At Hughenden, the Buckinghamshire manor and former home of Benjamin Disraeli, arguably Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister, is a room with a poignant link to the family of the Queen’s second daughter, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse. The story behind this link is a hidden one, told only by two photographs to be seen on the desk of the Drawing Room although the Drawing Room in Disraeli’s time was originally in the space now occupied by the Library; the rooms only exchanged locations later. Within Hughenden’s royal collection are many pieces, most of which were personal gifts to Disraeli from Queen Victoria, for which reason they were particularly cherished by him. The pictures on the desk show Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse with her surviving son, Prince Ernst Ludwig of Hesse and secondly, Princess Alice’s surviving children in a group, photographed after her death.
It is likely that these photographs were given by Queen Victoria to Disraeli although this cannot be conclusively established. Research in Hughenden Manor’s records allowed me to establish that both photographs passed, as did the mansion, from the Disraelian Society to the National Trust and the nature of their passing in this way to the Trust would imply they were part of the heirloom collection at Disraeli’s death. Disraeli himself designated most of his royal collection as heirloom as confirmed to the present author, so it seems very likely that these two pictures were part of this.
Listed as part of the National Trust collections, the first photograph is of Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse in a folding brass frame of oak leaf design. The words ‘Princess Alice’ are written on the back of the frame. The child listed as a ‘boy in a sailor suit’ is in fact, Princess Alice’s only surviving son, Prince Ernst Ludwig. The photograph is part of one of the last sittings, taken shortly before Alice’s death. In another version from this sitting reproduced in the German memoirs of Ernst Ludwig, Erinnertes, Prince Ernst Ludwig glances at the book his mother is holding, whilst she stares seated at the camera. The original comes from the private Grand Ducal archive in Darmstadt, part of the Hessian State Archives.
The second photograph is mistakenly identified as ‘Princess Alice of Hesse and her four children in a landscape’, in an ebonized frame, its date ‘unknown’. This photograph was in fact, taken fifteen months after Princess Alice’s death and depicts her surviving children in a studio portrait, still dressed in mourning. They are from left to right, Princess Elisabeth of Hesse, Prince Ernst Ludwig of Hesse, Princess Victoria of Hesse (seated), Princess Alix of Hesse (future Tsarina of Russia) and Princess Irene of Hesse. The exact same photograph (RCIN 2903494) exists in the Royal Collection in the bound albums entitled Portraits of Royal Children, Vol 25 (1879-80). The picture was taken by the Darmstadt court photographer, Carl Backofen in March 1880.
It is then that the links with Disraeli come into sharper, sadder focus. When Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse died on 14 December 1878 – the exact anniversary of her father, Prince Albert’s death – the sense of acute family tragedy in distant Darmstadt was given its own tribute in England by none other than Disraeli himself. The death of Alice had followed so soon after that of her youngest daughter, Princess Marie of Hesse; this was a royal daughter who had remembered her own father’s deathbed at Windsor in 1861. In Darmstadt, she had moved from sickbed to sickbed, as each of her children and her husband succumbed to diphtheria, with the sole exception of Princess Elisabeth (‘Ella’). Weakened, she caught the disease it is thought, by attempting to comfort Prince Ernst Ludwig who was himself still contagious, although there are several versions as to how she actually contracted diphtheria. Queen Victoria’s (edited) journal, which contains important details told to her about Princess Alice’s illness, records that exactly how Princess Alice caught the disease remained uncertain. The Queen repeats having heard that Alice had kissed the body of her four-year-old daughter, Princess Marie (‘May’) of Hesse, after death. On 19 December, Queen Victoria saw Disraeli at Windsor and significantly, discussed her recent loss with him.
Disraeli addressed the House of Lords in the following tribute on Princess Alice’s death:
‘My lords, there is something wonderfully piteous in the immediate cause of her death. The physicians who permitted her to watch over her suffering family enjoined her under no circumstances whatever to be tempted into an embrace. Her admirable self-restraint guarded her through the crisis of this terrible complaint in safety. She remembered and observed the injunctions of her physicians. But it became her lot to break to her little son the death of his youngest sister [Princess Marie of Hesse], to whom he was devotedly attached. The boy was so overcome with misery that the agitated mother clasped him in her arms, and thus she received the kiss of death’. (cit., David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, pp. 180-181).
But there is a touching, little-known sequel to all this. Disraeli was present at Osborne during the visit of the widowed Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse and his children, when they came in the first raw months after Alice’s death, to spend time with the Queen. The Grand Duke and his children were with the Queen in England between 21 January and 28 February 1879 (Ernst Ludwig, Grossherzog von Hessen und bei Rhein, Erinnertes, 199). The Queen’s journal confirms the arrival of the Hessian party on 21 January, when movingly along with the Hessian family, the now completed group portrait by Heinrich von Angeli of the family of Ludwig IV (including Alice) was brought to Osborne.
Ernst Ludwig records a personal meeting with Disraeli, who must have been reminded strongly of Alice’s death by the encounter. We know this because of what Ernst Ludwig ‘remembers’ took place, written down much later. His memoirs record that the meeting took place in February 1879 at Osborne, the sole time he had a personal encounter with any of his grandmother’s English ministers. Ernst Ludwig himself links the meeting with his mother: ‘My mother had died on 14 December 1878’, and although this clearly has to do with the date in question, it is nevertheless significant that the link is there. The young prince must have known Disraeli by name well because he also remembered that Miss Jackson, the English governess of his sisters, much admired him, being herself a committed Conservative. Then being in his tenth year, Ernst Ludwig summoned so he tells us, his courage together and knocked at the door of the room where he knew Disraeli was at Osborne. So nervous was he that apparently nearly ran away, when Disraeli replied for him to come in. Ernst Ludwig continued:
‘He sat at a desk. As he saw me, he stood up and asked me: “What do you want, little man?’ I said that I had wanted to see him.’ Sitting down, Disraeli asked this time: ‘Who are you, little man?’ ‘I am Mama’s son’, was my answer. ‘Who is she?’ he asked. ‘Princess Alice’, I said. Then he said merely: ‘Oh you poor dear child’. What more he said, I do not know…’ (Ibid, Author’s translation, 142).
Movingly, it is Princess Alice’s photograph with the young Prince Ernst Ludwig on the desk in Disraeli’s (recreated) Drawing Room today, alongside one of Princess Alice’s surviving children. Disraeli clearly would have remembered his own words about Alice, spoken to the House of Lords. We do not know when he received the photographs, presuming they were given by the Queen. Disraeli himself died in 1881, a year after the group photograph of the Hessian children in Darmstadt, dressed still in mourning. These photographs however, tell a story that links Disraeli with the Hesse family still today.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.