Some personal items belonging to Queen Victoria have been acquired by Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity which maintains Kensington Palace, ahead of the bicentenary of the Queen’s birth in 2019, which the palace will celebrate with a new exhibition and re-presentation of the visitor route, as announced in a Historic Royal Palaces press release on 3 September 2018.
Kensington Palace is an apposite choice as the palace to host such an exhibition because it was of course, at Kensington Palace, that the future Queen was born on 24 May 1819, in a room now accessible to the public as part of its permanent exhibition, Victoria Revealed. It was also at Kensington Palace that Princess Victoria lived until her accession, when she was woken on that historic morning – 20 June 1837 – and informed of the death of her uncle, King William IV and that in her own words, ‘consequently that I am Queen’.
The suite of rooms occupied by Princess Victoria and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, will be re-imagined as an exploration of royal childhood as part of the new presentation; currently, the bedroom in which Princess Victoria slept – and shared with her mother until the morning she became Queen – is closed and used as part of the Palace’s family activities programme. The staircase, however, which she descended on that momentous morning, is partially visible; it formerly led down to the sitting room, which the young Princess Victoria entered ‘only in my dressing gown’, to be informed that she was Queen.
This suite of rooms enables us – perhaps unlike any other – to truly get to know the young Victoria because it was in these rooms at Kensington, that she lived, learned, ate, slept, played and importantly, grew up. The future Queen Victoria was formed in – and by – Kensington Palace. She lived under what would become known as the ‘Kensington System’, masterminded by the Comptroller of the Duchess of Kent’s Household, her father’s former equerry, Sir John Conroy, further forging her character as a result. Victoria left her life as Princess behind at Kensington Palace, bound for Buckingham Palace. She became Queen within its walls.
Her first Privy Council was held at Kensington Palace, in the Red Saloon, an event later recorded by the artist, Sir David Wilkie, which the Queen disliked for its historical inaccuracy, because Wilkie painted her in white, instead of the black she wore on that day, probably also in mourning for her uncle, the late King William IV. A scrapbook of ‘mementoes’ belonging to her devoted governess, Baroness Lehzen, who reportedly never ‘once left her’ and with whom she made her now famous wooden dolls, will also be publicly displayed for the first time, in the new exhibition.
Rare items from Queen Victoria’s personal wardrobe will also be displayed, some of which were recently acquired with the assistance of the Art Fund. These will help the visitor to re-interpret the Queen through her clothes, which in turn, help to tell her life story.
These personal belongings of Queen Victoria will be exhibited in the Pigott Gallery at Kensington Palace and will include a pair of silver boots. Boots are rare exhibits when it comes to Queen Victoria. Though several examples of the Queen’s footwear have been preserved in the collections of the Museum of London, it is not possible to fully attribute all of these to the Queen. The pair believed traditionally to have been worn by the Queen at her coronation lack authenticated provenance, although they do bear the printed paper label of the Queen’s Boot and Shoe Maker, Gundry & Son of Soho Square, who held the royal patent throughout her reign, until Joseph Box & Co. took them over in 1898.
The Museum of London does preserve a pair of ivory silk satin dancing slippers, said to have belonged to Queen Victoria, equally manufactured by Gundry & Son. Checking the Queen’s journal, I cannot find any specific reference to silver boots and only one single entry for silver shoes, which were worn by the Queen’s fourth daughter, Princess Louise, at the christening of her brother, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, at Buckingham Palace, in 1850. This is not unusual, however, as the Queen tended to describe her dresses more and her jewellery in particular.
Also displayed will be a simple cotton petticoat, dating from around the time of the Queen’s marriage to Prince Albert in 1840. Examples of the Queen’s underwear are rarely exhibited.
The Queen’s underwear and nightwear were probably made by the linen warehouse run by Harriet Ware, on London’s Grosvenor Street (Ibid, 130). Ware held the royal warrant, although according to the admirable researches of the author Kay Staniland, accounts of The Office of Robes do not confirm specifically that she supplied the Queen’s personal linen, perhaps because the delicate nature of these items was one deemed worthy of special royal privacy (Ibid, 130). The laundry at Buckingham Palace would presumably have washed the Queen’s underwear, although sadly, we do not how. Given the Queen’s lively interest in fashion, something given early expression through the wooden dolls she dressed, it is not surprising that petticoats are mentioned in the Queen’s journal, some forty times.
A silk stocking ca. 1837, believed to have been worn by the Queen at her coronation came from a group of items preserved by the Queen’s wardrobe maid Lydia Greatorex, who served the Queen between 1848 and 1857, so its provenance seems reasonably sound (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion pp. 114-126). This single silk stocking bears its own embroidered crown, which would seem to support this, although we might expect such a royal motif if the stocking dated from the year of the Queen’s accession. Any item of underwear would bear the royal cypher, which we can see on a group of items of underwear which once belonged to the Queen, today held at the Museum of London, which include a nightdress, drawers, monogrammed stockings and a chemise, all dating from the end of Victoria’s reign (Staniland, 166). The monogram has simply ‘VR’ (perhaps surprisingly, not VRI, as Queen Victoria had been Empress of India since 1876) beneath an embroidered crown and the items of underwear also appear to have been numbered, perhaps in order to keep track of them in the endless cycle of washing, darning and pressing, so that the Queen could wear them. The royal stockings are black with pink toes.
Of course, we know that during her honeymoon at Windsor Castle, the Queen watched Prince Albert shave with relish, whilst he helped her put on her stockings, so it is somewhat touching that the petticoat which will be displayed at Kensington Palace in 2019 dates from around the time of the Queen’s marriage to the Prince Consort. During the process of the Queen’s morning dressing, her underwear would have consisted of a chemise, stockings, corset and petticoats (Ibid, 127) which she would have put on in her Dressing Room. Her Dressing Room at Windsor Castle was captured in watercolour by the artist Joseph Nash. Queen Victoria painted watercolours of the view from her respective Dressing Rooms at both Windsor Castle and Osborne House. Queen Victoria’s underwear was probably shared between the Royal Household on her death and would, therefore, be scattered today, across numerous private, worldwide collections (Staniland, 166).
These personal items will examine both the Queen’s uniquely ‘double’ life, as a private woman in a public role. Clothing helps so well to illustrate this royal divide, and in Queen Victoria’s case, this will surely yield yet more fascinating and fresh insights in 2019.