A charming photograph taken by Mary Steen in the Queen’s Sitting Room at Windsor on 21 May 1895 shows an elderly Queen Victoria knitting or crocheting, sat with her youngest daughter, Beatrice, Princess Henry of Battenberg, who dutifully reads the newspaper aloud to her mother whilst the Queen listens, needles in her hand and a ball of wool at her feet. It is a wonderfully domestic snapshot, capturing a moment of intimacy between Queen Victoria and her beloved fifth daughter. The Queen is surrounded by precious clutter and furniture, the walls hung with family paintings, while on the tables stand clocks, sculptures under domes of glass, flowers, knickknacks and plants.
Photographs showing the Queen at her knitting are unusual, as not many appear to have been made. One earlier exception is the photograph made of her in 1889 by Byrne & Co, doing what seems to be crochet work.
We might not immediately think of Queen Victoria knitting, perhaps due to demands on her time. Her sketchbook we would surely first think of as her creative pursuit, the Queen at her paint-box, at least one of which survives. In fact, there are not many references to knitting in the Queen’s (edited) journals. She knitted for the Crimean War effort (Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 268) when mittens and scarves were sent out to the British soldiers, as might befit the ‘Great Mother’ of the Nation. During her widowhood, Queen Victoria took up the lonely pursuit of spinning wool and was drawn by Sir Joseph Boehm at her wheel, a consciously tragic image of a woman deep in reflection, spinning her wool and wearing her widow’s cap and veil. She was also photographed spinning (1863-5) by J. E. Mayall. The Queen wrote in her journal in 1865: ‘Css. [Countess] Blucher came to my room & showed me how to spin. I am getting on, in spite of a bad wheel & bad flax’. (cit., Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 157). Some damask napkins, apparently spun by the Queen, were later showed at the 1888 Glasgow International Exhibition (Ibid, 157).
Looking at the Queen’s journals, we can see, however, that knitting went back much further. Perhaps predictably, she mentioned it while convalescing from her serious illness at Ramsgate in 1835. Other occasions were at Claremont while Lehzen, the beloved German governess of her youth, read aloud to her. We might not be surprised that after the Queen’s marriage to Prince Albert, she showed less of an interest in the activity. She describes knitting between the end of 1840 – the year of her wedding – and the beginning of 1841, a period after she had given birth to her first child, the Princess Royal. She knitted a quilt for the baby boy born in 1874 to her second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and his wife, Duchess Marie, christened Prince Alfred after his father. She continued to knit cot covers for her numerous grandchildren when they arrived, such as that knitted for Princess Alice of Albany, daughter of her son, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany and Princess Helen of Waldeck. Her cot covers were little works of art which she was extremely proud of. The pink and white cot cover for Princess Alice of Albany survives at the Museum of London, shows the Queen’s cypher in black wool ‘VRI’ under a crown and the date ‘1883’, which she embroidered on the cover.
There is something touching I think, about this image of the elderly Queen-Empress with her red boxes, working privately also, with her knitting needles at Windsor. Her grandson, Prince Ernst Ludwig of Hesse recalled in his memoirs, his memory of his English grandmother at Osborne House: ‘Often I came back, and I would usually see a light in her corner room. I went up softly and knocking, asked if I might come in. There sat the little lady at a tiny table on a tiny chair and worked like few would, for her great Empire.’ (Author’s translation, Ernst Ludwig, Grossherzog von Hessen und bei Rhein, Erinnertes, 82). Ernst Ludwig himself preserved the first attempt at knitting ever made by his beloved youngest sister, Princess Marie ‘May’ of Hesse, who died of diphtheria at Darmstadt, aged four, in 1878. This child – also much loved by Queen Victoria – had knitted a small cap, which Ernst Ludwig said, he kept on his pillow for over twenty years, until it fell apart. (Ibid, 76).
At Frogmore House, some samples of Queen Victoria’s knitting actually survive. They are kept inside a small, pretty, tasselled straw basket on the table of the Sitting Room of her mother, the Duchess of Kent. The basket dates between 1850 and 1899 and also contains a little ball of pink wool. A tiny handwritten label inside the basket reads: ‘This basket contains the hand work of Queen Victoria’, perhaps Queen Mary’s handwriting.
The ever-busy hands of Queen Victoria which wrote what was once estimated by the author Giles St Aubyn as around 2,500 words each day as an adult, found time then also, for hand work.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.