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Press release

Treasured watercolours commissioned by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as a record of their lives together to go on display around the UK

Release date: Wednesday, 17 April 2019

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To mark the bicentenary of the births of both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 2019, a touring exhibition from the Royal Collection will explore the royal couple’s collecting of watercolours as a record of their public and private lives together. Travelling to three museums and galleries across the country, Victoria & Albert: Our Lives in Watercolour will feature almost 70 works from Victoria and Albert’s collection, several of which will be on public display for the first time.

Throughout their marriage, Victoria and Albert were enthusiastic patrons, and practitioners, of watercolour painting. They formed a collection of thousands of works and spent happy evenings together organising their acquisitions into albums, as recorded by the Queen in her journal. Following Albert’s death in 1861, the albums took on even greater significance to the widowed Victoria, functioning as both a tangible memory of the time she spent alone with her beloved husband and a record of significant moments in their lives. 

The exhibition will include watercolours that were originally housed in these very personal albums. The watercolours captured important public and private events, from the christenings and birthday parties of the royal children to glittering court balls, views of the towns, cities and landscapes Victoria and Albert saw on their travels at home and abroad, and records of the places they lived, such as Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace.

With their large family, Victoria and Albert kept many artists busy recording the changing appearances, life events and daily activities of the princes and princesses. Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805–1873) depicted the royal children on many occasions. His double portrait of the two eldest princesses, Vicky and Alice, shows the girls wearing the 18th-century costumes in which they performed a dance on their mother’s birthday in May 1850 – a surprise organised by Prince Albert. Another family occasion recorded in watercolour, this time by Eugenio Agneni (1816–1879), was the children’s costume ball held at Buckingham Palace in 1859 to celebrate the sixth birthday of Leopold, the youngest prince. 

The exhibition will also include a small group of works painted by Queen Victoria, who was herself a talented amateur artist. Victoria began taking drawing lessons at the age of eight, and received tuition from a number of the esteemed artists of the day. She often took as her subjects those close to her, including her pets, family and acquaintances, as shown in a watercolour of her third son, Prince Arthur, aged three, painted at Osborne House in 1853.

Victoria and Albert undertook frequent travels around the British Isles and commissioned artists to depict the towns and cities they visited. A watercolour showing their visit to Guernsey in 1846 was painted by a local artist, Paul Jacob Naftel (1817–1891). The Lieutenant Governor of Guernsey is seen welcoming the Queen and Prince Consort to the island, while crowds line the streets and lean out of windows to catch a glimpse of them. Naftel later reportedly received a letter telling him that Victoria was very pleased with his watercolour.

The royal couple’s travels in Europe were also recorded in watercolours. In 1843 they visited the château d’Eu in Normandy at the invitation of the French King Louis-Philippe. The visit was Victoria’s first journey abroad, and marked the first meeting of the sovereigns of France and Britain since 1520. The following year the King presented Victoria with an album of watercolours, which captured private interactions between the two royal families alongside the pomp and spectacle of the visit. The Queen in turn commissioned watercolours of Louis-Philippe’s reciprocal visit to England in 1844. A scene by Joseph Nash (1809–1878) shows the monarchs departing from Windsor Castle for a carriage drive, while a watercolour by Louis Haghe (1806–1885) depicts the Queen investing Louis-Philippe with the Order of the Garter.

Victoria and Albert’s desire to document events of public magnitude is perhaps best illustrated by the series of watercolours they commissioned depicting the Great Exhibition of 1851. Albert was a leading figure in the event’s organisation, and he and Victoria were keen to capture the temporary spectacle in a permanent visual record. The resulting works serve to emphasise the variety of exhibits on display in the Crystal Palace, from Joseph Nash’s opulent depiction of a howdah (a seat) displayed on a stuffed elephant in the Indian display, to Louis Haghe’s almost modernist representation of the hall of moving machinery.

Alongside records of such proud achievements are watercolours depicting the more challenging periods of Victoria’s reign, including the conflict in the Crimea between 1854 and 1856. Victoria and Albert followed the war closely and felt an abiding concern for the welfare of the soldiers, which was reflected in their collecting of almost 40 watercolours relating to Crimean subjects. These included a depiction by George Housman Thomas (1824–1868) of a battalion of soldiers parading across the forecourt of Buckingham Palace before they embarked for the Black Sea in 1854. Two of the soldiers portrayed are noticeably young, adding a note of pathos to what is ostensibly a moment of optimism and demonstration of loyalty.

The colourful, dynamic watercolours collected by Victoria and Albert illuminate aspects of both Victoria's reign and the royal couple's passions. They capture the pomp and spectacle of the British court, foreign travel and diplomacy, the exploration and shaping of a modern nation, and the close-knit family at the heart of it all.


Victoria & Albert: Our Lives in Watercolour

Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle: 29 June – 15 September 2019

Poole Museum: 26 October 2019 – 5 January 2020

Wolverhampton Art Gallery: 7 March – 31 May 2020

The accompanying publication Victoria & Albert: Our Lives in Watercolour is published by Royal Collection Trust, available at £22.50 from Royal Collection Trust shops and www.rct.uk/shop, and at £24.95 from all good bookshops.

A selection of images is available from www.picselect.com

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