24 May 2019 marks the 200th birthday of Queen Victoria, whose iconic 63-year reign came to be known as one of the most successful and innovative periods in British history: the Victorian era. This period in history was full of incredible inventions including typewriters, tarmac, sewing machines and afternoon tea. Another invention of the nineteenth century, which has become indispensable to our own 21st-century lives, is the medium of photography. The Queen herself, a true lady of her time, did not shy away from the camera and used the medium in many clever ways to create her own public image, and to get closer to the British people. Rare early photography from our archive showcases not only the impact and beauty of this new medium, but also traces the life of one of England’s most beloved monarchs.
The invention of photography and the Victorian age
The very first photographs originate in France, where an inventor named Joseph Niepce, after years of experimentation, captured a view from his own window in 1826-7. The first more commercially viable photography came from his business partner Louis Daguerre, whose “daguerreotype” camera only required a few minutes of exposure time, as opposed to the lengthy 8 or 9 hours required for Niepce’s technique. He had competition in England, where William Henry Fox Talbot conducted successful experiments with different chemicals. The advent of photography turned Europe on its head: people could now easily have their photo taken by photographers (making “portraiture” more accessible). In some cases the camera even exposed more than the eye could witness, as was the case with Eadweard Muybridge’s “motion photography”, which gave unprecedented insights into what animals and humans looked like mid-movement. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Kodak released a simple camera that could be used by consumers themselves. Anyone and everyone could now capture the world.
Portrait of the Queen: homely scenes and wedded bliss
Queen Victoria quickly caught onto this new medium, and because of the photograph’s infinite reproducibility, pictures of the royal family soon started to appear everywhere. Pictures of Queen Victoria’s reign show an idyllic and homely life: affectionate scenes with her husband, Prince Albert, and days out with her extensive family. This openness about royal life raised a few eyebrows among critics, who claimed she was projecting an image that was too “middle class”. The image the Queen was creating was a strikingly humane picture of royalty, which made her and her family more relatable to the people. The royal couple was very involved in civic duties and openly supported public causes such as charities and museums. This public image was only enhanced by the “realness” of the photograph and its accessibility.
In mourning: Albert remains in the picture
In 1861, Queen Victoria unexpectedly lost her husband Albert, the Prince Consort, to an outburst of typhoid. This unfortunate event changed Victoria’s life and it seems she never recovered. The Queen mourned her husband for the rest of her life, withdrawing from public duties, dressing in black and performing mourning rituals for 40 years. A lot of pictures from the later part of her reign show this transformed monarch. Interestingly, many pictures from after Albert’s death still feature the Prince, only in the shape of busts or portraits. Here, photography makes sure Albert stays in the picture and helps demonstrate that despite her husband’s death, the Queen remained a loyal, loving wife.
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