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Victoria on Victoria: The Self-Portrait Sketch of 1835

Aged sixteen, Princess Victoria made a pencil sketch of herself. Knowing the vividness of the watercolours that she made for her sketchbook and the skilled drawings she made during this time of other important figures in her youth, it is fascinating that she chose to apply the same exactness of observation to herself. It is, of course, however, not the only self-portrait that she made. The date that she made it is crucial in her life history. I also want to produce new evidence concerning this self-portrait, based on my own research.

The sketch is remarkable in many ways. Although it dates roughly to ‘1835’, we can pinpoint the period of its execution more precisely because it was made in the wake of her serious illness at Ramsgate, so post-October 1835. Talented drawings that she made between 1833 and 1836 (at Kensington Palace) are like a picture-book of her life and world at this period, crucially though, done by herself and no external artist. For example, November 1833, Princess Victoria reached for her pencil and sketched Baroness Lehzen, her devoted governess, an unsurprising choice given the fact that the Baroness, in the thirteen years of her service never ‘once left her’ and was virtually omnipotent at Kensington Palace (op. cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 22). Another figure, her admired singing master Luigi Lablache, was sketched by Victoria ‘from recollection’ at Kensington Palace in August 1836, the year that her lessons with him began.

So, the sketch dates between this period, but this time was of herself, by herself. The reasons for its being made are crucial to us understanding the importance of it. It was whilst holidaying at Ramsgate in the autumn of 1835 that Princess Victoria became unwell. Her beloved uncle, Leopold, first King of the Belgians, had joined her, together with his (second) wife, Queen Louise, a daughter of Louis-Philippe, King of the French. It was following her return to Ramsgate, having accompanied King Leopold and Queen Louis to Dover to bid them farewell, that Princess Victoria began to feel ‘very ill’ (cit., Ibid, 42). A variety of reasons for this have been suggested by historians – admittedly with all the limited judgement that can ever be expected from posthumous diagnosis and all the contemporary language concurrent with the sickness – from nervous exhaustion to tonsillitis, even typhoid fever. At the very least, she was exhausted from the endless royal progress tours and had a rapid pulse (Ibid, 42).

The doctor of the Duchess of Kent was called, James Clark, but the Duchess seems to have initially considered her daughter’s illness to be caused by ‘childish whims’ and was more the product of the Baroness Lehzen’s paranoia (op. cit., Ibid, 42). This is perhaps surprising, because Princess Victoria was in a seaside resort, just as the Duke of Kent had been at Sidmouth when his illness rapidly deteriorated, and he died in January 1820, when his infant daughter Victoria was not even one-year-old. I wonder whether, given the maternal idolatry of the Duchess of Kent towards her daughter, (as her earliest correspondence during Victoria’s childhood demonstrates) whether her passionate concern could also have made her dismissive and unwilling to believe that anything serious could actually be wrong with Victoria, a kind of denial. Certainly, Princess Victoria was already suffering from a heavy cold, which is exactly how the Duke of Kent’s recurring illness, eventually fatal, began, during the winter of 1819-20. She also had ‘an ulcerated sore throat’ (cit., A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 66).

Clark returned to London but was recalled and in fact, remained in Ramsgate for a month until he was sure of Princess Victoria’s recovery. Predictably, Lehzen personally nursed her (Ibid, 42). It was after this recovery that Victoria’s self-portrait in pencil was made.

During her long recovery, she wrote to her uncle, King Leopold that whilst she was feeling better, she had grown ‘very thin’ and that her hair was falling out ‘frightfully’ to the extent that she was ‘litterally [sic] now getting bald’ (cit., Ibid, 42). If the sketch was made immediately afterwards, this was surely an exaggeration, or instead, we should date it to the end of 1835, when her hair had begun to recover.

In this recovery period, she was given a dose of quinine. A sample day menu consisted of a helping of potato soup for lunch and a few slices of mutton with rice, following by orange jelly for dessert (Ibid, 43). There is a sense of weak, invalid activity about this sketch, perhaps done when she was still having to have prolonged periods of sitting down. The searching look in the eyes also has the sick stare of a recent patient. We know that even in January 1836, Princess Victoria’s diet was only then extended to include bread and butter (Ibid, 43). Her other foods at this time included her particular favourite, Brussels biscuits, cocoa and chicken – the former made in the Belgian royal kitchens and sent over to the recuperative Victoria from her beloved uncle, King Leopold (Annie Gray, The Greedy Queen, 30). This diet expanded yet again to include gravy and remained so with relatively few exceptions, bar official functions, until March 1837 (Gray, 31).

Significantly, during the Ramsgate hiatus, Sir John Conroy – Comptroller of the Household of the Duchess of Kent – and mastermind of the ‘Kensington System’, had tried (with the Duchess of Kent) to force the sick Victoria to sign a document to appoint him as her Private Secretary, which she resisted despite her weakened state, which could either show us the mettle of her (forming) character, or the iron that was added to it through the experience, depending on the point of view.

I view it as noteworthy that Princess Victoria sketched such power at this time, in the wake of which she was clearly looking closer at herself, in every respect. It is a fascinating exercise in royal self-examination. She was more conscious of her figure and her weight; she also would presumably have been more appearance-aware as the result of hair loss and having grown thinner. Classic teenage behaviour, we almost get a sense of this sketch as Victoria poring over her own bedroom mirror, checking her face.

The hair is an essential feature of this sketch. It is gathered up in a plaited coil and fashionably arranged with ringlets to frame her face. The hairstyle is identical to the picture made of Princess Victoria and her mother by Sir George Hayter, The Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria, made the year before in 1834, showing her hair formally dressed. It is significant that Queen Louise had sent her own hairdresser to arrange Princess Victoria’s hair – like her own – with side curls when the King and Queen of the Belgians were still at Ramsgate. Queen Louise sent Princess Victoria ultra-fashionable gifts once back home in Belgium, which included sumptuous bonnets and also hairpins from Paris (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 91). Interestingly, the Duchess of Kent’s accounts show that Victoria’s hair had been cut from the age of five by the hairdresser and perfumer Stephen Taylor (Ibid, 86). We must suppose that the convalescent Victoria would have taken pleasure in the arrival of these luxurious presents, perhaps delighting in how she would look wearing them, once better.

There is a fascinating postscript to this. Having written the above and completed my research on Princess Victoria’s self-portrait, I stumbled across entirely by chance, an entry in Princess Victoria’s journal for 8 November 1835, whilst still at Ramsgate.

Princess Victoria describes on that same day, having sketched herself from the looking-glass. I think it is reasonable to assume that this journal entry relates to this very self-portrait, which for me, represents an extraordinary find. The sketch then was made at Ramsgate and the stare which was so direct, was indeed done from a mirror, hence the stern gaze of concentration. Her self-portrait sketch appears not to have been precisely dated – the most exact I have managed to locate since writing the above is ‘mid-November 1835‘. So, this is undoubtedly significant.

Perhaps tellingly, Viscount Esher, who edited a selection of Victoria’s journals in two volumes, between the years 1832 and 1840 and published by authority of Edward VII, includes very few entries for the Ramsgate episode.

Ramsgate is crucial in the make-up of the future Queen Victoria’s character formation. Not for nothing did Baron Stockmar, the German doctor and Saxe-Coburg court’s eminence grise, write of Princess Victoria at this time: ‘With every day that she grew older the princess naturally became more aware of her self, more conscious of her own strength…’ (cit., Wilson, 67).

This is precisely why this self-portrait sketch is so important. Not only do we get a sense of Victoria’s self, but her self-awareness at a critical point in her early life. It is Victoria by Victoria.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. An expert in royal studies as an academic subject, she specializes in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and speaks as an independent scholar on matters royal historical for both TV and radio, including the BBC. She writes for journals and specialist magazines. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918) and was selected as an historical advisor for the first-time translation from English to Russian of the classic biography by Baroness Buxhoeveden (Moscow, 2012). She also specializes in Empress Elisabeth of Austria and has written a series of academic articles on her life based on original research in Vienna and Geneva and spoke about the Empress on the TV Yesterday Channel series, World's Greatest Palaces (2019). Elizabeth is a long-standing contributor to the Swedish historical journal Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for the Tudor Society's magazine, Tudor Life. She is a former contributor to the European Royal History Journal and Jane Austen's Regency World Magazine. She joined the team of History of Royals magazine in 2016 and was History Writer at Royal Central (2015-20). She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017.