An exquisite oil on panel painting by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, that fashionable artist of European court portraiture, is currently on display in Prince & Patron, the Summer Opening Exhibition of the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace, showcasing some of the personal favourites of HRH The Prince of Wales chosen from the Royal Collection and that of his private collection, as well as by artists whose work enjoys the support of charities under His Royal Highness’ patronage. The painting is remarkable in many ways; it is beautifully executed, sensitively judged and in its own oval gilt frame. It depicts two clasped hands and is fittingly entitled The Linked Hands of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
We might imagine it to be ‘zoom in’ from a larger work, rendered more intimate through the focus on the hands entwined, as a celebration of the royal marriage – perhaps in the way in which a secondary version of the large painting by the Danish artist Laurits Tuxen, of the marriage of Tsar Nicholas II and Princess Alix of Hesse, celebrated in St Petersburg in 1894, showed simply the officiating Metropolitan and the young couple clasping the candles at the Russian Orthodox wedding service. I was keen to explore this touching work in more detail because as a painting showing a British Queen and her Prince Consort, it is unique, even within the wealth of artwork in the Royal Collection which illustrates the love of Victoria and Albert, expressed through art. Typical of the kind of sentimental ‘love token’ painting of this period, little is known about the work itself. It would appear to have entered the Royal Collection in 1921 when it was purchased at Christie’s and then presented to the then Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII (Royal Collection RCIN 402490).
The clasped hands shown in Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s painting are, in fact, a personal motive for the marriage, although Winterhalter’s art was made in around 1850 in its exhibition listing, by which time, the Queen had given birth to seven of her nine children, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, being born in that year. Poignantly, it shows the right hand of Queen Victoria, clasping the right hand of Prince Albert, with her left hand placed on top of his, as if in reassurance, or as a reaffirmation of their bond. The Royal Collection listing is looser in date – ca. 1840-1860. We can see the braceleted hand of the Queen, with her left hand just showing her wedding ring. The ring on her right hand shows a turquoise stone; perhaps a ring of particular significance.
When Prince Albert died in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle in 1861, the Queen also left explicit instructions concerning items of personal jewellery, which were to be placed in the room and not passed on within the Royal Family; this list included two rings (Elizabeth Jane Timms, The Blue Room at Windsor Castle, in the European Royal History Journal, Issue XCVI, 12). During later research, I discovered that – significantly – one of these rings was a silver and gold hinged ring with clasped hands, set with diamonds and turquoises, which open into an inner ring of two hearts. It had been given to the Queen by her mother, the Duchess of Kent on Prince Albert’s birthday, in the year of their marriage. It doesn’t appear to be the same one in Winterhalter’s artwork, but the clasped hand theme is surely essential, even allowing for Victorian taste.
Interestingly, the focus on the hands was present right from the start. The involvement of the hands was at the beginning, with their betrothal, in 1839. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal: ‘Dearest Albert took my face in both his hands and kissed me most tenderly…’ (Quoted in A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 96).
In the painting The Marriage of Queen Victoria, 10 February 1840 by Sir George Hayter, in the Royal Collection, the light falls on the royal couple at the altar, with the central focus on their hands being joined together, as they stand before the Archbishop of Canterbury. Queen Victoria later recorded in her journal: ‘I felt so happy when the ring was put on and by Albert’ (Quoted in Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 122). Hayter seems to have deliberately chosen this personal focus on the hands; evidence for this can be found in the form of two preliminary sketches which he made as studies for his painting which show the Queen and Prince Albert kneeling before the altar rails in the Chapel Royal – again, the focus is on the hands. In the sketches that Hayter made, we can also identify the book which Prince Albert is holding; this is the dark green velvet-covered prayer book which the Prince was given on his wedding day by Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent (also his aunt). Significantly, its book-mark was set with semi-precious stones it had a gold fastening of two clasped hands.
Winterhalter touched on this theme briefly in the iconic painting, ‘The Royal Family in 1846’, which shows Queen Victoria as both sovereign, bride and mother, alongside Prince Albert and four of their nine children, including the newly born Princess Helena; the hands of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are not clasped but practically touching, showing the Queen’s wedding ring. Although the emphasis here is as equally dynastic as personal; it consciously conveys nothing of the intimacy of his smaller, later work, The Linked Hands of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Critically, however, the hands of Prince Albert in Winterhalter’s large painting were unfavourably compared to those of a farmer (Athenaeum, 1847, 496).
With the subsequent knowledge of hindsight, it is, perhaps, poignant to recall the importance the Queen attached to Prince Albert’s hands; she clasped his hand on his deathbed in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle and even had a plaster cast of his hand placed in her coffin on her death in 1901, along with – perhaps significantly – rings. She wrote at Albert’s death: ‘I took his dear left hand which was already cold… and knelt down by him…’ She took the Duchess of Atholl and the governess of the royal children, Miss Hildyard, in to kiss the hand of the Prince Consort (A. N. Wilson, 255). Before the moment of his death, she had held his ‘dear hands’ in her own (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, pp. 280-281). Movingly, Queen Victoria described the moment of the Prince Consort’s death: ‘Two or three long, but perfectly gentle breaths were drawn, the hand clasping mine, & (oh! It turns me sick to write it) all, all was over…’ (Quoted in A. N Wilson, 255). It was a poignant revisiting of that moment when their hands had been joined together in marriage in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace, back in 1840.
The magnificent tomb effigies hewn by the great sculptor Baron Carlo Marochetti did not depict their hands joined in death, the reason being that although the effigies were made at the same time, so that the Queen would ever appear in the likeness of a young bride, the Prince Consort’s was installed in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore on its completion, whereas that of the Queen lay bricked up at Windsor and was only found after searching, at her death. Prince Albert’s hands are clasped in rest. They nevertheless lie alongside, a Queen and her consort in eternal sleep, as if sharing their marriage bed. Although, in truth, forty years would pass until the Queen was able to join Prince Albert, in her own words as written in Latin above the doors of the Royal Mausoleum: ‘… Here, at last, I shall rest with thee, with thee in Christ I shall rise again…’
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
Prince & Patron is showing for the Buckingham Palace Summer Opening 2018 and closes on 30 September 2018.