Kathryn Jones, Senior Curator of Decorative Arts at the Royal Collection Trust, on Queen Victoria’s fascination for commemorating her children through ‘body parts’ and art – and the voracious passion for collecting she shared with Prince Albert
There is this perception that Queen Victoria wasn’t very maternal – and there are all these lovely quotes attributed to her saying she thought babies looked like “little frogs” and that she wasn’t that keen on children, but when she had her own she was clearly fascinated by them and she sketched them quite a lot.
A number of Victoria’s sketches of her children are in the collection and she even commissioned these pieces of jewellery made from her children’s baby teeth, which I think are her way of trying to hold on to her memories of them as children.
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Of course they are quite unusual, but the Victorians used materials like hair to create jewellery. Albert presented Victoria with a miniature of each child as they reached the age of four that were inset into a single bracelet with a lock of hair behind each portrait. The final three children (Arthur, Leopold and Beatrice) had to form a separate bracelet as the first one got too large.
When we did the exhibition Art and Love in 2010 I thought the pieces of jewellery made from baby teeth were unique to Queen Victoria but I have subsequently learnt that other people also did it, but it was quite uncommon.
Their eldest child, Princess Victoria, lost a baby tooth when they were on holiday in Scotland so it was made into a brooch in the shape of a thistle – with the tooth representing the seedhead that you get at the top. You can see that the enamel is a bit worn, suggesting that Queen Victoria did wear it, but we don’t know the specific occasion.
“Queen Victoria thought a cast looked rather like a dead limb, whereas marble captured an ‘alive’ moment”
She made jewellery like this for a number of her children, Beatrice was the youngest and she kept three of her teeth and had them made into the little set of fuchsias. It’s not so well documented in Queen Victoria’s journals but we think she chose fuchsias because they’re associated with ‘taste’ in the Victorian language of flowers. We don’t know if that is perhaps because of taste’s connection with teeth or whether it was an aesthetic choice with fuchsias being the best shape that the tooth fitted with.
But as well as these highly personal pieces of jewellery, we have Victoria’s sculptures of her children’s limbs. Obviously they connect in some way with the tradition that we still have today of making babies’ footprints and handprints, but these aren’t even plaster casts, they’re marble sculptures.
Rather weirdly there is some evidence that Queen Victoria thought a cast looked rather like a dead limb, whereas marble captured an ‘alive’ moment. But because they’re white marble I think people sometimes think they are commemorative, funerary sculptures. All of Queen Victoria’s children survived, so again I think she commissioned them to try and capture something – some essence of their young lives.
After her death, the sculptures were all sent down to Osborne House. Before that they lived at Windsor Castle where they all had little glass domes and most of them came with a little velvet cushion underneath – so they were on display and designed to be seen.
When you see images of the interiors of the Victorian household you can see how many objects the Victorians liked to have out on display, and Victoria was the same.
Both Albert and Victoria were keen collectors who exchanged works of art as birthday and Christmas presents and they particularly loved sculpture, often giving each other amazing, full-length marble sculptures as birthday presents. Quite a number of those remain in Buckingham Palace today.
Some of the things they collected were very personal and quite sentimental; they would design jewellery and gifts for each other. They also collected a lot of contemporary paintings, portraits of the family, albums of drawings and prints and went to a lot of exhibitions, especially the Royal Academy.
This love of art was one of the things they shared in common and you can see from Victoria’s journal how they often sat in the evening going through albums of watercolours together, arranging them, talking about them; it was a mutual thing that they both really enjoyed.
“Albert felt he should be educating the public in art”
They were also very concerned with how the collection was displayed and she spent quite a lot of time organising it and rationalising it. Obviously there was a collection there already, which she then added to, but they added their own layers and personality on top of that.
The Royal Collection is very much a collection of collections. Each monarch has their own little pocket within it but Victoria and Albert were the first to make it more like – I don’t want to say a ‘museum’ – but it was certainly more organised under them.
Albert regarded himself as a serious connoisseur and I think he felt he should be educating the public in art. They were also very keen on affordable art and they patronised things like the making of electrotype copies and prints of well-known works and cheap versions of sculptures so that more people could buy their own copy. I think they were very conscious of their role and that if they did it, other people would follow.
In terms of his personal taste, Albert was particularly fascinated by Raphael and he patronised artists who followed in Raphael’s style, in particular Overbeck, Steinle and Dyce from the German school of Raphael-style painting, and together they also commissioned a lot of portraits from the court artist Winterhalter.
Victoria collected a lot of watercolours – people like Corbould who are not necessarily so well known today and let’s not forget they were also both very musical and interested in the theatre and ballet, so it’s a whole range of the arts.
When you’re working with the art they collected you can really sense their personalities because they were so connected with it. What’s wonderful with Queen Victoria in particular is that, because her journals survive, you find all these lovely comments from her about particular artists or exhibitions she’s seen, whereas with the earlier monarchs you quite often have to surmise from what they collected. You don’t actually know whether they really loved that piece of art or if they just bought it.
With Victoria and Albert you really get the sense that they genuinely were interested and you can really feel that coming across when you’re working with the collection.
In the immediate aftermath of Albert’s death, Victoria carried on collecting but it dropped off and you really get the sense that she no longer had the inspiration that he gave her. I think she was very much inspired by what he did – and vice versa – and you can see that the collection doesn’t have the same vitality anymore. She carried on collecting, but it doesn’t have that sparkle anymore, the personal inspiration wasn’t there. It’s very sad really.
Kathryn Jones was speaking to Richard Moss
Explore the Royal Collection online at www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection
The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace - The Royal Collection
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The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace is a permanent space dedicated to changing exhibitions of items from the Royal Collection, the wide-ranging collection of art and treasures held in trust by The Queen for the Nation. Changing exhibitions are accompanied by a display of Treasures from the Royal Collection. The…