Last Friday night I attended a Preview Evening of the new “Victoria & Albert Art & Love” exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. The Queen’s Gallery is tucked around the corner from the impressive frontage of Buckingham Palace, on Buckingham Palace Road just before the Royal Mews. It has been home to many wonderful exhibitions over the years, but none that I have enjoyed so much as this one.
The Curator of the exhibition, Jonathan Marsden, who was also recently appointed Director Designate of the Royal Collection by the Queen, gave a talk at the beginning of the evening. He encouraged us to remember that at the time the works in the exhibition were collected, Victoria was not the melancholy queen dressed in mourning so many of us remember from photographs in the history books. In fact, she was a beautiful young woman, transparently in love with her husband. Mr Marsden discussed how Victoria and Albert were the one of the first couples to develop a collection together, and how they were perfect foils to one another - with for example, Albert preferring more modest pictures, and Victoria being quite comfortable art that stimulated the senses. I had not expected this, but the collection is not, despite being collected by the queen who gave the era her name, Victorian. Instead it is a collection of works by two people largely influenced by the Romantic period.
After the talk we were allowed to walk freely through the galleries, although Mr Marsden did accompany the group and speak about various pieces when asked. It was a fascinating evening.
Many of the works collected were gifts given each to the other by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. There are many examples of the work that Xaver Winterhalter painted for the royal couple, such as the Royal Family portrait painted in 1846. (Please click on the links to see the paintings on the exhibition site. All the works in the exhibit are of course copyright to HM Queen Elizabeth II so I cannot reproduce them here.) There is also a painting by Winterhalter that Queen Victoria had painted specifically for Prince Albert. You can see it here on this link - it is the one with her hair undone. Mr Marsden explained to us that it was very much for Prince Albert’s eyes only.
The collection comprises works of art, busts, statues, jewellery, furniture and photographs. One of Queen Victoria’s dresses is exhibited as are many watercolours painted by her and other members of the Royal Family, and also music written by Prince Albert. The collection is utterly stunning, and beautifully laid out. As I walked round I became aware of the passion that existed between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Deeply in love, they spent almost all their time together, even cataloguing their collection together. Their marriage was very atypical of the sort of relationship that existed between most husbands and wives at that time.
When I came towards the last room, which displays many works from the Great Exhibitions so popular in the middle of the nineteenth century, I was shocked to see the doctor’s report of Prince Albert’s final hours and death framed on the wall just before the entrance. He died in 1861 when both he and the Queen were only 42. Particularly as I am not far from that age myself, I struggled not to cry when I read this. I somehow imagined Prince Albert had been older when he died, and although it is common knowledge that he and the Queen were deeply in love, the exhibition had drawn me in to such an extent that I felt a huge sorrow for the young Queen, left to reign and raise her family without the man she loved. I have to say the splendour of the last room lifted me from my melancholy though as it is quite simply stunning, and gave a tiny taste of what it might have been like to have attended one of the Great Exhibitions all those years ago.
Mr Marsden pointed out in his talk that it took over thirty people about three years to assemble the exhibition. Their hard work is patently apparent and they should be very proud of what they have done. Of course the works of art stand up for themselves, but the way they are arranged makes the exhibit not only a pleasure to view, but allows you to see the Royal couple as very real people with a very real life together.
‘Victoria & Albert Art & Love’ opens to the public tomorrow - 19th March - and runs until 31st October. If you live near or plan to visit London, I highly recommend going along to The Queen’s Gallery to have a look. Do check out The Royal Collection website as well. If you book your tickets through them directly you can get the back of your ticket stamped when you visit, and return as often as you like for a whole year free of charge. If you cannot visit in person the exhibition microsite is really very good, and well worth a look. You can see it by clicking here. You can also check out a BBC news report on the collection by clicking here.