Victoria's Self-Fashioning: Curating Royal Image for Dynasty, Nation and Empire

By Joanna Marschner, Senior Curator at Historic Royal Palaces 

Queen Victoria’s name is used to identify an era. Over her long reign, which saw the British Empire cover a quarter of the globe, the rise of visual and material technologies, and an explosion in print culture and press, allowed her image to touch its furthest reaches. Her image, painted and sculpted, still dominates public spaces scattered throughout every continent. The narrative of Victoria’s life has been rehearsed continuously since her death, testament to an enduring fascination with her as subject. However, these narratives have often set her up as a curiously inert figure, detached from public life and from the political shaping of the monarchy.

A coloured print of Queen Victoria from 1837
After Sir George Hayter. Queen Victoria, 1837. Coloured print. London Illustrated News. Diamond Jubliee Issue. 1897. Copyright Historic Royal Palaces

Over the last year, I have been working as Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded project Victoria’s Self-Fashioning: Curating Royal Image for Dynasty, Nation and Empire together with Co-Investigator, Professor Michael Hatt of the University of Warwick. The project ambition has been to examine and challenge long-held orthodoxies by considering Victoria as a pro-active political agent in the construction of an image for nineteenth century monarchy, therefore making her directly implicated in what would become the Queen Victoria phenomenon. Key to our endeavour have been our project partners: the Royal Collection Trust, the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

We brought together scholars from universities, research institutes, museums and collections, heritage organisations, cultural policy formers, and those from the artist community, internationally, at a series of three workshops to explore the evidence of how Victoria was complicit in the making of her own myth. This was both as a naive 18 year old who inherited the throne, and as the little old lady, dressed in black, around whom the nation and empire pivoted as the 20th century dawned. But we also noted the limits of that myth-making, as the image she created was reviled, challenged, or re-imagined in new political contexts, and particularly across the British Empire, in her own time, and now.

At the first workshop, held at Windsor Castle in September 2018, called ‘The Many Victorias’, we explored Victoria’s curation of her own image, and the ways in which she managed her conflicted role, as a Queen Regnant, but also as a wife and mother. Through a consideration of the collection of her surviving dress, the royal photographic collection, her writing and amateur art works, together with her sculpture and painting commissions, we assessed how this self-fashioning took physical form, and was developed by her, to serve the needs of the monarchy and the empire over the 74 years of her reign.

The Queen and Prince Albert at Home
'The Queen and Prince Albert at Home'. Coloured lithograph. 1845. Copyright Historic Royal Palaces
Cover of Illustrated London News. 26th June, 1897
Illustrated London News. 26th June, 1897. Copyright Historic Royal Palaces

The second workshop was held at Kensington Palace last November, and sought to map the journey of this self-curated image from Victoria’s private sphere into the public realm, and particularly across the British Empire. It explored her involvement in the commissioning and purchase of painted, sculpted and photographic images to celebrate her family and its dynastic ambition, and investigated their dissemination through print culture, and a burgeoning press industry, as well as their movement and use through many contexts, locally and globally. This included the ways in which the image was used to counter critical responses to Queen and Empress, such as its role in quenching the flames of colonial resentment at British rule in ceremonial events, or in challenging republican sentiment from groups like the Chartists. In addition, the workshop also explored how Victoria, as curator, presented the material of her life, for a public audience and how these were received.

The third workshop held at the Paul Mellon Centre in March 2019, turned to the thorny question of how we deal with this material today. Victoria is probably the secular figure most visible and most marked around the globe, in objects, monuments, the names of provinces, towns and streets, geographical features, and institutions.

Photograph of Queen Victoria, 1897
Photograph. Queen Victoria. 1897. Dunn and Stuart. Copyright Historic Royal Palaces

Victoria’s legacy of empire is still unexplored in many respects, and is often hidden by the anecdotal and sentimental repertoire of popular representation, not least in film and TV; the repertoire that many people bring to Victoria as a historical figure. We asked how we might interpret and understand Victoria and her material legacy in a de-colonial age, moving from the world where the belief in a benevolent and selfless queen was unimpeachable, to a world in which the queen’s image cannot be separated from colonial resistance and complicity, violence and cultural exchange. Helped particularly by both the faculty and members of the student body working with digital innovation projects at Oxford University, and creative young app and web designers, we debated how digital technologies might be mobilised to de-centre and diversify the curation of her histories.

In the week which sees the marking of Victoria’s 200th birthday, on the 24 May 2019, we hold a two day conference at Kensington Palace, to present our many research discoveries about the queen to the widest community. This work has also underpinned the thinking behind two new displays in the palace, which open concurrently to mark her anniversary: Victoria: A Royal Childhood, and Victoria: Woman and Crown.

We are confident these will not only delight, but also prove thought-provoking for the many palace visitors. 

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