The bicentenary of the births of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert will be celebrated by a small display at Windsor, once the setting for the many Christmases which the royal couple spent together with their growing family of nine children. Displayed in the Octagon Dining Room, it will recall the ritual of the Bescherung, [‘Giving of Gifts’] the traditional German custom of exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve, which was maintained by the Queen and Prince for themselves, their children and each member of their family. The special exhibition provides an opportunity to explore the wider history of all the other gifts exchanged by the royal couple at Christmas over the years of their marriage, from 1840 until 1861.
These Christmas gifts were usually carefully arranged on tables together with the Queen’s frosted trees, in a festive rendering of another royal custom, the annual birthday tables at Osborne. Queen Victoria recorded her delight on Christmas Eve 1843 of her ‘excitement & agitation of finishing arraying the “Bescherung” & presents, which to me is such a pleasure’ (cit., Louise Cooling, A Royal Christmas, 40). Christmas was celebrated within the Royal Family at Windsor until the death of the Prince Consort, after which the widowed Queen Victoria established the new tradition of spending Christmas at Osborne, a symbolic departure from the festivities at Windsor which were so reminiscent of Albert and also from the medieval tradition of the royal winter at Windsor.
The Christmas trees and tables were painted by artists such as William Corden the Younger and James Roberts, whose shimmering watercolours still manage to convey something of the magical atmosphere of these lost rooms and times. These works are also important because they help us to identify the works which may have been exchanged that year – moreover, as from the late 1840s onwards, Queen Victoria did not enumerate all her gifts.
The Queen’s fir trees were ‘lighted all over with small tapers’ and hung with toffees, whilst a separate Christmas tree was set up in the Oak Room – the Gothic room where Queen Victoria often took breakfast – for the Queen’s household. The tables for the Queen and Prince were put up in separate rooms, whilst the royal children generally had their tables together. When the Christmas tables were set up in the Queen’s sitting room, the chandeliers were taken out (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 158) so that they presumably did not catch fire with the lighted tapers on the trees.
The Christmas gifts exchanged by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were often deeply symbolic and rich with intimate detail. Customarily, they took the form of portraiture, sculpture or personal jewellery. After Prince Albert’s death, the Queen had the jewellery she had been given from her beloved husband individually engraved, with the date that each piece had been received.
Importantly, their marriage had been long since memorialised in art long before the Prince’s death. In this way, Queen Victoria’s personal jewellery became deeply treasured mementoes of a royal love and marriage. The Queen’s jewellery arguably also has a quasi-erotic element because of the contact that the pieces of jewellery had to the skin and the part of the body on which it would be worn. There was added emphasis if the jewelled object contained hair, particular gemstones or romantic themes such as lovers’ knots or hearts entwined, with dates and named engraved. The wearing of a jewel, after all, enabled it to be carried constantly by the wearer.
Prince Albert often designed jewellery especially as a gift for Queen Victoria and took a genuine interest in the Queen’s appearance and clothing. It is significant that the Prince’s favourite picture of his wife was the revealing 1843 portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter showing the Queen’s bare shoulders and her hair loosened wearing a locket she particularly loved, containing the Prince’s hair, something which alone should show us that the cult of Albert existed for Victoria long before his death, when the hair of the dead formed a central part of Victorian memorial jewellery. This was the lock of hair which dated from the immediate period after their engagement and which the Queen recorded in her journal as obsessively wearing ‘night and day’ (Charlotte Gere, Love and art: Queen Victoria’s personal jewellery, 8).
The famous orange blossom parure which began as an engagement present from Albert was added to from 1839 onwards with a brooch and earrings given for the growing set for Christmas 1845. On 10 December 1839, Albert had given the Queen his first Christmas gift, a bracelet set with diamonds, decorated with hearts and lovers’ knots. It was symbolic of the kind of jewellery she received in the year of her engagement, such as the exquisite bracelet with intertwined hearts from her mother the Duchess of Kent, prior to her announcement of her engagement to Prince Albert to the Privy Council on 23 November 1839. The Duchess – who was also Albert’s aunt – gave him a prayer book bound in green velvet for a wedding present, with two joined hands of gold as its clasp.
The Christmas presents of 1840 included a portrait which the Queen commissioned of herself from the artist John Partridge as a gift for Prince Albert. In it, the Queen wears a glass locket containing Albert’s hair, which may be the same one she is wearing in the Winterhalter portrait of 1843. The picture used to hang in Prince Albert’s Writing Room at Buckingham Palace but is today at Frogmore House. That year, the Queen also gave Albert a walking stick and a picture by Lucas Cranach. The Prince gave her a drawing of their baby daughter, the Princess Royal.
For Christmas 1841, Queen Victoria received a tenderly conceived brooch set with sapphires, rubies, emeralds and diamonds, containing a miniature portrait of their first child, Victoria, Princess Royal, clasping a tiny cross in her hands. Queen Victoria pronounced herself delighted with the result, which depicted their baby daughter as a winged cherub. According to her journal, she thought ‘the workmanship & design… quite exquisite, & dear Albert was so pleased at my delight over it, it having been entirely his own idea & taste’ (cit., Cooling, 45). The inspiration was apparently taken from the Sistine Madonna in Dresden by Raphael, the Prince Consort’s most admired artist. Later, the German Empress left careful instructions about this precious item of jewellery that depicted her, recording that: ‘This brooch was given to me by beloved Mama at Windsor – she had worn it a great deal. I should like it to be left to the Crown of England’ (cit., Gere, 9).
For Christmas 1841, Queen Victoria gave Albert among other gifts, a beautiful oil painting of Eos, Albert’s beloved German greyhound, who watches over his royal master’s leather gloves, top hat and ivory-topped cane. The Queen gave him the picture on Christmas Eve, and the Prince was so delighted with it that he hung it in his Dressing Room at Buckingham Palace. Commissioned by the Queen from Landseer, the royal ledgers show that it cost the princely sum of £152.10.
Predictably, the royal children increasingly formed the theme for the gifts exchanged. The Prince Albert gave the Queen an enamelled picture of their second son Prince Alfred for a bracelet and a marble bust of their third daughter Princess Helena for Christmas 1848. For Christmas 1850, the Prince gave Queen Victoria a miniature of their fourth daughter Princess Louise as a clasp to a bracelet of dark blue enamel set with stars and diamonds with which the Queen was so delighted, she made a sketch of it for her journal. Prince Albert gave the Queen a marble statue of their baby daughter (and ninth child) Princess Beatrice, for Christmas 1858.
For Christmas 1842, Queen Victoria gave Prince Albert some plate and pictures, whilst he gave her a sketch of himself by Ross and an antique parure. The next Christmas, the Queen’s presents from Albert included a picture of himself with his brother Ernst as children which had been copied from the original at Coburg, a statuette of himself on horseback in silver and a bracelet set with emeralds. In exchange, the Queen gave him several pictures. The pictures exchanged could also be of sentimental as opposed to artistic importance, such as the views of Balmoral and Lochnagar which the Queen gave the Prince for Christmas 1848. For Christmas 1857, Prince Albert gave the Queen a copy of a picture by Winterhalter of Eugenie, the stylish Empress of the French whom they both highly admired.
Alongside the pictures exchanged, there was usually at least one piece of jewellery, such as the large pearl set in diamonds which Albert gave to the Queen for Christmas 1847. Past jewellery gifts were occasionally also worn to physically memorialise other Christmases in keeping with the Queen’s obsession with dates and anniversaries.
Some of the jewellery pieces were less personal in token, such as a sculpture for her from Prince Albert for Christmas 1851 which the Queen had admired at that year’s Great Exhibition. The year of the outbreak of the Crimean War meant that the Prince’s gift to Queen Victoria was correspondingly militaristic – a set of scenes of his visit to the Camp at Boulogne in watercolours.
The memorialising of the royal residences naturally became a part of this sentimental cult because they symbolised the location of happy times spent together with their growing brood of children. This meant that pebble jewellery, already popular on the continent, took on for the Queen and Prince Albert a particular personal meaning. One such piece was a pair of studs which Queen Victoria commissioned for Albert for Christmas 1845 from the jewellers Kitching & Abud, containing pebbles from their beloved Osborne (Ibid, 13). For Christmas 1845 Prince Albert designed an inkstand for the Queen with a frosted silver stag stood on a base, set with deer’s teeth and stones which Albert had collected during the royal visit to Scotland in 1844 (Cooling, 45). If the gift didn’t depict a residence in question, it could be given to decorate it. For example, for Christmas 1852 Albert gave the Queen four huge statues for Osborne, copied from a set of antique bronzes at Berlin.
The story of the love of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert can be successfully told through the gifts they exchanged, most especially through the jewellery they commissioned for each other. Such jewellery contained highly intimate references, such as hair, stones or miniatures. Their deep mutual love informed the choices they made for such gifts for each other, which came to include symbols of their marriage, children and residences. The feminine brooches and bracelets which Albert gave to Victoria enable a glimpse into the royal marriage in miniature whilst allowing us a look into his exquisite eye for detail. Each gift was chosen for its sentimental association.
The Christmas of 1860 was the last which Queen Victoria was to celebrate with her beloved husband. Like the others, it was symbolically spent at Windsor. The Queen does not record any specific present from Albert in her journal for this year. It seems to have been a typically warm family celebration with the ever-returning tables and the traditional evening Bescherung.
One of the most poignant gifts, which survives from Prince Albert, was ordered by him as a gift for Queen Victoria for Christmas 1861 and given to her posthumously. The Prince died on 14 December 1861 at Windsor Castle, the setting for so many of their shared Christmases. The item of jewellery was placed by order of the Queen in the very room in which Prince Albert died at Windsor, with the instruction that it should join that group of personal jewels to be willed to the Crown and not given elsewhere. The delicate bracelet, containing a hand-coloured 1859 photograph of the Duchess of Kent who had died in the March of that year, was set with pearl ouroboros to symbolise love and mourning in the feeling language of jewellery.
Touchingly, it was the Queen’s second daughter Princess Alice, who had attended her beloved father’s bedside throughout his illness, who gave it to her mother instead of Prince Albert. The bracelet was engraved accordingly: Last gift/from my/beloved & adored Albert/ordered by him/for Xmas 1861/Given me by Alice/Jan. 1st 1862’.
It was the last of Albert’s Christmas gifts to his wife.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019