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Queen Victoria: The story of a royal statue

Of the memorials in Kensington Gardens, many share a close connection with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the most important to the latter being the ornate Gothic masterpiece designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, known as the Albert Memorial, which was unveiled in 1872 and restored in recent memory. The statue to the great doctor Edward Jenner (1749-1823) was revealed by Prince Albert and has stood in Kensington Gardens since 1862 when it was moved there from Trafalgar Square.

The cast-iron glory of the bronze-painted Coalbrookdale Gates at the south end of the gardens were the creative child of Charles Crookes and made for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Christopher Wren’s ‘Queen Anne’s Alcove’ beside Lancaster Gate may also have provided loose inspiration for Queen Victoria’s beautifully decorated blue and pink-tiled alcove (exedra) on her private beach at Osborne House; Queen Anne having died at Kensington Palace, the palace of the future Queen Victoria’s birth in 1819.

One monument in Kensington Gardens, however, commemorates Queen Victoria unlike any other – the Queen Victoria Statue. Most appropriately, it stands in front of Kensington Palace, the palace where the future Princess Victoria of Kent was born and christened in 1819. Importantly, it was in the bedroom at Kensington Palace which she shared with her mother, the Duchess of Kent, where she was woken on the morning of 20 June 1837 to learn of the death at Windsor Castle of her uncle, King William IV and that she was ‘consequently’ now Queen. It thus shows a young, eighteen-year-old Queen in her coronation robes, although Queen Victoria was in fact, seventy-four at the time that it was presented by the Kensington Golden Jubilee Memorial Executive Committee and unveiled, in 1893.

London has many statues of Queen Victoria. The Queen is immortalised at various ages in bronze throughout numerous locations in the capital; she stands for example as a singular and impressive figure on Blackfriars Bridge, at the Royal Exchange, Imperial College and in Victoria Square, as well as in Greater London, such as at Woolwich Town Hall. The seated Lasa marble statue of the Queen on the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, of course, remains the most magnificent of these, forming a commemorative pendant to the Albert Memorial in Kensington; perpetuating the royal duo of the widowed, elderly Queen (in striking white marble as opposed to the black mourning weeds she wore for the remainder of her life) and her beloved consort, Prince Albert. Stately and serene, the eyes of the Queen-Empress as sculpted by Sir Thomas Brock, locked in an eternal stare down the resplendent processional length of the Mall, towards Whitehall.

The Queen Victoria Statue in Kensington Gardens, outside Kensington Palace (By Txllxt TxllxT [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons)

A remarkable feature of this statue is the fact that it was sculpted by none other than the Queen’s own (fourth) daughter and sixth child, Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll. The exceptionally gifted Princess Louise was a most accomplished sculptor in her own right and was taught by the sculptor Mary Thornycroft and also by the celebrated Sir Edgar Boehm. Princess Louise exhibited widely and cultivated a secure network with the contemporary artists of her time, such as the great late nineteenth-century Romantic artist, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

She was responsible for important works such as the ‘Colonial Forces’ memorial – the crucified Christ supported by an angel – erected to commemorate those who fought in the South African War, in St Paul’s Cathedral (1903-05) as well as a portrait statue of Queen Victoria for McGill University, Montreal. The Canadian connection is highly significant – Princess Louise was the 32nd Viceregal Consort of Canada (1878-1883), her husband, John Campbell, Marquess of Lorne and later 9th Duke of Argyll having been appointed to the post of Governor General.

Quite how Princess Louise came to sculpt her mother is best explained in the memoirs of her nephew, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse, son of her elder sister Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, who considered Princess Louise, his favourite aunt. Ernst Ludwig had been present to witness the Golden Jubilee (1887) and the Diamond Jubilee (1897) of his English grandmother, Queen Victoria and was at Windsor as a nineteen-year-old, for the unveiling of the Queen Victoria statue at the foot of Castle Hill in 1887. The image is contained in a private album which the Queen dedicated to this grandson of whom she was particularly fond, even concerning herself as Queen-Empress in such small details as the fact that her young grandson in Darmstadt had taken to biting his nails. Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, had died in 1878, and the Queen had tried even from afar, to be something of a mother to her Hesse grandchildren.

Ernst Ludwig later remembered:

One day the famous painter Alma Tadema, her friend, came to her in Kensington Palace and asked her whether she had made any design for the statue of the Queen, which the suburb of Kensington wanted to erect. She said no, as a daughter she considered that wrong and in any case, the envelope [containing the official announcement] would be opened in a mere two days. Alma Tadema said she could and should do it, even if it were only a small model. So the discussion went back and forth until he finally said he would not leave her apartments until she had said yes. At last she gave in. Then she feverishly set to work…’ (Ernst Ludwig, Erinnertes, 89; author’s translation).

It seems that Princess Louise expressly wanted to show the Queen at the time of her accession; which is why the result also bears some similarity to the coronation portraits of Queen Victoria, resplendent in her robes, notably that by Sir George Hayter, to which it bears a strong resemblance These were as Queen Victoria herself described in her journal for 1837 as a young Queen: ‘I took off the Dalmatic robe Supertunica &c and put on the Purple Velvet Kirtle & Mantle and proceeded again to the Throne…’ (Quoted in A. N Wilson, Victoria, A Life, 86). Queen Victoria would herself make several sketches of the coronation in recollection, showing herself wearing the Dalmatic Robes and the Imperial State Crown, under Hayter’s direction.

Ernst Ludwig recalled: ‘She particularly wanted to show Grandmama, not in old age but as she was, still young at the time of her coronation. She had been brought the news of her accession at Kensington Palace and she left from there for her coronation. Half an hour before the panel of judges entered, her design was given in. No one knew from whom. But the result was unanimous, with her design chosen...’ (Ibid, 89). In fact, the Queen set out for her coronation from Buckingham Palace on the morning of 28 June 1838.

The Kensington Gardens statue is poignant in other ways, too. Princess Louise lived her last years at Kensington Palace in an apartment close to that of her youngest sister, Princess Beatrice, for which reason it was affectionately called the ‘Auntie Palace’ by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret of York (Elizabeth Longford, Darling Loosy, Letters to Princess Louise 1856-1939, 80). Princess Louise died at Kensington Palace on 3 December 1939. The long Honiton wedding veil – which she had designed – and worn on her marriage to the Marquess of Lorne in 1871, she reputedly wore on the very day of her death, according to her biographer Jehanne Wake (Jehanne Wake, Queen Victoria’s unconventional daughter, 413). The statue that Princess Louise sculpted of Queen Victoria, therefore, is in a way, also a monument to her as well as to her royal and by now, imperial, mother.

Ernst Ludwig concluded the story: ‘And so the memorial stands in the park of Kensington Palace to this day, which everyone bypasses. This story she told me herself…’ (Ibid).

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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