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The Royal Family in 1846 – Queen Victoria’s favourite family picture

‘The Royal Family in 1846’ by the fashionable German painter, Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-73) is an extraordinarily important image.

Queen Victoria regarded it as the painter’s supreme achievement, although he painted the Queen on other occasions, most notably in 1843, in the famous ‘intimate’ portrait, which was Prince Albert’s favourite of her, showing her in a most private image, with her hair draped over her left shoulder. Winterhalter’s family group is probably the immediate picture that comes to mind when we think of Queen Victoria’s family. But it is also a political painting, a study in royal propaganda as well as relationships. It doesn’t just show the Royal Family, therefore, but is an icon of the institution of monarchy itself, with the children symbolic of its further continuance.

Not for nothing would Queen Victoria later acquire the popular – but entirely correct – sobriquet of ‘Grandmother of Europe’, with many of her grandchildren married into Europe’s ruling families, showing just, however, closer interconnected they became regarding birth and blood, sharing the same veins. Prince Albert never earned the fond pendant title of ‘Grandfather of Europe’ in the way that say, the Danish King Christian IX was christened the ‘Father-in-law of Europe’. Prince Albert never became the octogenarian at Queen Victoria’s side, of course, an elderly pair – ‘the Grandparents of Europe’, whose descendants were now firmly installed into its ruling houses. We should remember that this image could easily have been possible, with Albert as a sort of grandfatherly, English Christian IX – had he not died prematurely, in 1861.

But if Queen Victoria was Europe’s grandmother in terms of its royal families, then Prince Albert was very much its (dead) grandfather; and it was his children who through their own marriages, made this possible. Among the royal children were a future German Empress, a British King and a Hessian Grand Duchess. The remaining daughters married either minor German princes – or in Princess Louise’s case, the English Marquis of Lorne, future 9th Duke of Argyll – their remaining sons, a Russian Grand Duchess, a Prussian princess and a minor German princess from the House of Waldeck-Pyrmont. The Winterhalter painting underlines much of this, even though the royal children are only toddlers at this point; it is also a study of (future) family planning. Prince Albert’s first grandchild was born in 1859 – the Princess Royal, now Crown Princess of Prussia’s first son, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II; the second born in his lifetime, was Princess Charlotte of Prussia, born in 1860.

Fascinatingly, the painting was executed two years before that sudden quake of Revolutions known as the ‘Springtime of Peoples’, which shifted the tectonic plates of political Europe. 1848 was a black year for Kings and Emperors in Europe and a year of imperial abdication, with the surrendering of political power by the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I ‘the Kindly’, to his young and brilliant nephew, Franz Joseph. The proclamation that the Winterhalter painting represents is therefore essential; it is of a Royal Family painted before this fateful year and of a Royal Family that survived the 1848 Revolution and emerged from it shocked but personally unscathed. Louis-Phillipe, the French King who sought sanctuary in England as a result of 1848, had in fact been the monarch to whom Queen Victoria had initially written back in May 1846, to ask if Winterhalter might be permitted to come to Windsor to paint the family picture. He began work in October 1846.

The painting is remarkable in many ways. It shows a young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, surrounded by their progeny; in itself, a declaration that the monarchy is fruitful, healthy and burgeoning, and above all, is a success – and a survivor, pre-1848.

The Queen is shown as both Sovereign and royal mother in equal measure, with a brush of artistic genius. All the royal children are looking at each other, except the Prince of Wales, who stands to his mother’s right, gazing not at her, but at Prince Albert. Despite the domesticity of the painting, there is a deliberate formality; both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert wear the ribbon of the Garter, sat on sumptuous chairs like thrones. Like many formal paintings which depict the monarch with their heir(s), the presence of the heir apparent is harmonious, in direct contrast with the reality of the many of these relationships, already tense because the matter of the succession inevitably involved the monarch’s own death.

The Queen was delighted with the result, which was completed the following year and exhibited at St. James’s Palace, admired by as many as 100,000 visitors. It was not universally well received by all art critics. However, one of whom commented in the Athenaeum (1847, pg. 496) with self-righteous xenophobia, that it showed ‘such a want of taste – as make us frankly rejoice that it is not from the hand of an Englishman.’

A copy of the Winterhalter painting is hung in the Dining Room at Osborne House, where Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice was married to Prince Ludwig ‘Louis’ of Hesse, in 1862 – a year after the death of the Prince Consort. The location of this painting is important, hanging on the wall of Osborne, the beloved private residence which the Queen and Prince Albert had acquired in 1845, two years after Alice’s birth. The Queen could have some melancholy satisfaction in noting that Winterhalter’s painting of the Royal Family, showing Prince Albert, was positioned above the makeshift altar on the sideboard. We suspect that this would have had the same lugubrious mix of comfort and grief for the Queen in her mourning weeds, as she sat through the marriage service, her eyes fixed on the Winterhalter copy, Prince Albert’s hand outstretched in her direction, where she sat. (David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, 84). This seems to have been a moving gesture to demonstrate the dead Prince Albert blessing his second daughter. (HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, Victoria and Albert: A Family Life at Osborne House, 172). The fact that this copy hung over the makeshift altar, also makes the ‘Family Picture’ hang in place of a picture of the Holy Family.

As many instances show, Queen Victoria included the dead Prince Albert in music, sculpture and painting, to make up for his absence at an event. The Winterhalter copy of ‘The Royal Family’ is still hanging at Osborne, in the Dining Room; it was hung in this position on Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1849, after its completion. (Michael Turner, Osborne House, 6). On her Wedding Day, Alice would no doubt have seen the little figure of herself as a three-year-old child, to the left side of the Princess Royal, both of the tiny princesses hovering over the newly born Princess Helena (1846) on a cushion, with an ermine-trimmed throw.

The original painting hangs in the East Gallery at Buckingham Palace; fittingly, as all but one of Queen Victoria’s nine children – the second son, Prince Alfred, who was born at Windsor in 1844 – were born at Buckingham Palace. The newly born Princess Helena was christened in Buckingham Palace’s private chapel on 25 July 1846. The Queen paid Winterhalter £1,050 for it.

The Winterhalter picture seems to have become known affectionately as the ‘Family Picture’; an interesting example of how a political painting had become a personal one. For it was a family picture, whatever it was meant to represent formally.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.