With so much turbulence in its recent romantic past, it is easy to forget that the Royal Family has, from time to time, produced some genuinely happy marriages. One of the best examples is that of Victoria and Albert – and Kensington Palace, where Victoria grew up, is currently hosting an exhibition about Victoria, entitled ‘Victoria Revealed’, which provides insights into the different chapters of her life, including the incredibly happy time she spent with Albert.
What I liked most about this exhibition is the focus it places on Victoria’s life before she was widowed. Despite the best efforts of recent TV adaptations, we tend to remember Victoria as a severe-faced, stout little old woman, clad in mourning black – but there so much more to her, as I was soon to discover.
It’s been well-documented that Victoria’s childhood was not a happy one, saddled as she was with an over-bearing, over-protective mother with obvious designs on the throne. Victoria was allowed few friends her own age, and even less freedom – so it’s lovely to see some of her toys on display in the nursery, including a wonderful, five-feet tall dolls’ house. She adored her dolls, apparently, and spent hours dressing them; each doll was given a semi-fictional name combining the names of court ladies with those of Victoria’s stage idols. Browsing around this room – in which Victoria was born – we also came across letters and sketches of hers; I hadn’t realised quite how talented an artist she was, or how much she loved to write (throughout her life, Victoria was a keen journaller and inveterate letter-writer). She was also, it transpires, very close to her half-siblings through her mother’s first marriage – it’s strange that, these days, we never hear much about them.
So, a young woman with many talents and interests – yet these all had to be set to one side when, suddenly and unexpectedly, aged just 18, Victoria became queen. How must she have felt, having such incredible responsibility placed upon her at such a tender age? The room in which the exhibition begins is the Red Saloon, where Victoria held her first Privy Council Meeting, on 20th June 1837 – her very first day as queen. Its surroundings alone are intimidating, filled with dark mahogany furnishings and red velvet drapes – and surrounded as she was by nearly 100 men, all much older than her and all with their own agendas, Victoria must surely have been quaking inside. There’s a superb painting by Sir David Wilkie hanging on the wall called ‘The First Council of Queen Victoria’, which brilliantly depicts this historic event; the ‘Protestant Oath’, signed by Victoria and in which she promises to uphold the Protestant faith and to support the Church of Scotland is also on display.
A separate room is dedicated to Victoria and Albert’s marriage. Married in February 1840, they were to have 21 blissfully happy years together before Albert died, suddenly, of typhoid fever – aged just 42. Gifts, in the form of fans, miniature portraits and jewellery, as well as music that they wrote for each other, are all here – as is the Erard piano which they both played. You even get to see Albert’s dressing case, which had previously belonged to George IV and contains items including boot hooks, scent bottles, tweezers and – of course – a tongue scraper.
Refreshing as it is to see a lighter side to Victoria and Albert, it’s apparent, too, that they took their royal responsibilities very seriously. Also present are the red leather despatch boxes in which official papers arrived on a daily basis; so determined was Victoria to be an effective monarch that she refused to honeymoon for longer than three days, and in the early part of her reign she met with her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, every single day.
At the beginning of her marriage, we learned, Victoria was reluctant to share her responsibilities with Albert, but as time went on she leaned on him more & more, coming to value his judgement greatly. He, of course, would go on to led a number of high-profile social and cultural projects, such as the Great Exhibition of 1851, which featured art, design and technology from around the world – photos of which are on display. Albert and Victoria attended the opening day with their children and Victoria later described it as one of the happiest days of her life, so proud was she of what Albert had achieved.
How poignant, then, to enter the final room of the exhibition and listen to Victoria read aloud from her journal entry about the night that Albert died. “My life as a happy one is ended”, she laments – and your heart breaks for her. Designed to represent the isolation Victoria felt after her bereavement, her journals and letters are scattered around the room, with family photos taken in the later years of her reign adorning the walls.
A genuinely moving and informative experience, this exhibition – made all the more emotive by being hosted in the actual rooms in which Victoria worked – and played. Highly recommended.