Queen Victoria and Photography: Beginnings

Portrait of Queen Victoria Holding Portrait of Prince Albert
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A birthday surprise? Hear a curator tell the story-within-a-story of the Queen's present for Albert.
Queen Victoria was about to turn twenty when the invention of the new medium of photography was announced—first in Paris by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, then in London by William Henry Fox Talbot—at the beginning of 1839. While the two processes were in fact different, they fundamentally changed how we see the world by recording it with a veracity that was unprecedented.

By 1842 the queen and her husband Prince Albert were collecting photographs. The Great Exhibition opened in 1851 at the Crystal Palace, London. For many people in attendance, this was the first time they had seen a photograph. The early 1850s witnessed the rise of the photographic exhibition in Britain and the beginning of photographic societies around the country. Through Victoria and Albert's patronage and support, they contributed to the dialogue on photography and were integral to its rise in popularity.

The Private and Public Royal Family

Two images of Queen Victoria and her children
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Why did Queen Victoria scratch out her own face in a family photograph (above left), then have another portrait (above right) made?
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert sat before the camera for many photographers. The royal portrait was realized in different mediums ranging from daguerreotype to calotype to albumen silver print, but they all had one thing in common: the photographs were private and not for public distribution. In these intimate views of Victoria as loving wife and caring mother, her vitality and youthful appearance is in contrast to the later, imperial portraits.

In 1860 Queen Victoria agreed to have her portrait made and issued, along with those of other members of the royal family, as a series of cartes de visite (visiting cards). The format was already fashionable, and for the first time people were able to own a photographic portrait of the queen. In 1861, Prince Albert died. Over the next decade the queen, having retreated from public life, was photographed as the monarch in mourning: dressed in black and looking bereft. The public shared in this expression of grief by buying photographs of the late prince consort along with those of the widowed Victoria.

The Rise of Photography and an Imperial Image

Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Portrait
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How did the Queen make savvy use of this particular image to support her Empire?
Commercial portrait studios opened up all across Britain during the 1850s, and people were able to have their own photographic image made. During the decade, the medium was also undergoing fundamental changes, which meant photography was more accessible to aspiring practitioners.

In 1876 Victoria was awarded the title empress of India. The new title, along with her growing empire that reached to all parts of the globe, gave her an increased sense of power and responsibility. Astutely recognizing that her image was important in defining the British Empire, she assumed an imperial posture in photographic portraits. Compared to the earlier, private photographs, the late Victoria is shown as the commanding queen, complete with crown. Her image from this period has become a lasting one, representative of an entire age.

Banner image: The Prince and the Queen (detail), 1854, Roger Fenton, salted paper print, hand colored. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013