Posted by: macusack | September 26, 2018

Queen Victoria as Curator

In 1953, Queen Elizabeth II became the first British monarch to televise her coronation. Permitting viewers in the United Kingdom, and across the world,  access to this ceremony no doubt shaped how the public viewed the monarchy. At the time broadcasting the ceremony was met with resistance, notably from Prime Minister Winston Churchill. At the soon-to-be queen’s insistence, however, cameras were let in to document the ceremony. Backtracking to the 1830s, Queen Victoria similarly employed technology, in this case photography, to present a pubic image to the Commonwealth. While a half century separated the reigns of Queen Elizabeth from Queen Victoria, both monarchs chose to invest in modern technology as a means to present themselves as a queen for modern society. As among the most documented women of their age, both Victoria and Elizabeth understood the importance of having control over the “optics” of their public persona.

I was very interested reading about an exhibit at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles about Queen Victoria’s relationship with photography. In an article about the exhibit Mia Tramz writes, “The story of Queen Victoria is surprisingly and deeply intertwined with the birth of photography as a medium.” The advent of photography arrived when was Victoria was twenty years old. The idea that seeing a photograph of oneself could be entirely avoidable is not such a familiar idea today. Victoria one of the first people for whom photography was a reality and necessity of her occupation and life.

The Getty exhibit explores Victoria’s use of photography to manage the public opinion of the royals (something we spoke about in class). Victoria was very savvy about photography as a commodity, for instance knowing copyright laws for photographs so as to maneuver a certain image of herself to be the most widely seen (Tramz). Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who was an early supporter of photography, became patrons and collectors of photography as well as learning themselves how to process daguerreotypes in their own “specially built royal dark room” (Tramz). It was Victoria’s personal relationship to photography, however, that was much more interesting and surprising to me.

Victoria had a vested interest in documenting herself, and her family in photographs. How did public presentation the royal family differ from private representations? In a photograph with her family in 1852, Victoria was so upset over her appearance that she destroyed the image of her face in the negative (see image below). Tramz notes that after this, Victoria was “much more calculated in subsequent portraits, aware of the position of her body and the expression on her face.” Later portraits of Victoria present her as very austere, her body stiff and expression blank.

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(Queen Victoria, the Princess Royal, the Prince of Wales, Princess Alice, Princess Helena, Prince Alfred, January 17, 1852)

Victoria also used photography to document her marriage to Prince Albert. Victoria commissioned portraits to “pay tribute to their famously passionate love for one another” (Tramz). One of these image types were “portraits where she would hold or be looking at photographs of him: she seemed to understand early on the power and layered meaning of making a photograph of a photograph” (Tramz). This idea, about the power of a photograph of a photograph was interesting to me. The image of Victoria holding the photograph is striking and odd, but I’m not sure why, exactly. Is it the self-referential nature of it that unnerving? Does it ‘break the spell’ of the photograph?

 

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(Portrait of Queen Victoria holding portrait of Prince Albert, July 1854)

Following Albert’s death in 1861 Victoria continued this pattern of photograph within a photograph with portraits of herself in mourning attire, Albert’s image elsewhere in the frame (Tramz). Who is the audience for these mourning portraits? And what was Victoria’s relationship to them? Were they comforting and cathartic to her? Or did she intend for them to function as a document of her mourning for others in the future? The downward gaze in the photograph offers much more emotion than the previous image of Victoria holding the photograph. The change from Albert’s portrait in Victoria’s hands to the wall indicates their separation. The position of the portrait above and behind Victoria could signal the idea that Albert’s presence continues to watch over her.

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(The Queen with a photograph of Prince Albert, c. 1862)

Sources:

All photographs from the Times article

Tramz, Mia. “Magnificent Obsession: How Queen Victoria Influenced Photography.” Time. http://time.com/3806764/magnificent-obsession-how-queen-victoria-influenced-photography/.

“A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography February 4–June 8, 2014 at the Getty Center.” The J Paul Getty Museum. http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/victoria/victoria_photography.html

 

 

 


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