Some of the earliest Christmas cards to survive in the Royal Collection date from the first half of Queen Victoria’s reign. These were handmade by Queen Victoria’s children and are typical of the sentimental nineteenth century; although in the case of the Queen’s family, everything was preserved and nothing too small to commemorate. The German Christmas was properly introduced into England by the Queen’s paternal grandmother, Queen Charlotte, but much popularised by Prince Albert, was the subject of paintings, such as the charming watercolour (1850) of the Queen’s Christmas tree by the artist James Roberts, who depicted the festooned tree and tables for the royal Christmas at Windsor. A Christmas hymn which the Prince composed in 1847 is preserved and bound in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, featured in the forthcoming book by Royal Collection Trust Enterprises, A Royal Christmas (October 2018).
This commemoration of Christmas in watercolours was in one way, just an extension of the kind of celebration of a family birthday, with the birthday tables all set up, as at Osborne for the Queen’s birthday in 1848 and 1849, recorded then in watercolour by J. Nash. James Roberts was commissioned by the Queen, among others, to paint her tables full of gifts (Osborne House, Michael Turner, 36). There was even a spare room at Osborne, known as the ‘Present Room’ (Ibid).
The Christmas cards, which were made by hand by the Queen’s children, were very much a practice in keeping with a family tradition already long established. The nine royal children regularly made such cards or gifts for important occasions within the family, also giving impressive proof of their considerable artistic talents. Some of these efforts are kept within the bound volumes in which Queen Victoria collected the cards and drawings of her children, made for herself and the Prince Consort; these are maintained within the albums known aptly as Princes and Princesses.The royal children enacted a tableau as the four seasons in February 1854; Princess Louise and Prince Arthur were the figures of winter. Prince Albert enjoyed skating at Frogmore, and there are delightful vignettes of the royal children making snowmen with the Prince Consort or skating at nearby Barton Farm pond, when at Osborne (Ibid). The Durbar Room at Osborne was where the Queen’s Christmas tree would be set up towards the end of the Queen’s reign and where she would distribute gifts amongst her personal household. The Queen loved depictions of her children and painted and sketched them frequently. The royal children formed the subject for countless presents exchanged between the Queen and Prince Albert for their birthdays, for example, that of Princess Helena as Minerva by Franx Xaver Winterhalter, which was given as a ‘surprise’ to Prince Albert from the Queen, actually on her own – thirtieth – birthday, in 1849 (HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, Victoria and Albert, 130).
Examples of these watercolour drawings are those made for the wedding anniversaries of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1858 and 1859. In 1859, the Queen’s favourite son, the nine-year-old Prince Arthur, future Duke of Connaught, made a charming watercolour of an angel in flight, who drops flowers onto the entwined initials of his parents. The Prince has written inside: ‘My dear Mama & Papa I give you this little drawing to show what I wish for you on your wedding-day & I hope that you will have many years of happiness. I remain your affectionate Son Arthur. Feb 10th 1859’ (Quoted in RCIN 9808914). In 1856 – the sixteenth wedding anniversary of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – the royal children by this date made a card decorated in gold paint, showing their parents’ hands clasped together, a theme to which Queen Victoria and Prince Albert themselves regularly returned. The card shows an angel looking down on the royal couple’s initials, within a border of forget-me-nots and the words ‘TREU UND FEST’ [Loyal and True].
The year before, Princess Alice had made a similar card for her parents’ wedding anniversary showing their initials surrounded by winged cherubs with flowers and ribbons and the inscription February 10th 1858 and also the initials ‘VF Jan 25th 1858’; this last refers to the recent wedding of Princess Alice’s eldest sister Princess Victoria, the Princess Royal and Prince Frederick William of Prussia. Christmas cards from Princess Alice and her sisters, Princesses Helena and Louise, survive to Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, for the year 1854. Alice’s Christmas card to her grandmother is on paper with doily border: ‘For My dear Grandmama from her dutiful and affectionate Grand-daughter Alice. December 24th. 1854’ (Quoted in RCIN 814440). Alice’s exquisite New Year Card to Prince Albert for 1850, with a filigree border and a bouquet of flowers, is preserved in the Royal Collection: ‘May my dear Papa be happy through the year 1850, Alice’ (HRH The Duchess of York et Stoney, 101).
These watercolours and sketches continued after the death of the Prince Consort but had a sadder quality. Princess Beatrice, the Queen’s youngest child commented with the sharpness of innocence: ‘What a pity I was too young to be at your wedding’. One of the Queen’s daughters sketched her mother dreaming, with a scene of being reunited with Prince Albert hovering above her sleeping bed. Princess Alice’s wedding at Osborne – described by the Queen as more like a funeral than a wedding – was difficult for the recently widowed Queen Victoria, who wrote: ‘But when it came to the words till death us do part I could not restrain my tears…’ (Quoted in Ibid, 172).
In her widowhood, Queen Victoria took to spending her wedding anniversary at Osborne House. Christmas at Osborne was a solemn affair, especially in the raw early years of her widowhood; presents were still given out on Christmas Eve in the German fashion, but the decorations were sombre. The Sevres vases were filled with yew and ferns and the bust of Prince Albert decorated with holly and ivy, a sad replica of the royal father who had enjoyed building snowmen with his children.
The cards made by Queen Victoria’s children are poignant as they tell us so much about the family cult of Queen Victoria, as well as how the children themselves took on their mother’s obsessive observance for dates and anniversaries, knowing how she viewed them to be important. They are also, of course, objects of charm and beauty.