A revealing new exhibition, ‘Victoria & Albert: Art & Love’ focuses on the connection between art and romance, a medium through which Queen Victoria and Prince Albert expressed their intense love for each other. It is the first exhibition ever to focus on Victoria and Albert’s shared enthusiasm for art. Bringing together more than 400 items from the Royal Collection, it celebrates the royal couple’s mutual delight in collecting and displaying works of art, from the time of their engagement in 1839 to the Prince’s untimely death in 1861. The exhibition also challenges the popular image of Victoria – the melancholy widow of 40 years – and reveals her as a passionate and open-minded young woman. For Victoria and Albert, art was an important part of everyday life and a way they expressed their love for each other. Around a third of the objects in the exhibition were exchanged as gifts between the couple to mark special occasions. They range from the simple and sentimental, such as a set of jewellery in the form of orange blossom, to superb examples of early Italian painting, including Bernardo Daddi’s ‘The Marriage of the Virgin’ and Perugino’s ‘Saint Jerome in Penitence’, both given by the Queen to the Prince for his birthday in 1846. Prince Albert’s taste was influenced by his German ancestry and his experience as a student in Florence and Rome. He led a revival of interest in early German and Italian painting at a time when ‘the Primitives’ were largely ignored. Among his acquisitions were Duccio’s ‘Triptych’, the first acknowledged work by the artist to enter an English collection, and ‘Apollo and Diana’ by Lucas Cranach. Albert was also interested in how paintings were displayed and several of the pictures in the exhibition are shown in the frames he commissioned for them. The Queen’s tastes were more mainstream than those of her husband. She appreciated the narrative qualities of pictures such as ‘Ramsgate Sands: ‘Life at the Seaside’ by William Powell Frith. Her fondness for portraiture is shown through paintings and drawings of her family, and her own sketches of her children.
The royal couple were regular visitors to the annual Royal Academy exhibition and frequently made purchases. In 1855 Victoria bought Cimabue’s ‘Madonna Carried in Procession’ by Frederic Leighton, the first work by the artist to be shown at the Academy. Other paintings, such as John Martin’s ‘The Eve of the Deluge’, were acquired during visits to artists’ studios, while George Cruikshank’s ‘The Disturber Detected’ was bought in an unfinished state when it was sent on approval to Buckingham Palace. Prince Albert’s profound admiration for the work of Raphael and the ‘Raphaelesque’ in contemporary art can be seen in ‘The Madonna and Child’ by William Dyce and the drawing ‘Religion Glorified by the Fine Arts’ by Johann Friedrich Overbeck. The artist Edwin Landseer’s skillful depiction of animals greatly appealed to Victoria and Albert, who surrounded themselves with a large assortment of pets. In Landseer’s charming portrait of ‘Eos’, Prince Albert’s favourite greyhound, the dog stands poised and alert, guarding her master’s possessions. The German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter received by far the greatest number of royal commissions. Over two decades of patronage he produced numerous formal portraits, such as ‘The Royal Family in 1846’ (described as ‘sensual and fleshy’ by one contemporary critic) and ‘The First of May 1851’. He was also entrusted with more private work. In 1843 Victoria commissioned ‘the secret picture’ from Winterhalter as a surprise for her husband’s twenty-fourth birthday. The artist presents the Queen in an intimate pose, leaning against a red cushion with her hair half unravelled from its fashionable knot. Victoria and Albert were important patrons and collectors of the new art of photography and lent their support to the Photographic Society, which was established in 1853. They commissioned hundreds of photographs of their family, friends and household, and used the medium to record places they had visited together – a counterpart to their Souvenir Albums of watercolours and drawings. The exhibition includes work by the photographers Roger Fenton, William Edward Kilburn, Francis Bedford, William Bambridge, Gustave le Gray and the Comte de Montizon. ueen Victoria was the first monarch to live at Buckingham Palace. Under the direction of the Prince’s artistic adviser, Ludwig Gruner, the Palace’s State Rooms were expanded and decorated in colourful neo-Renaissance style. In the new Ballroom, Victoria and Albert enjoyed private performances of favourite operas and hosted costumed balls. Guests were encouraged to commission elaborate fancy dress in support of the declining Spitalfields silk industry. The exhibition includes the most sumptuous of Queen Victoria’s surviving dresses, designed by Eugène Lami for the 1851 ‘Stuart Ball’.
Music played an important part in Victoria and Albert’s life. The day after her proposal to Albert, the Queen wrote in her Journal, “… he sang to me some of his own compositions, which are beautiful, & he has a very fine voice. I also sang to him.” The couple were accomplished musicians and played four-handed arrangements of orchestral and operatic work. A beautifully decorated Erard piano, commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1856, is shown in the exhibition. They particularly admired the work of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, who visited the Palace on several occasions. Shortly before his death in 1847, the composer presented Prince Albert with the manuscript of ‘Song Without Words as a Piano Duet’. Albert also composed music from an early age. The exhibition includes his song with piano accompaniment, ‘Dem Fernen’ (To the Distant One), annotated by Victoria: ‘Composed by dear Albert at Windsor Castle & sent to me by him Jan. 5. 1840.’
In 1845 Queen Victoria purchased Osborne House on the Isle of Wight as a private family retreat from London. Osborne’s views of the Solent reminded Prince Albert of the Bay of Naples and inspired his plans to replace the existing house with an Italianate villa. The new building, the result of the close collaboration between Albert and the architect Thomas Cubitt, was designed to display art, particularly Victoria and Albert’s unrivalled collection of contemporary sculpture. The royal couple commissioned a large number of pieces from young sculptors working in the classical style, among them William Gibson, Emil Wolff, Richard James Wyatt and William Theed. Queen Victoria’s love of Scotland stemmed from the novels of Walter Scott that she had read as a child, and the Highland landscape reminded Albert of his native Franconia. The couple’s deep interest in Scottish customs and traditions found full expression at Balmoral Castle, which Albert helped design and was completed in 1856. The all-encompassing Highland style of the interiors can be seen in watercolours by James Roberts. Among a number of objects from Balmoral is a set of candelabra in the form of Highlanders holding trophies, a collaboration between Landseer and two leading manufacturers, Minton of Stoke-on-Trent and Winfield of Birmingham. Even at Osborne there were reminders of life in Scotland, including Carl Haag’s ‘Morning in the Highlands’ and ‘Evening at Balmoral’, and an extraordinary suite of stag-horn furniture. Prince Albert’s abiding interest was the marriage of good design with new manufacturing techniques. In 1850 a royal commission was established, with Albert as its chairman, to organise an international exhibition celebrating technological and artistic accomplishments. Housed in Sir Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park, ‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in 1851’ was perhaps Albert’s greatest achievement. The royal couple lent many pieces to the Great Exhibition, and the Queen spent some £4,000 on works of art. Among her purchases were porcelain by Sèvres and Minton, sculpture and furniture, including an extraordinary carved writing table of Swiss manufacture. The Directors of the East India Company presented Victoria with a dazzling selection of jewels from the Indian section of the exhibition. (Extract from Royalty Magazine Vol. 21/10)