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Scenes of Fashionable Life

Sir Francis Grant (1803-78)

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) riding out 1839-40

Oil on canvas | 99.1 x 137.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 400749

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The young, recently crowned Queen is here seen riding on her horse Comus, with her dogs, Dash and Islay in front, accompanied by her court (from right to left and roughly in order of decreasing prominence): Viscount Melbourne (1779-1848), the Prime Minister), the Marquess of Conyngham (1797-1879, the Lord Chamberlain), Sir George Quintin (Crown Equerry), the Earl of Uxbridge (1797-1869, Lord in Waiting), and the Hon. George Byng, later Earl of Strafford (1806-86, Comptroller of the Household). The procession passes through an imaginary gate in Windsor Great Park (which cannot be identified as Sandpit Gate), with a view of the castle in the far distance against a dawn sky. The Queen clearly enjoyed the creation of this very personal painting, just as she enjoyed riding out with these companions: on 31 July 1839 her journal describes Lord Melbourne sitting on a wooden horse within the artist’s studio:

‘looking so funny, his white hat on, an umbrella, in lieu of a stick in one hand, & holding the reins, which were fastened to the steps, in the other . . . it is such a happiness for me to have that dear kind friend’s face, which I do like & admire so, so like . . . and Uxbridge, George Byng, & old Quintin ludicrously like.’

The tone of this passage suggests that this painting was intended almost to be light-hearted and affectionate, even perhaps a private joke amongst the sitters. To read it this way one must imagine how the same image would be understood if the sitters were not recognised, in fact if this were a genre painting: it might then be entitled ‘The Heiress’ and would be interpreted as depicting a pretty and eligible young lady, in mourning for her recently deceased father, chaperoned by a guardian, and courted by four top-hatted rivals, one of whom has briefly won the favour of a raised veil and sweet smile. The joke depends upon this being a substantially correct reading, except that this heiress has inherited a crown from her recently-deceased uncle and her courtiers are seeking royal attention rather than her hand in marriage. The fact that, after her marriage, prints were produced of the image, with Prince Albert as the principle ‘suitor’, draws attention to the deliberate play on the two meanings of this word.

Sir Francis Grant was a gentleman artist; according to Queen Victoria, he had the talent of an amateur and boasted ‘of never having been to Italy or studied the Old Masters.’ It looks here as if he has studied an appropriate Old Master - Van Dyck’s equestrian portrait of Charles I, perhaps through the reduced version in the Royal Collection, which has a horse of identical dimensions. This clever resonance is perhaps compounded with an allusion to Eworth’s allegory of Queen Elizabeth I sailing regally through a triumphal arch with Windsor Castle in the background (Royal Collection). Grant has also learned from Van Dyck and the Flemish school generally the idea of a limited and harmonious colour spectrum, ranging from yellowy-buff to grey-blue, the soft tonal transition creating pools of light and shadow. The application of paint is thick and rough creating an attractive texture rather like the shaggy coat of a dog, reminiscent of Rubens and his Scottish admirer, David Wilkie. In a work where no obvious symbol of rank distinguishes the Queen from her friends (for so they seem), it is appropriate that face lies in the exact centre of the painting and that her blue cravat adds a single note of pure colour in an otherwise muted palette.

Text adapted from The Conversation Piece: Scenes of fashionable life, London, 2009
  • 99.1 x 137.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external)

    135.5 x 168.7 x 11.0 cm (frame, external)