fabled Koh-i-Noor diamond. The cumulative effect, jumbled but undeniably breathtaking, fell somewhere between a glorified global trade show and one of today’s high-end international art fairs.
Also on display was a great deal of kitsch, both high and low. As Nikolaus Pevsner wrote in his influential Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936), “The aesthetic quality of the products was abominable…. And this barbarism was by no means limited to England. The other nations exhibiting were equally rich in atrocities.” An ardent advocate of orthodox Modernist reductivism, Pevsner conveyed the contempt with which Victorian design came to be regarded.
But the perceptive Henry Cole had also cringed at the exposition’s plethora of decorative objects aswarm with simulacra of flora, fauna, and human figures. Victoria and Albert, who used the Crystal Palace as their personal shopping mall, bought many exhibits directly from the show. Among them was an intricately carved Swiss writing table with an ingenious mechanism that allows it to convert from a sitting to a standing desk. Along with bas-reliefs of cowherds, shepherds, and farmers, this wood-whittler’s wonder sports three-dimensional nesting birds, milkmaids, deer hunters, and wrestlers engaged “in a sport known as Schwingen, in which the competitors are not allowed to touch each others’ bodies, only their trousers,” as the current catalog helpfully notes.
The Great Exhibition turned a staggering profit of £186,437 ($16,533,500 in present-day value), and Cole pushed for part of the proceeds to be used for the creation of the South Kensington (later renamed Victoria and Albert) Museum, in which the finest examples of design throughout the ages would be arrayed to educate the populace—particularly artisans—in the principles of good design, and to act as a corrective to the excrescences that appalled him at the Crystal Palace.
The Great Exhibition’s ultimate showpiece was the building that housed it. This vast iron-and-glass structure in Hyde Park was conceived by Paxton, realized by the engineer Charles Fox (another Royal Society member), and irresistibly dubbed the Crystal Palace by the popular press. Pevsner posited it as the founding landmark of modern architecture, an assessment that has remained largely unchallenged.
Paxton, who had designed a massive iron-and-glass conservatory for the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, expanded upon that format for this project, which required the economical enclosure of a large amount of floor space and a minimum of artificial illumination before the advent of electrical lighting. He sketched his vision on a blotter during a boring business meeting and immediately sold the idea to the exposition’s commissioners. But Paxton (“who…rose from being a common gardener’s boy,” Victoria marveled) lacked the know-how to execute a structure that could withstand the structural stresses imposed by tens of thousands of visitors. Thus the help of Fox, a partner in the contracting firm of Fox and Henderson, was enlisted to work out the all-important technical details.
Several concepts fundamental to modern architecture were boldly initiated here: the use of modular and interchangeable components, above all the uniformly sized rectangular panes of clear glass with which the Crystal Palace was clad; the cost-efficiency of prefabrication, of which this was the first great modern demonstration on a civic scale; the efficacy of “fast-track” construction, in which parts of a project are built even before the scheme is worked out in all its details; and the embrace of a utilitarian industrial aesthetic that led another member of Albert’s Royal Society circle, the architecture critic Matthew Digby Wyatt, to write in 1851 that “it has become difficult to decide where civil engineering ends and architecture begins.” The Crystal Palace was universally hailed as the wonder of the age, and rightly so.
In his foreword to Victoria and Albert: Art and Love, Prince Charles writes that “happily, this young Victoria has begun to attract the attention of historians and film-makers.” The latter include his erstwhile sister-in-law, Sarah Ferguson, one of the producers of Jean-Marc Vallée’s The Young Victoria (2009), a diverting, fancily caparisoned biopic in the high Masterpiece Theatre mode. (Ferguson was recently caught in an influence-peddling sting by a London tabloid, in which she accepted $40,000 in cash for promising access to her ex-husband, Prince Andrew, a British trade envoy.)
Making a fleeting, uncredited cameo appearance in this factually wayward film is Andrew and Ferguson’s elder daughter, Princess Beatrice of York, who plays a lady-in-waiting to Victoria. Beatrice is such a dead ringer for her illustrious ancestress that she seems to have switched roles with the female lead, Emily Blunt, who is too thin and comely to play the pudgy, pop-eyed queen. This raises the question of dominant genes in inbred families. (The present sovereign and her husband are themselves second cousins once removed.) If Beatrice so eerily resembles the youthful Victoria, can her uncle Charles likewise have inherited anything of Albert’s character? (Charles’s first wife, Diana, privately referred to her royal in-laws as “the Germans.”)
It would seem likely that Charles finds congruities, given the broad range of causes he has espoused in parallel with Albert’s concerns—contemporary architecture, homeopathic medicine, and advanced agricultural practices (though Charles’s tastes are much more conservative than his great-great-great-grandfather’s). Albert was prone to melancholy—what today we call depression—and Charles has shown similar tendencies. Albert was by any definition a workaholic; Charles is known to his close collaborators as someone who easily loses interest in his myriad infatuations and flits from obsession to obsession, often without achieving what he set out to do, blaming others, and feeling sorry for himself.
In June, Charles had an epicentral role in a £81 million breach-of-contract suit brought by a London property developer against the Qatari royal family’s real estate firm—after the prince secretly convinced Qatar’s emir to cancel a modernist scheme by Richard Rogers for a site near Christopher Wren’s landmark Royal Hospital in Chelsea. A high-court judge then declared that Charles’s “intervention, no doubt, was unexpected and unwelcome.” After the plaintiff won, Charles’s private secretary still insisted that “it is part of the Prince of Wales’s role and duty to make sure the views of ordinary people who might not otherwise be heard receive some exposure.”
Albert, though not born to rule, learned to exert his considerable gifts in spheres unrestricted by constitutional precedent that delimited the powers of even his imperious wife. Charles, by all indications, yearns to be an activist king. According to a Guardian editorial after the recent court decision, “Think what [Charles] might get up to when…the full prerogative monarchical powers…are conferred upon him…. He simply wouldn’t dare. But, if he did, he wouldn’t last five minutes.” An Independent editorial titled “A Question of Influence, Not Aesthetics” was even blunter: “The Prince needs, in short, to stop meddling.” Wise is the king, uncrowned or not, who knows the boundaries of his realm.