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The Queen and the Camera

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
A new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum brings to light Queen Victoria’s passion for photography, and the ways in which she helped shape the medium’s development.
Count de Montizon Hippo.jpg

Count de Montizon

Count de Montizon: The Hippopotamus at the Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park, 1852

In the spring of 1840, it was reported that the twenty-year-old Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, whom she had just married, had made some purchases from Claudet and Houghton of London. This was one of the first firms selling what were known as daguerreotypes, and the royal newlyweds bought views of Paris and Rome.

Certain cultural episodes and innovations corresponded closely with the six long decades of Victorian England, from a golden age of grand opera (which had few roots in England) to another of the novel (which did). One more was photography, which was almost exactly coeval with Victoria’s reign: those first daguerrotypes had appeared in 1839, two years after the girl-queen succeeded to the throne, and a discovery not identical but similar to the eponymous Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre’s had been made at the same time in England by William Henry Fox Talbot.

This absorption with the new medium can be seen at the new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the handsome accompanying book by Anne M. Lyden, both called “A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography,” and both much enriched by photographs from the magnificent Royal Collection at Windsor. To begin with this was a private passion. Victoria and the husband she obsessively adored until his early death in 1861 (when he was photographed on his deathbed, as she was forty years later), and then even more obsessively mourned, collected photographs, but were not themselves photographed for public consumption.

Portrait photography, as opposed to architectural photography such as Roger Fenton’s handsome photos of the royal residences at Windsor, Osborne, and Balmoral, was not in any case easy in the first years, as the subject had to sit or stand still for the several minutes that exposure took. But when they were at last published, photographs of the queen, prince consort, and their children played a most important part in another innovation—or invented tradition?—which we know as the “royal family.”

Photography, and the royal interest in it, emerged into public light with the Great Exhibition of 1851, partly Albert’s brainchild. Many of the astonishing six million people who visited the exhibition in Hyde Park saw photographs for the first time. Shortly afterward, the Photographic Society was formed with Victoria and Albert as patrons. Victoria admired and had patronised Roger Fenton, and when she visited the Society’s first exhibition, he was there and “explained everything,” the queen wrote. She was also delighted by “a set of photos of the animals in the Zoological Gardens,” including a charming hippo seen here. These were the work of the most socially illustrious of amateur photgraphers, the Count de Montizon, Carlist pretender to the Spanish throne.

As to the queen herself, an early miniature painted portrait by Sir William Ross managed to make Victoria almost pretty, and the 1846 group portrait of the Royal Family by Franz Xavier Winterhalter is charming, or gemütlich. But it was in later photographs that the queen’s unmistakable features, plump, bun-faced, unsmiling in widow’s black, and wearing a small crown in state portraits, such as that by W & D Downey, became a universal image, at home and throughout the empire; an image which the name “Victorian” brings to mind even now.

Frederick York: Buckingham Palace.jpg

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Frederick York: Buckingham Palace, 1865–1875

The Crystal Palace at Hyde Park.jpg

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

John Jabez Edwin Mayall: The Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, London, 1851

William Edward Kilburn: Prince Albert.jpg

Royal Collection Trust

William Edward Kilburn: Prince Albert, 1848

Robert Howlett: I.K.jpg

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Robert Howlett: I.K. Brunel and Others Observing the “Great Eastern” Launch Attempt, November 1857

Albert Hautecoeur: Windsor Castle, Round Tower from Lower Ward.jpg

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Albert Hautecoeur: Windsor Castle, Round Tower from Lower Ward, 1871–1889

Ghémar Frères: Portrait of Queen Victoria.jpg

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Ghémar Frères: Portrait of Queen Victoria, 1862

Roger Fenton: The Queen and Prince Albert.jpg

Royal Collection Trust

Roger Fenton: The Queen and Prince Albert, May 11, 1854

Roger Fenton: Princesses Helena and Louise, 1856.jpg

© Royal Photographic Society/NMEM/SSPL

Roger Fenton: Princesses Helena and Louise, 1856

Leonida Caldesi: Royal Family.jpg

Royal Collection Trust

Leonida Caldesi: Royal Family, May 27, 1857

Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Portrait.jpg

Royal Collection Trust

W. & D. Downey: Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Portrait, July 1893

“A Royal Passion” is on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum until June 20, 2014.

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