Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 12, 2015
Anne M. Lyden A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography Exh. cat. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2014. 228 pp.; 120 color ills.; 43 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9781606061558)
Exhibition schedule: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, February 4–June 8, 2014
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Ghémar Frères. Portrait of Queen Victoria seated, gazing at a photograph of Prince Albert (ca. 1862). Albumen silver print. Image: 3 5/16 x 2 1/8 in. (8.4 x 5.4 cm); mount: 4 1/8 x 2 5/16 in. (10.5 x 5.9 cm). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The exhibition A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography, along with curator Anne M. Lyden’s fine catalogue of the same name, bring together the remarkable photography collections of the Royal Collection, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the National Media Museum in Bradford, England, as well as one notable photograph from a private collection. The exhibition and in particular the catalogue’s essays are insightful and thought-provoking, raising a number of fascinating issues about art, class, democracy, power, tradition, gender, and ways of knowing and seeing in the photographic age. This opportunity to examine the birth of that period both renders it strange and brings out remarkable continuities with our own image-saturated world. Photography emerges as emblematic of the nineteenth century’s passionate empiricism, held in esteem because it seemed to show the truth—even to be a record of physical presence (13). At the same time, the momentary, fragmentary, and changeable truth such photographs revealed helped to break up the very confidence in empiricism itself, heralding the great aesthetic, philosophical, and scientific shift to modernism (22).

Like other exhibitions about Victoria, this one shows the difficulty of separating the queen and her interests from the person and ambitions of Prince Albert (compare, for example, Victoria Revealed, at Kensington Palace, March 26, 2012–December 31, 2014; and Victoria and Albert: Art and Love, at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, March 19–December 5, 2010). The “passion” of the title is theirs for photography, but also for each other, a passion played out between the royal couple visually: they gave each other images of each other and of their family; they created extensive albums of their travels; they began a serious photography collection in the very early years of the medium; and they became early patrons of the Photographic Society and of photographic exhibitions (27, 32, 113, 115). Yet Victoria did not continue all of Albert’s work after he died in 1861; indeed, her collecting narrowed to commemorative and family albums, or to collecting works connected in some way with him. In her extended seclusion and mourning period of the 1860s, she did not visit and encourage photographic societies and exhibitions, and only continued the educational Raphael Collection as a memorial to his wishes (119).

However, this exhibition suggests that Victoria remained aware of the power and import of this new medium, and the role it played in her own rule. What cannot be known is just how conscious she was of the multiple forces playing out around her, the fears of revolution, the need to temper her image, or the extraordinary canniness of her choices. Yet, as Lyden writes,

Victoria had always been astute in recognizing how her image influenced her political standing. Early in her rule she was keenly aware of her depiction as queen when she favored Hayter’s coronation portrait over other paintings and chose to have copies sent to embassies around the world. . . . But at midcentury, when much of Europe was in revolutionary turmoil, it had been wiser for Victoria to cast herself in the role of the middle-class wife, domestic and loyal, so that she would escape the fate of other European royalty. . . . Later in the century, Victoria deliberately presented herself in the domain of commercial photography and its studio practices. . . . The removal of copyright was another example of the queen’s complicity in the commercial promotion of her image. (142)

To show the deep imbrication of photography with Victoria’s reign and with her personal relationships, then, the exhibition and its catalogue track the history of photography. The exhibition has five galleries: the beginnings of photography and Victoria’s rule; early photographic exhibitions of the 1850s; the rise and evolution of photography; the depiction of war, particularly in Crimea; and depictions of the queen over time. The catalogue’s essays cover the early development of photography, in an essay by Jennifer Green-Lewis; the role of the royal family in promoting this new technology, in an essay by Lyden; the difference in public and private photographs of the royal family, in an essay by Sophie Gordon; and the nature of the monarchy as it evolved in photographs of the queen, in a final essay by Lyden. These interpretations highlight the paradoxical nature of the medium: the there and not-there-ness of it; its apparent empiricism and realism (while offering only a momentary and fragmentary truth); and its malleability in terms of the ease with which it became a commodity, democratizing in its accessibility and yet creating new kinds of power (fame) through its very reproducibility.

As savvy as Victoria may have been about her image, she was also extraordinarily sentimental, and at times it seems that she (like others) treated photographs as an extension or expression of her emotional life with her family, household, staff, animals, and possessions. Thus, beyond exchanging images with Albert as noted above, she went further, having herself photographed by the same photographer as Albert and while holding the photograph of Albert that she most cherished (140). She wrote in her journals of evenings spent poring over albums, recalling events and travels (118); and photography proved to be important to her continued expressions of devotion to Albert after his death (140). In this she was, of course, very much like her subjects, and the exhibition and catalogue do a wonderful job of putting the first public images of the queen and her family in the context of the craze for photographic cartes de visite (little cards that people collected of friends, family, and celebrities, and put into albums), as well as the context of the royal family’s own patronage of photography and experiments with commissioning portraits. The organizers trace the increasing disjunction between private and public images, such as the existence of casual family snapshots that would never be publicized (123), along with Victoria’s specific selection of public images (122). From the very start, photography allowed the development of new relationships between private and public, bringing an intimate moment or close-up image to a mass audience. As Lyden notes, it does seem crucial that in her first public images, Victoria shared herself with her subjects as a wife and mother, bastion of middle-class values of respectability; she chose to release an informal portrait of a family, surrounded by her husband and her many loving children, and she herself looking down at the youngest in her lap (136–37).

In many ways, and despite the remarkable physicality of the early photographs in the exhibition, the catalogue offers the fuller visual experience, precisely because its reproductions are not, in fact, limited to photography. Interestingly, Lyden apparently wished to include in the exhibition two miniature painted portraits, exchanged between Victoria and Albert on the occasion of their engagement in 1839, and reproduced in the catalogue as plates 66 and 67 (Anne Lyden, “First Look: A Royal Passion at the Getty,” Apollo Magazine [February 2, 2014], http://www.apollo-magazine.com/first-look-royal-passion-getty/; the miniatures were included in the Victoria Revealed exhibition). The exhibition therefore evinces the strength and weakness of concentrating on only the photographic context. Victorian photographs, we learn, were both public and private objects. They tended to be displayed in albums, shared, in small formats; they became stereoscopes and books; they became keepsakes and mementos. They struggled to be art, and actually seemed to diminish as art as they became more widely available (41). This very intimacy of format changed the nature of the image of the monarchy, now the size of everyone else. Along with the global reach of the British Empire, with its industrial reproduction and capitalist markets, however, the monarchy achieved a new power, the power of a brand, and Victoria was the very image of that brand (142–43).

The unnamed specter that haunts this exhibition is, in fact, that of another royal brand, Princess Diana. While Lyden and her fellow essayists in the catalogue do not allude to this, the reality is that the British monarchy is perhaps uniquely a worldwide photographic phenomenon, now exemplified by the Hollywood glamor and public perfection of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (née Kate Middleton). Queen Victoria, the organizers argue, was the first global photographic image (vii). At the same time, her power was of an uncertain and necessarily unarticulated nature: by her gender, by the constitutional decisions of the previous centuries, by the Liberalism that dominated British political thought of the mid-century, and by the rapid and extraordinary changes over which she ruled. Photography, in this sense, helped her to transform the monarchy itself, and helped along that quintessentially Victorian mode of managing the complete transformation of society under the dual revolution of industrial capitalism and democracy, what historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger call “the invention of tradition” (Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983). Victoria proved to be adept at managing such invention, creating images of great comfort and solidity through a novel, democratic medium. This exhibition, then, is partially about the transformation of one kind of power—that of monarchy—through the pressures of gender, democracy, and technology, their result being the formation of a controlled yet freely traded public image. That image, of course, would go haywire in the late twentieth century, the buying and selling of it ending in such frenzy that it led to a car crash in a Parisian tunnel. Photography is the perfect medium for people (women and monarchs) who are not allowed to say anything except through their images. However, as this exhibition and the catalogue show, it also relies on a fundamental intimacy and a blurring of the lines between public and private, a crucial aspect of modern visual and celebrity culture.

Amy Woodson-Boulton
Associate Professor, Department of History, Loyola Marymount University

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