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Death of an artist: Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll

Seventy-five years ago, on 3rd December 1939, the most feisty of Queen Victoria’s children died at Kensington Palace, aged 91. Princess Louise, through marriage to a Duke, had become a rare example of a Princess who was also a non-royal Duchess.  Above all, Louise was a talented artist and, as far as her restricted position allowed, a feminist. Such attributes endear her to today’s Duchess of Argyll, who chose Louise as her favourite predecessor for my book Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain.

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The sixth of Victoria and Albert’s nine children, Louise was born in 1848. Her childhood, although largely happy, was strictly regimented. Educated with her younger siblings on a curriculum devised by Prince Albert, it was not enough for Louise, who, as she matured, came to feel strongly about female education and suffrage. Her views caused friction with her mother.

Their relationship was not helped by Albert’s death on 14th December 1861, when Victoria insisted on a prolonged period of mourning. Louise’s social life, already restricted by her status, was limited further by her mother’s attitude to mourning. It was a trying time for the spirited young Princess.

Fortunately, Louise’s artistic talent was recognised by Victoria, who provided an outlet for her daughter’s creativity.  Although prevented by her rank from pursuing a career in art, Louise was allowed to have lessons from the acclaimed sculptress, Mary Thorneycroft.  In 1868 she was enrolled at art school in Kensington. However, her studies had to fit around her role, held since 1866, as her mother’s secretary and companion, an obligation as the eldest unmarried daughter.  Louise dutifully served her mother at a difficult time, for Victoria’s continued seclusion was starting to attract public criticism.

Tall and slim, with brown hair and blue eyes, Louise was said to be the most beautiful of Victoria’s children.  She fell in love with a tutor appointed in 1866 for her younger brother, Leopold. Inevitably the attractive young Reverend Robinson Duckworth was not considered suitable, and Victoria dismissed him. An affair with another tutor allegedly followed – it was time to find Louise a husband.

But the number of eligible European princes was limited. Louise wanted to find her own husband anyway and, given the lack of choice, Victoria unusually started to consider nobility rather than Royalty. She even allowed Louise into society to view possible husbands.

The lucky man would be John Campbell, The Marquess of Lorne, heir to the 8th Duke of Argyll.  They were from an ancient family whose ancestral home was Inveraray Castle. Lorne’s mother was Victoria’s Mistress of the Robes, his father a Cabinet Minister and brilliant orator. Lorne was the Liberal MP for Argyllshire, gentle and clever. The pair were immediately attracted.

But when marriage was mooted, there was an outcry among family and courtiers, for although Lorne was heir to a Dukedom, he was one of The Queen’s subjects.  No Royal had married a subject since 1515 when Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, married The Duke of Suffolk.  However, the marriage meant Louise would bring in fresh blood at a time when the Monarchy was unpopular with the nobility.  Victoria gave her approval, supported by her Prime Minister, Gladstone.  On their wedding on 21 March 1871 Louise, breaking with tradition, wore a veil she designed herself.  She became Her Royal Highness The Marchioness of Lorne.

Louise used her position to help improve opportunities for women. Her many achievements included helping to set up (what is now known as) the Girls’ Day School Trust, for parents who could not afford their daughters’s education.  Sadly, in 1873 she was told that she could not have children; the doctors, assuming the problem lay with her rather than Lorne, blamed it on the meningitis she had suffered at 16.

Instead she threw her energies into public service and in 1875 founded The Ladies Work Society. This helped gentlewomen who found themselves in financial hardship to improve their needlework skills and work from home, producing and selling their produce respectably through the Society.

A major change occurred in 1878 when Lorne, aged 33, was appointed Governor General of Canada, the youngest to hold that post.  Initially Louise suffered homesickness but as Queen Victoria’s daughter she was received well. Their accessibility to the public made them a popular couple. Unfortunately, during their first winter they were involved in a serious sleigh accident, causing Louise severe concussion. She narrowly escaped a broken skull and would suffer from headaches and depression for the rest of her life.

Louise was sent back to England to recover, which began a series of separations from Lorne that, with their childlessness, would not help their marriage.  Security fears made matters worse. While they were on a tour of the USA in 1882, a threat was made against Louise’s life by the Irish Fenians. It was decided she would be safer in Bermuda, so she wintered there, again without Lorne.

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Louise created the marble sculpture of Queen Victoria in Kensington Gardens.

Rumours began to circulate of their failing marriage. Lorne requested he be relieved of his position as Governor General but without first discussing it with Louise, who objected. They returned to Britain in 1883. While in Canada they had made a huge impression, including helping to establish the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and National Gallery. The province of Alberta – Louise’s middle name – was named after her, as were Lake Louise and Mount Alberta.

Back in England she became very involved in the world of art, exhibiting at the Royal Academy and elsewhere, and in 1893 completed the marble sculpture of Victoria that stands in Kensington Gardens. She promoted an educational society for children in the East End of London and supported the controversial women’s rights campaigner, Josephine Butler. Unlike Victoria, who did not agree with women entering the professions, Louise was an admirer of, and visited, Elizabeth Garret Anderson – the first English female physician and surgeon in Britain, and a supporter of suffrage.

Since 1884 Louise had fallen out of love with Lorne, although there was still mutual affection and respect. There was talk of her lovers, especially the acclaimed sculptor, Sir Joseph Boehm. Louise had completed part of her training at his studio and they were good friends, but the fact that she was there when he died in December 1890 fuelled speculation that they were lovers. Boehm’s executors burned his personal papers a few days after his death, although in 1892 they presented the V&A museum with Boehm’s plaster cast of Louise’s left hand, the purpose of which is not known.

Louise also became good friends with the young architect, Edward Lutyens. She commissioned him to work on Lorne’s childhood home, Rosneath Castle, and to build a new wing onto The Ferry Inn, which she had bought.  It seems improbable that they were lovers, not least because Lutyens was engaged, but their relationship caused his fiancée, Lady Emily Lytton, to complain of the amount of time he spent with Louise.

In 1900 Lorne became 9th Duke of Argyll, and Louise his Duchess. That year, as the wounded from the Boer War began arriving home, Louise turned the Ferry Inn into a hospital. The following year Victoria died. Louise’s brother became King and she assumed a greater public role.  In 1902 she designed the memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral to the Canadian soldiers killed in the Boer War and received an honorary degree for her work in women’s education.

Louise faced a trying time in 1907 when Lorne’s name became linked with the mystery of the theft of the Irish Crown jewels from Dublin, which have never been recovered. The main suspect was Francis Shackleton, homosexual brother of the explorer, Ernest, who had only a slight acquaintance with Lorne. Nevertheless, an affair between them was hinted at as part of an alleged cover-up in which Edward VII was said to be involved. In fact, Edward had ordered an inquiry, and no evidence was found which supported either allegation against Lorne.

Lorne’s health started to decline in 1911.  Despite their differences Louise nursed him devotedly at Kensington Palace and they became close again. He died on 2 May 1914. Louise’s nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II, not quite yet Britain’s enemy, sent a wreath. Lorne’s nephew became 10th Duke of Argyll.

Louise suffered intense loneliness without Lorne. She busied herself during the war, inspecting the Canadian units that came to Britain and caring for shell-shocked men at Kensington Palace.  In 1918 her nephew George V awarded her the Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire.  Until her death she continued her association with the regiment that bore her name and with the building of a children’s hospital in Kensington. She remained as open-minded as ever and continued to enjoy smoking into old age.

Following her wishes she was cremated, unusually for The Royal Family.  Had she died in Scotland she wanted to be buried with Lorne; if in England, near her parents at Windsor, which is where her funeral took place. Louise’s name lives on in her art and in the many causes with which she was involved.

Jane Dismore is the author of Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain (pub. 4 September 2014 by Blink Books, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing). Read Royal Central’s review of the book here.

photo credit: jennandjon & About Leeds Girls High School via photopin cc

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