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A Portrait of Princess Alix of Hesse

A portrait of the toddler Princess Alix of Hesse by the Austrian painter George Koberwein caught my attention back in 2004. Examining how it came to be painted was a source of great interest to me, not least because the picture that he produced of the baby princess, not quite two years old, is such a charming study.

Portraits from such an early period of Princess Alix’s life are rare; she was not photographed at birth – the first known photograph of her was made in August 1872, a month after her christening, which took place on her parents’ tenth wedding anniversary in the Dining Room at Osborne House. Incidentally, the portrait by Koberwein hangs at Osborne and the Osborne links are in this case significant. Princess Alix would come to know Osborne on childhood holiday visits to Queen Victoria; even in the summer of 1894 when she was twenty-two and betrothed to the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, she came to Osborne with the Queen. I became intrigued by this portrait, because of its uniqueness. Koberwein made many paintings of the Queen’s family, including her grandchildren, but did not paint his copy of the Rudolph Swoboda portrait of Princess Alix’s elder sister Princess Victoria of Hesse, until much later in 1886, when Princess Victoria was a young woman and already married to Prince Louis of Battenberg.

George Koberwein was born in Vienna in 1820, the son of two Viennese actors. He studied in Paris in the early 1840s under the celebrated French painter Paul Delaroche and moved to London in 1859. The 1861 census records him for example, as living at 3, Acacia Place, Marylebone; a street which still contains several Victorian houses. His artist materials came from the well-known suppliers Newman, based in Soho Square. Queen Victoria herself described Koberwein as ‘such a useful good artist & pleasant person’. (RC 406223). She sat to him in person; perhaps significantly, the date she did this was February 1874, the month she is recorded to have purchased his portrait of Princess Alix. Koberwein continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy, the British Institution and the Society of British Artists from 1859 until the mid-1870s. He did not return to Vienna, but died in London, in 1876.

There is no reference in the Queen’s journal to Koberwein’s painting the toddler Princess Alix; in fact, apart from recording her birth in 1872, the first mention of Princess Alix in the Queen’s journal does not properly occur until 1875. There is one photograph of Princess Alix of Hesse from 1874 in the Royal Photograph Collection; a half-length oval, it shows the toddler princess with short hair and a sash-tied short-sleeved dress. Made by the Darmstadt court photographer Carl Backofen, it is preserved in the many volumes of the albums entitled ‘Portraits of Royal Children’.

Princess Alix of Hesse By George Koberwein (1820-76) (Royal Collection RCIN 406223) [United States Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The best-known painting that shows Princess Alix of Hesse – the future last Tsarina of Russia is undoubtedly the family group by the celebrated portrait painter Heinrich von Angeli. Today this forms a pendant to the family of the Prince of Wales, also hanging in the Dining Room at Osborne House, most appropriately, the room where Princess Alice had married Prince Louis of Hesse, in 1862 and which also in fact, contains a head and shoulders portrait of Princess Alice in her wedding dress, by Koberwein. Koberwein painted Alice’s husband, Prince Ludwig ‘Louis of Hesse’ in 1873, wearing uniform and the order, Pour Le Merite. There is a little-known plaster bust of the one-year old Princess Alix of Hesse in the Queen’s Bedroom at Osborne by the sculptor, Benedikt Konig, showing her wearing a wreath of leaves.

The Angeli group painting ‘The Family of the Grand Duke of Hesse’ (dated 1879) shows a six-year-old Princess Alix (whom Angeli greatly admired when he painted her) close to the figure of her father, Grand Duke Ludwig IV – again dressed in uniform and with the order, Pour Le Merite –  and much resembles a photograph also made around this time. Angeli had come to Darmstadt in April 1878 to paint the picture, which was a commission from Queen Victoria. Angeli also made a marvellous, three-quarter-length portrait of Princess Alice – who became Grand Duchess of Hesse in 1877 – which is possibly the most successful likeness ever made of her and certainly in Alice’s case; it was the last portrait ever made of her. Standing in front of this portrait in the Darmstadt Schlossmuseum years ago, I was able to experience something of the power and grace of Alice’s presence, possible because of the extremely skilful likeness that Angeli had made of the Grand Duchess. He had enjoyed meeting Alice when he came to Darmstadt, and this is perhaps another reason for why the painting is such a successful one; he painted with a good understanding of his subject. The family group portrait was continued – poignantly – after Grand Duchess Alice’s death in 1878 and brought over to Osborne House to the Queen the following month on 21 January 1879, where it provided comfort to the Queen who had lost her second daughter, as well as a grandchild, Princess Marie. What made this particularly moving, was that Grand Duke Ludwig IV brought the Angeli portrait with him on a family visit to Osborne with the children, the first one without Alice. The Queen purchased the Angeli family picture for £1260. The three-quarter-length portrait of Alice by Angeli much resembles the figure of Alice in Angeli’s family picture.

There are no such references for Koberwein’s visiting Darmstadt or in any of Alice’s published letters to Queen Victoria for 1874 – the year that the painting was purchased by Queen Victoria. Koberwein’s portrait certainly justifies Alice’s description of the baby Princess Alix to the Queen: ‘Baby is like Ella, only smaller features, and still darker eyes with very black lashes, and reddish brown hair. She is a sweet, merry little person, always laughing and a dimple in one cheek…’ (Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, Pg 4, 1928). This continues in a letter written on Christmas Day, 1872: ‘Sunny – much like Ella, but a smaller head, and livelier, with Ernie’s dimple and expression…’ (Alice, Biographical Sketch & Letters, Pg 289, 1884). She commented in a letter to the Queen on 13 July 1874 – the year the painting entered the Royal Collection – ‘Sunny in pink was immensely admired’.  (Buxhoeveden, Pg 5). Perhaps Koberwein – by this point based in London – made his portrait from photographs; there are certainly plenty of photographs in the albums of Royal Children for the year 1873 that show Princess Alix; in March 1873 her hair was still relatively short as images show, by July it was notably longer. The closest I have found are a couple of photographs by W & D Downey, made in December 1873, showing her in a short-sleeved dress, although none quite seem to strike the same pose as Alix does in the painting.

The portrait of Alix hangs in the Nursery Bedroom at Osborne House; it does not feature in the photograph made by the commercial photographer Jabez Hughes around 1875, on which the scholarly reconstruction of the room was based when the Nursery Suite opened to the public in 1989. The Queen’s grandchildren would use this nursery on visits to the Queen in the 1870s (Michael Turner, Osborne House, Pg 12, 1989). The portrait may be seen between the left and centre windows, between the floral hangings which are modern reproductions, as is the wallpaper against which it rests. Poignantly, Alix seems to have slept in the Nursery together with Princess Marie ‘May’, her youngest sister, on the last occasion that the Hesse family had a holiday together at Osborne, in the summer of 1878, before death broke the family up later that winter. Rather sadly, she wrote to the Queen in 1874, the year the Queen bought the Koberwein: ‘I am sure dear Osborne is charming as ever, but I can’t think of that large house so empty; no children any more; it must seem so forsaken in our old wing…’ (Alice, Biographical Sketch & Letters, Pg 331). The Nursery Bedroom was located above the royal apartments; this very space would have been once occupied by Princess Alice as a child, a place where she, like the rest of the Queen’s children, would have cleaned her teeth with an ivory toothbrush. (HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney, Victoria and Albert: A Family Life at Osborne House, Pg 98, 1991).

I wondered when Koberwein made his portrait if it was recorded as having been purchased by the Queen in 1874. In 1874, Queen Victoria’s youngest son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, married the Russian Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna. The couple spent part of their honeymoon at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, the ‘Tsar’s Village’, outside St. Petersburg. By a strange twist, the very palace which would form the private family home of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra – as Princess Alix would become on her conversion to the Orthodox faith prior to her marriage to Nicholas. 1874 was for Princess Alice, back in Darmstadt, a year still overshadowed by the premature death of her second son, the haemophiliac Prince Frederick William, who had died following a fall from a window at the Neues Palais, the Hesse family’s town residence in Darmstadt. It was also the year of the birth of her last child, Princess Marie, ‘May’ of Hesse, the beloved child who would die in her fourth year, a month before Alice’s own death, in 1878.

It is possible, of course, that the painting was begun in 1873 and only purchased by the Queen the following year; a plausible idea, given the fact that had Koberwein begun the picture in January 1874, he only had a short period to complete it before it was given to the Queen. Queen Victoria took great personal interest in the portraits of her family and would often give instructions for things to be changed if they did not meet with her approval. In this, Alice very much followed suit, having an opinion on the family Angeli portrait, when it was begun in the spring of 1878: ‘Angeli has arrived, and will begin at once. We though Ernie and Ella – Victoria is too big, though she is the eldest and ought to be in the picture…’ (Ibid, Pg 367). Research finally allowed me to establish that Princess Alice and Prince Ludwig visited England in November 1873 ‘with their three youngest children’ (Alice, Biographical Sketch & Letters, Pg 296) where they stayed until two days before Christmas; so I was able to pinpoint the portrait as then being made between November-December 1873, as Koberwein would have been living in London and therefore it must have been made in London, during the Hesse visit. Sadly, there are no references in Alice’s letters to the Queen because of course, she was with her during this period. We do have two letters from December, just prior to her return back to Darmstadt, but neither of them mention the portrait having been made.

Koberwein does not appear to have written any memoirs that might record his making the picture as was, fortunately, the case with Sir John Lavery, in whose near-forgotten autobiography I found a reference to his sketching Princess Alix, in 1884. Researching into the other works by Koberwein made or which entered the Royal Collection at around this date, I was able to see that the portrait of Princess Alix listed as being from 1874, whilst unique as being what is probably the earliest known proper portrait of her, may have simply formed part of a continued larger group of works which Koberwein made depicting various grandchildren of the Queen, notably the children of the Prince and Princess of Wales, in 1873. Koberwein also made copies of portraits, such as the famous painting of Queen Victoria by Heinrich von Angeli, which he did in 1876 and which was gifted by the Disraelian Society to the National Trust with Hughenden Manor in 1947. A formatted, tondo version of an 1859 painting of Queen Victoria by Koberwein after Winterhalter, also features in one of the catalogues of Queen Victoria’s private negatives, for example, held in the Royal Photograph Collection. Importantly, however, Koberwein had of course, also painted Princess Alice in 1862 and more recently to Alix’s portrait, Prince Ludwig of Hesse, in 1873.

Koberwein’s portrait of the young Alix captures the future Tsarina of Russia at a time before the Hesse family had experienced the fullness of tragedy through the death of Grand Duchess Alice. At this time, Princess Alix still very much was ‘Sunny’, as her mother called her, merry and captivating, in the happiness of her childhood. Of course, it was made at a time when there was no hint of the tragedy to come, and that is what makes this painting such a poignant one.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.