Victoria, Albert & their Patronage of Photography

Such was Victoria’s compulsion for collecting family photographs that they eventually took up every inch of space in her cluttered private rooms at Windsor, Osborne and Balmoral.


A Royal interest

The 63-year reign of Queen Victoria brought with it much invention and innovation, but nothing has probably been more significant in defining the mental picture we all of have of her and Victorian everyday life than the photograph.

In England, William Henry Fox Talbot had developed his own negative-positive photographic process in the late 1830s, independently of the experiments in France at the same time made by Louis Daguerre. By 1839 the first daguerreotypes were being imported into Britain from France, but it was not until March 1841 that the photographic portrait – then still a rarity – was made available to the public, when Richard Beard bought the patent rights and set up a daguerreotype studio in London. Soon after, one of Daguerre’s pupils, Antoine Claudet, established his own studio in London, having already presented the Queen and Prince Albert with a selection of his images of European cities a couple of years earlier.

Victoria and Albert had become aware of Fox Talbot’s work as early as 1840, thanks to the efforts of Talbot’s half-sister Caroline, who had been appointed a lady of the bedchamber to the Queen that year. At Windsor Castle, early in August, Caroline had showed an album of her brother’s work to the royal couple. She was delighted with their response, telling her mother that ‘Prince Albert has a great knowledge of the Arts & thinks your discovery will be of great consequence to them.’

“That first sight of the Talbot album in 1840 no doubt tapped into an early interest taken in photography by Prince Albert that had not needed any encouragement. In fact, as the Queen recorded in her journal, she had shown Albert some daguerreotypes recently sent to her from France on the very day – 15 October 1839 – when she had proposed marriage to Albert.”

The First Photgraphs of Victoria & Albert

In the spring of 1840 Prince Albert had already examined and purchased some daguerreotypes from the firm of Claudet & Houghton in London. Two years later he was the first member of the royal family to sit for his daguerreotype, at the ‘Photographic Institution’ of William Constable – one of eight British photographers operating under licence to make daguerreotypes – at his studio on Marine Parade Brighton. That first tentative image showed a very handsome if not enigmatic young husband, slightly uncertain of himself, as he had been in the early days of his marriage to Victoria. Prince Albert’s patronage did wonders for Constable’s business; in London in late March 1842 the prince visited Richard Beard’s by now acclaimed studio in Parliament Street where further daguerreotype portraits were taken of him. Several of these first images were successful but only one survives today in the Royal Archives, albeit in a perilous condition. It is thought that the first photographer to capture the queen (with Victoria, the princess royal), was Henry Collen, using the Calotype technique some time in 1844.

Patronage of William Edward Kilburn

In April 1847, the English daguerreotypist William Edward Kilburn, who had set up a studio in London’s Regent Street, was commanded by the Queen to make the first daguerreotype portraits of herself, Prince Albert and their children, which were taken in the conservatory of Buckingham Palace. Such a sought-after commission and Kilburn’s almost immediate appointment as ‘Photographist to Her Majesty and His Royal Highness Prince Albert’, led to his rise as a leading daguerreotypist of his day. Of particular significance in the history of photography is the fact that Kilburn took what is thought to be one of the earliest crowd scenes – of the huge Chartist rally held at Kennington Common in London in April 1848. The photograph, long presumed to have been lost, was rediscovered in the in the Royal Collection in the 1980s, a testament to the considerable acumen of the royal couple as collectors.
Many of the first domestic photographs of the royal family were in fact not taken by professionals, but by Prince Albert’s librarian, Dr Ernst Becker, assisted by one of his equerries, Captain Dudley. The Queen and Prince Albert both learned the early Calotype and Talbotype techniques of printing – known as the ‘black art’ because of the staining this produced on the hands – and certainly produced some of their own photographs, although none of these seem to have survived. They would, in the main, confine themselves to collecting rather than taking photographs, leaving the passion for photography as a hobby to be embraced by their children –– in particular the Prince of Wales, Prince Alfred, Prince Leopold and Princess Beatrice.

Photography featured at the Great Exhibition of 1851

The Great Exhibition of 1851 would mark a turning point in the history of photography. Antoine Claudet, who had by now moved to up-market premises in Regent Street, was much praised there for his work and won the highest award for portraiture. His new, stereoscopic views, as well as those by Jules Duboscq, also attracted much interest from the Queen and Prince Albert, who were probably the first to buy one of the special, twin-lensed devices, designed by the firm of Duboscq-Soleil, on which to view them. Thanks to Victoria and Albert’s patronage and the success of photographic exhibits at the Great Exhibition, sales of stereoscopic photographs became extremely popular. In 1853 Claudet was invited to take various portraits of the royal family, and was appointed a Royal-Photographer-in-Ordinary – the photographic equivalent of the Queen’s court painter Winterhalter. That same year the Queen and Prince Albert were also invited to become patrons of the Photographic Society of London.

Prince Albert & Crimean War Photographer Roger Fenton

Through their patronage of the Royal Photographic Society, as it later became known and to which they donated money for the furtherance of photographic techniques, Victoria and Albert met the pioneer photographer Roger Fenton, who was invited by them to set up a dark room for the prince at Windsor in 1854. Prince Albert greatly admired Fenton’s work, and encouraged him to travel to Crimea during the war of 1854–6 to take what would be the first photographic experiments in photojournalism. With an eye to posterity, Albert astutely commissioned Fenton to take 300 or more portraits of British soldiers and officers – many of them mutilated by their wounds, as a documentary record. He also commissioned several carefully composed and sanitised views of the battlefields– which were exhibited at the Royal Photographic Society’s first exhibition in London in 1855.
The Crimean War collection would be but one example of the prince’s keen interest in the photograph’s development, as an important historical document and teaching aid, and the scrupulous and systematic method which he adopted in mounting and cataloguing such photographs ensured that they would be preserved for posterity. From the 1850s he also set in motion an ambitious project to make photographic reproductions of the priceless drawings by his favourite artist, Raphael, held in the Royal Collection and other repositories.

Collectors of Photography as Art

As photographic techniques became more sophisticated, the Queen and Prince Albert extended their interests in photography beyond its use as a record of domestic life and of historic events, to become among the first serious and systematic collectors of photography-as-art. And indeed Victoria and Albert proved to be as bold in their photographic collecting as they were in their surprisingly unconventional penchant for the nude in art and sculpture In 1857 the royal couple purchased an allegorical photograph – a collage of thirty separate negatives of semi-nude figures – executed by the London-based Swede Oscar G. Rejlander, entitled Two Ways of Life.
The photograph set out to mimic narrative painting on the same grand scale, and, although it provoked considerable controversy in the art world, it was purchased by the Queen for 10 guineas as a gift for Prince Albert and was hung in his study at Windsor Castle.

The Rise of the Carte de Visite

By the end of the 1850s, the carte de visite designed by the French photographer André Disderi had become a popular Victorian novelty. The Queen decided to have cartes de visite made of her own family, who sat for the American photographer John Mayall. These portraits were subsequently published in 1860 as a Royal Album — the first authorized royal collection of its kind, which sold extremely well, particularly after the Prince Consort’s death in December 1861, when the entire stock of 70,000 copies of his own carte de visite by Marion & Co. were sold out in a single week – a landmark in the history of photography, and one which led to black market copies being put on sale.
By the time of Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria had become an avid collector of photographs of her ever-increasing European royal family and of the members of her royal household. When it came to birthdays and other family anniversaries the gift of a framed photograph of some kind was the queen’s favourite standby. She also regularly solicited autographed cartes de visite from the actors, musicians and opera singers whom she admired. After she was widowed, she developed a penchant for photographs (or drawings) of friends, relatives, and even favourite servants on their deathbeds, and specifically requested such images whenever there was a death in her entourage. She also took advantage of the invention of the microphotograph (1859) to have pendants, rings and bracelets containing the dead Albert’s photograph made up for herself, the royal family and her ladies in waiting.
A hand-coloured photograph of Albert on his deathbed, taken by William Bambridge, was hung above the prince’s now vacant side of the royal bed; and the queen regularly had herself and her children photographed in poses of quiet and doleful adoration, seated around Albert’s marble bust.

By the 1890s, the invention of roll film by George Eastman in the USA and the introduction of the lightweight, portable Kodak camera finally brought photography to the masses, as well as to many younger members of the royal family. Alexandra, Princess of Wales took up photography in 1890. She attended lessons at the London Stereoscopic School of Photography, exhibiting some of her work in an exhibition at the New Gallery in Regent Street in 1897, and later published many of them in in 1908 in her Queen Alexandra’s Christmas Book. The Queen’s youngest daughter Princess Beatrice also became an enthusiast after the premature death of her husband Prince Henry of Battenburg in 1896.

By now the queen had become so completely enamoured of the photographic art that one of her courtiers observed that ‘it is quite a weakness of hers to be photographed in every possible condition of her daily life’. The most familiar images were those of the queen: ‘sitting in her donkey chair, dandling the last new baby, chatting in her private sitting-room among her daughters, working at her writing-table, or breakfasting in the open air, with the Battenberg family and her immediate attendants around her’. Such was Victoria’s compulsion for collecting family photographs that they eventually took up every inch of space in her cluttered private rooms at Windsor, Osborne and Balmoral.

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