In the Royal Photograph Collection at Windsor is an album which offers a uniquely personal insight into Queen Victoria’s view of what she wanted to treasure in family terms and what deserved special mention in a documentary way. This is the splendid burgundy leather-bound album by Giroux, known as the ‘Album of Important Occasions. 1837-1885’, may have been produced later than when the dates in it were properly begun. It probably dates from between 1855 and the mid-1880s. The five oval miniature pictures on the front cover are views of Rome – Vatican Square, the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Castel Sant’Angelo. It shouldn’t be confused with the volumes that contain Queen Victoria’s private negatives, which also include similar material by theme.
The Album of Important Occasions is revealing because it tells us – literally – what Queen Victoria’s considered to be essential and worthy of particular record in her family. Predictably, this album contained photographs of crucial royal events, such as christenings, confirmations and weddings, but the choice of objects and the way in which they were arranged and chosen, is unusual. Also, we might think that such an album would date naturally from the Queen’s wedding year – 1840 – onwards, but we would be wrong. Correctly, the album instead begins with 1837 – a year of unparalleled significance in the life of the future Queen Victoria – the year of her accession, on the death of her uncle, King William IV.
So crucially, this album pre-dates Prince Albert, as it should. If 1840 was by the Queen’s own private admission in her journal, the ‘happiest’ day of her life, then 1837 was a year of inestimable importance, because it was the one in which she became a monarch. The year that the album ends – 1885 – is also telling. It was in this year that her beloved youngest daughter and ninth child, Princess Beatrice, married Prince Henry of Battenberg at St Mildred’s Church, Whippingham, where the Royal Family worshipped when in residence at Osborne. It is almost as if then, the album marks a cut-off point, after which all of the Queen’s children are considered adult, with their occasions all faithfully documented and photographed inside its pages.
There was something in Queen Victoria which made her want to preserve and memorialise, something which was very much the case before Prince Albert died and which only took on a darker tone after his death. This encompassed a vast range of art forms, from the marble statues of the Queen’s children at Osborne by the British sculptor Mary Thornycroft, to the Queen’s watercolours of her children. The paintings, sketches and sculptures, of course, could delight when given in the form of gifts but were also designed to capture and preserve, in keeping with the age of Victorian sentimentality. Even stones from Osborne or Balmoral were set into the Queen’s personal jewellery, in keeping with a nineteenth-century practice of pebble jewellery, popularised in Germany.
We might expect to see photographs of weddings in this album, within the content relating to the Queen’s children, although we must remember that the first two weddings in the Queen’s family – that of the Princess Royal in 1858 and Princess Alice in 1862, both occurred before the form of photography was properly established and therefore, the weddings of these two daughters are best described as having been captured by grainy daguerreotypes. They were captured, however, in contrast to the belief that Princess Alexandra of Denmark was the very first royal bride to be photographed. What is surprising is the way in which individual pieces of clothing were photographed in their own right, without their respective wearer, which results in the items of clothing looking formless and more nineteenth century Gothic at first glance. These pieces include the ‘Bonnet worn by Queen Victoria at her marriage’ – her ‘going away’ bonnet which she wore at the start of her honeymoon, for the carriage drive from Buckingham Palace to Windsor – and the resplendent lace wedding veil, with the Queen’s simple wreath of orange blossoms placed on top. The same page contains an engraving from the Sir George Hayter painting of the Queen’s marriage to Prince Albert and an engraving from Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s portrait of the Queen in her wedding dress, made in 1847, for the Queen and Prince Albert’s seventh wedding anniversary.
The Royal Photograph Collection contains various such photographs, such as the dress, wreath and veil worn by the Queen’s fourth daughter, Princess Louise at her marriage to the future 9th Duke of Argyll, in 1871. Photographs of Princess Louise’s dress also featured in the album of Queen Victoria’s private negatives, including carbon prints by Hughes & Mullins, made of the dress that the Queen wore at the wedding of her eldest daughter, the Princess Royal. Earlier in the album is an image of the Princess Royal in her confirmation dress in 1856. In Princess Louise’s case, we see the Princess dressed in her confirmation dress, with a view of the interior of St Mildred’s, Whippingham, where the service was performed, in 1865.
This practice is entirely in keeping with the kind of preservation cult which Queen Victoria encouraged in all matters relating to marriages in her family in particular, her wedding being a case in point. This practice did in no way cease when it came to her granddaughters, however, although the cult of photographing everything appears to have relaxed into samples of orange blossom or dresses. Her granddaughter, Princess Alix of Hesse promised to send Queen Victoria a cutting from her magnificent imperial wedding dress, for example, on her marriage to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in 1894; a sprig of orange blossom decoration from the wedding gown of Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg – the future Queen ‘Ena’ of Spain – is similarly preserved in the Royal Collection, in a glass container, tied with gold ribbons. It was among the items in the Royal Collection showed for the official Spanish State Visit to the UK in 2017. The lace veil and wreath worn by Princess Alice was photographed, as early as 1862 – draped over a chair. Most unusually, in the Swiss Cottage at Osborne, miniature glass domes are set into pictures of each of the Queen’s daughters, hanging in the Upper Dining Room; each dome contains dried flowers from each of their bridal bouquets.
It has been suggested that Queen Victoria pasted these images into the Album of Important Occasions, but she indeed did not annotate the album, as the handwriting is from a later date and not hers. If the Queen did mount these images into the record, she must have begun doing so either on the marriage of the Prince of Wales to Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863 – which seems likely – or have just made the album from photographs in her collection at a later date. The date of the album itself probably places within this time frame. The pages that show Princess Alexandra in her wedding dress, also show the Prince of Wales’ younger brothers – Prince Arthur and Prince Leopold – in their Highland kilts. The result is a collection of formal portraits, mounted for personal importance, a fitting illustration of the royal overlap that spans the public and the private. The contents of the album stretch, however, to include the Queen’s grandchildren, including Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence of Avondale, Princess Maud of Wales, Princess Irene of Hesse and Princess Alix of Hesse.
Similar to how we might make a photograph album today to commemorate a specific theme, Queen Victoria chose to gather together a series of events across nearly fifty years, into an album of occasions of what she considered – for her family – to be ‘important’.