A bedroom gives a uniquely personal insight into any historical personality and a royal personage no less so. Many key moments in Queen Victoria’s life also took place in her bedrooms, which help in no small way, to tell the story of that life.
The furnishing of this most private of spaces – usually the penultimate room in the sequence of rooms which defined through architecture, the level of privilege through the degree to which you were allowed to penetrate – enables us to see what the Queen (in this case) chose for these exclusively personal spheres, in which she woke, slept, gave birth and would ultimately, die. The sentimental and for us, a significant tradition of the commissioning of watercolours to record the interior decoration of any room, was highly popularised in aristocratic circles in the nineteenth century and allows us to see how these – in some cases long vanished – rooms, once looked.
Through this medium, we gain access to lost rooms which were in the context of their time, strictly accessible to those who were allowed to enter them. The need to record in albums of watercolours enabled the owner of these images, for example, to imagine themselves in these rooms, a fact which may have provided comfort for a princess who had married into a foreign country and missed the family rooms of her homeland. A remarkable series of watercolours of the English royal residences became known as the History of the Royal Residences, compiled by W. H. Pyne in 1819 – the year of the future Queen Victoria’s birth and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
Queen Victoria’s bedroom at Kensington Palace is of extraordinary historical significance. It was this bedroom which she shared with her mother, the Duchess of Kent until she became Queen at the age of eighteen. It was in this remarkable room on 20 June 1837 that Princess Victoria was woken by the Duchess of Kent, to receive the news of the death of her uncle, King William IV in her sitting-room below, which then translated to the natural reality of her own accession. The original bed from the bedroom was in more recent years put into storage at Buckingham Palace, but the room was winningly recreated with busts and paintings, to conjure up something of the environment of this most personal of spaces. The portrait of Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert by Sir George Hayter – possibly a copy – hung here on the south wall.
The room somehow still manages to convey something of the power of the young Princess Victoria’s personality and also the impact of that first morning when she awoke as Queen. Even allowing for this to be merely a natural consequence of the knowledge of subsequent historical events, it is impossible not to be moved by this when visiting the room, for it was from here, that a young eighteen-year-old Victoria walked on that momentous day (‘Of course quite ALONE’) downstairs in a dressing gown, to be told she had become Queen. Two years before her death, Queen Victoria revisited Kensington Palace and saw some of the rooms which were of personal significance to her, including the room in which she was born in 1819. We may imagine that it struck the Queen with a sense of historical poignancy, to see at the end of the reign, the very rooms in which that long reign technically began.
The Queen’s Bedroom at Balmoral was recorded in a series of paintings made of the private rooms at Balmoral by the artist James Roberts, in 1857. (The Queen’s bedroom in the ‘old’ Castle of Balmoral had also been painted, before Prince Albert’s complete redesign of the castle, the Balmoral of the present day). Queen Victoria’s Bedroom perfectly captures the romance of Scotland, which so entirely won over her imagination; this was the Scotland of her ghillies, her mountain excursions, of stags’ heads, bagpipes, of oatmeal Scotch porridge and of course, her Highland journals.
Predictably perhaps, Queen Victoria’s bedroom is decked out with tartan; a tartan rug covers the modest table in the middle, and the carpet is of dark green tartan. The canopy bed has a modest floral design, with a sofa at its foot. The Highland scene on the wall compliments the mood. We can just see the private staircase visible through the partly open door, leading down to the remaining rooms. As was typical in these nineteenth-century watercolours, popularised in Germany in particular, we see an item of clothing strung over a chair; as if the occupant has just left the room, thereby underlining the sense of the presence of the person in the room which had been painted.
Queen Alexandra lamented the wallpaper from Queen Victoria’s time to her daughter-in-law, the future Queen Mary, in 1910 – nine years after Queen Victoria’s death: ‘Dear Grand-Mama’s taste in wallpapers was rather sad and very doubtful!!!… the one in the bedroom appalling…’ (Quoted in Georgina Battiscombe, Queen Alexandra, 220; Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, 180). Prince Albert had even designed personal tartans for the Queen and one for Balmoral, the former white, the latter red (Hibbert, 181).
Queen Victoria’s bedroom at Buckingham Palace was also recorded in paint by James Roberts, in 1848; the year of the birth of her fourth daughter, Princess Louise. It was in this bedroom that Queen Victoria woke up on her wedding day on 10 February 1840 which began with rain lashing against her windowpanes. She wrote a hurried note of happiness to her bridegroom after breakfast: ‘What weather! I believe, however, the rain will cease. Send one word when you, my most dearly loved bridegroom, will be ready. Thy ever faithful, Victoria R’ (Quoted in Ibid, 120).
She had also woken up in this same room on the historic morning of her coronation, on 28 June 1838; having been aroused by the sound of guns and the ‘noise of the people, bands, etc., etc.’ (Quoted in Ibid, 70). The watercolour by Roberts shows the arrangement of furnishings and contents as the Queen would have known it; the four-poster canopy bed is resplendent with green hangings. The room is likewise full of personal objects under glass domes, with busts and portraits. The carpet is tawny coloured, with a design of red roses and blue flowers.
It was also in this room that the Queen gave birth to eight of her nine children, the sole exception being the birth of her second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who was born at Windsor Castle, in 1844. She indeed had become what she had once written she so feared becoming, in an early letter to her beloved uncle, Leopold I, King of the Belgians, namely: ‘mamma d’une nombreuse famille’. Tellingly, a painting of her father, the Duke of Kent – who died before she was one year old – was hung in her bedroom at Buckingham Palace, by the artist George Dawe. The Queen bought it the year after her coronation and put it in her bedroom.
We must imagine that this would have pleased the Duke of Kent, who had remained firmly convinced that ‘the crown will come to me and my children’, in what became known as the royal marriage race of that crucial year for British history, 1817. Prince Albert was at her bedside in this room, for the birth of her first child, the Princess Royal in 1840, a cold, November day when Buckingham Palace’s chimneys were smoking. The Queen alternated between her bed and her sofa during her last pregnancy; the birth of a daughter, Princess Beatrice in 1857, resulted in the Queen remaining in her bed at Buckingham Palace to convalesce afterwards, ‘like a prisoner’ (Matthew Dennison, The Last Princess, 6) – a pertinent reminder that a Queen regnant who presided over the country was very much, the ultimate Victorian mother, whatever her private feelings about pregnancy and motherhood, which were complex and contradictory in equal measure.
The Queen’s Bedroom in the private apartments of Windsor Castle was of great personal importance for the Queen. Her third daughter, Princess Helena gave a photograph of it to Queen Victoria in 1861: ‘Papa and Mama’s Bedroom’. The year for this is significant. Of course, we know that Prince Albert died at Windsor Castle in 1861. The Prince was moved from the Queen’s Bedroom to the Blue Room (where George IV and William IV had both died, in 1830 and 1837 respectively). This was the room in which he died on 14 December 1861, a black date for the rest of the Queen’s life, referred to her with ominous dread as the ‘terrible 14th’.
Queen Victoria movingly, annotated a photograph of their bedroom at Windsor as quite simply: ‘Our Bedroom’, which is indeed what it had been. Photographs made of the Queen’s Bedroom after Prince Albert’s death; these show rare and fascinating glimpses into the Queen’s private (and inner) world – again we see personal objects under glass domes, paintings, busts, a tapestry, a bedside cabinet. In 1862, a watercolour was made of the room – a sad testament to the Queen’s loneliness. We see that the half-tester bed had a dark green bedspread, two sconces are on the fireplace, and there is an elegant clock under a glass dome. Just over ten years later, a knitted blanket has been laid on top of the bed; there are a water glass and a bell next to the bed and a sofa at its foot, as at Balmoral. One of the portraits is of Princess Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg (1797-1862).
A watercolour made of the same room in 1847 shows – predictably – a much less solemn room, though it is similarly hung with paintings of the Coburg relations of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The room is cosily royal and shows a bedroom very much shared by the Queen with the Prince Consort, which is what it remained, until 1861.
The Queen’s Bedroom at Buckingham Palace was also photographed, in 1873. The ceiling is decorated with rosettes, garlands and lozenges. We can see chintz chairs and a pair of cabinets. The walls are covered with floral wall hangings and on both sides of the fireplace are an array of pictures, which may be copies of paintings made of Queen Victoria’s favourite son, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, in 1857. There may even be a card table in the corner of the room.
The Queen’s Bedroom at Balmoral was similarly photographed after 1873, by the photographer George Washington Wilson. This photograph shows the table in the centre of the room again covered with tartan cloth; personal objects fill the room – an open frame, books, sculptures. Pictures have been added to the wall since the watercolour by Roberts, including large engravings of portraits of several of her daughters. The wallpaper in the Queen’s Bedroom at Balmoral in the photograph appears to be a gilt fleur-de-lys design, elegant though severe. Significantly, an image of Prince Albert in a posthumous image hangs on the headboard of the bed; something the Queen did in the bedrooms of all of her residences after his death, above which is a memorial wreath. Curiously, there is a pocket for the Prince Consort’s watch fixed to the headboard as well, which may also be seen in the Queen’s Bedroom at Osborne – the room in which she would herself die, in 1901.
Queen Victoria’s Bedroom at Osborne is, perhaps, the most poignant of all of these bedrooms. It is also, the only one which today’s visitor is granted the privilege to enter. It was here, surrounded by her family that the Queen died on 22 January 1901 – on a small couch bed, supported by her German grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II and her doctor, Sir James Reid. A memorial plaque was affixed above the bed in the Queen’s memory, and the blinds were drawn in the room, out of respect for its sacred nature and its association with the Royal Family.
The room became a ‘shrine’ for the next fifty years (Michael Turner, Osborne House, 18) – an impression reinforced by the fact that gates were installed indoors to seal off this wing that contained the Queen’s private rooms in which she had died. The Queen’s recent biographer, A. N Wilson, described the power of the dead Queen’s presence in the room, as ‘electrifying’, an opinion with which the present author would concur. Even when visiting this relatively small room today, during a crowded summer opening of Osborne, it is still possible to remember what happened here. Similarly, the room was full at the moment of the Queen’s death, with her family gathered around her. Still hanging in the room is the large painting by the artist Gustav Jäger, depicting the Entombment of Christ, upon which the dying Queen’s eyes glanced, in the moments immediately before her death. Fittingly, the room is patterned with Victoria and Albert chintz cotton; the sofa cover romantically contains the profiles of the Queen and Prince Albert hidden within the chintz design (Ibid, 17).
A study of the bedrooms in the Queen’s chief official and private royal residences enable, therefore, a glimpse into the world of her ambience. We see objets d’art which she held to be of emotional importance. These were the rooms in which she woke and which saw her at her most intimate. In the Queen’s Bedroom at Osborne, she died. And at that moment, the life of the Queen – and the mighty Victorian era to which she had given her name – came to a close.