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Who was Ida Bonanomi: Dresser to Queen Victoria

But for the moving memorial that Queen Victoria erected to her and for a letter in which this is described, the name of Ida Bonanomi might have been completely forgotten in historical terms. Thanks to these, this is not the case.

It can be found in Edinburgh’s Rosebank Cemetery and stands in the avenue containing the grandest of the monuments, itself an impressive example of mid-Victorian funerary sculpture, a headstone of polished granite, topped with a draped urn. Its inscription reads: ‘Sacred to the memory of Miss Ida Bonanomi, the faithful and highly esteemed dresser of Queen Victoria, who departed this life Octr 15 1854, in the 37th year of her age. Beloved and respected by all who knew her. This stone had been placed by Queen Victoria as a mark of her regard’.

The wording is typical of the Queen’s choosing to recall both her association with the person and the loyalty of their service to her. It is a pattern she maintained in her journals, and in terms of memorials, it was a practice she continued for her personal servants and dogs; in such cases, their faithfulness was usually emphasised.

Ida had been Queen Victoria’s dresser. Other dressers became better known, such as Frieda Arnold, Ida’s successor, whose fascinating letters were skilfully published in London in 1994 as My Mistress the Queen: The Letters of Frieda Arnold, Dresser to Queen Victoria by Benita Stoney and Heinrich C. Weltzien, from which I have drawn in part for this article. The German-born Frieda and her colleague Sophie Weiss, who was the Queen’s second dresser, dressed the Queen, therefore, holding a position of extreme intimacy; one which, literally, bridged the royal divide between the Queen’s public and private roles.

Unsurprisingly, it is Queen Victoria herself who tells us most about Ida, because from the inscription we can work out the date of her birth – 1817 – a year crucial to the history of the future Queen Victoria (then unborn) because in that year, Princess Charlotte, only legitimate daughter of the Prince Regent died, therefore resulting in the remaining royal dukes – including Queen Victoria’s father, Edward, Duke of Kent, to marry where applicable, for the sake of the British succession.

Ida’s last name points almost certainly to Italian heritage, even if she was not born in Italy. Queen Victoria knew some Italian, and according to her biographer Christopher Hibbert, already as Princess Victoria knew a ‘little Italian’ (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, 18). Her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne noted that she ‘understands Italian’ (A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria, vol 1, 256: memorandum of George Anson, 15 January 1841). This was still the case later because when Queen Victoria took to holidaying in Italy, she was visited by the mother of the Queen of Italy, the Duchess of Genoa. Out in the gardens, Queen Victoria wrote that she: ‘Talked to the undergardener and was proud at getting on so well with my Italian. Was able to ask questions about all the plants and trees, and understood him perfectly.’ (cit., HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney, Travels with Queen Victoria, pp. 185-188).

That the Queen took a morbid interest in funerals was something well known to the members of her household (Hibbert, 495). There was the memorable occasion at Grasse when a housemaid had died, and Queen Victoria’s maid-of-honour Marie Mallet wrote that there was ‘a sort of funeral service’ for the housemaid at the Grand Hotel where the Queen was staying, which took place in the dining room, ‘everyone in evening dress, the servants sobbing’ (cit., Ibid, 495). The Queen took members of the Royal Household two days later to visit the cemetery at Cannes because she wished to visit the tombs of friends. Mallet wrote that: ‘We started soon after 3.30 and were not home till ten to seven! The gentlemen went in a separate carriage full to overflowing with wreaths…’ (cit., Ibid, 495).

Ida Bonanomi died in the momentous year that war was declared on Russia on 27 March 1854 and the Queen, Prince Albert and their children waved off the British soldiers from the balcony of Buckingham Palace to bid them farewell as they marched to Portsmouth, bound for the Crimea (Hibbert, 222). When the Russian Tsar died during the Crimean War, the Queen had ordered an ‘IMMEDIATE search to be made for Precedents as to the Court going or not going into mourning for a sovereign with whom at the time of his decease England was at war.’ (cit., Hibbert, 286).

Queen Victoria’s obsessive interest in the protocol of mourning was such that it was even extraordinary by the standards of her own time (Hibbert, 286). That Queen Victoria should be so concerned for the question of mourning for the monarch of a country with whom Britain was then at war, should perhaps help us to understand that mourning was a mentality as much as a personal observance and therefore, memorials would be its natural consequence.

We know that between 15 October 1854 and late December 1854, Queen Victoria must have lacked an official dresser, but as we learn from Frieda’s letter, Ida Bonanomi had been left behind in Scotland because she was too ill to make the journey south. The German-born Frieda Arnold was appointed a few days before Christmas 1854, as the Queen told her journal: ‘my new dresser, Frieda Arnold, from Carlsruhe, has come since a few days ago, on three months trial, and has begun her duties’ (cit., Benita Stoney and Heinrich C. Weltzien, My Mistress the Queen: The Letters of Frieda Arnold, Dresser to Queen Victoria, I).

Frieda’s friend and colleague, Sophie Weiss, was promoted on Ida’s death to the position of the second dresser (Ibid, 8). Frieda’s salary as part of the Department of the Mistress of the Robes, was £100, which gives us a loose idea of what Ida had been paid in her post (Ibid, 8). Frieda passed her probation and remained with Queen Victoria as a dresser for some four years; Queen Victoria gave her a Christmas present of a brooch in 1855. Frieda is pictured wearing it after her marriage to Ernst Müller, in a photograph from around 1860. It features as a charming illustration in The Letters.

Frieda’s letter ‘Scotland 1856’ describes her delight in Edinburgh and visiting the castle. Whose idea it was to do what followed, we do not know. But then suddenly we read that she ‘visit[ed] the grave of my unfortunate predecessor, Fräulein Bonanomi… her grave was marked with a simple, pleasing tombstone, and flowers. I drew it for Sophie [Weiss]. She has found a peaceful resting-place, so far from her homeland…’ (cit., Ibid, 177).

Frieda doesn’t say where Ida’s exact homeland was, but clearly, the visit made an impression on her because she was still thinking about it the next morning: ‘Next morning, as we left the palace in the grey light of early dawn, I could not help thinking constantly of her. It must have been on just such a morning, exactly two years ago, that she was left behind, poor creature, all alone and ill…’ (cit., Ibid, 177).

Frieda is referring to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. It also acted as a stopping point for Queen Victoria en route to Balmoral. During the Queen’s reign, the old royal quarters on the first floor were renovated; even today, small upper corridors contain stag’s heads with shields felled by members of the Queen’s family. The Morning Drawing Room, previously the Privy Chamber of Charles II, was refurbished for Queen Victoria, who used it as her private drawing room. A statue of Queen Victoria once stood in the palace forecourt, where the present-day fountain stands. It marked an early stay of the Queen’s at Holyroodhouse, in 1851.

Frieda’s words also help us to reconstruct what happened shortly before Ida’s death when she was left behind: ‘The band was playing a melancholy Scottish folk-song, ‘Annie Laurie’, and the notes of this song were the last echoes she heard of the presence of the Queen and her suite. The next evening she was dead’. (cit., Ibid, 177). I have checked the Queen’s (published) letters, and the Queen wrote to her uncle, King Leopold of the Belgians from Hull on 13 October 1854: ‘We slept at Holyrood last night, and came here this evening… We shall reach Windsor to-morrow’ (cit., A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria, Vol III, 63).

So, the Queen left Holyroodhouse that morning and arrived at Hull later that day. Cross-referencing with the Queen’s journal, we can read that 12 October 1854 was indeed her last day of that particular stay at Balmoral; the next entry is written at Holyroodhouse and the following entry written at Hull. So, the Queen must have presumably seen Ida for the last time on the morning of 13 October 1854 that is, if she visited her on her sickbed.

As if the above was too much for Frieda, her letter then goes on with deliberate pleasure in the visit to Edinburgh Castle, as if possibly trying to cling all the more to life. The Rosebank Cemetery had been opened in 1846, some six years before Ida’s death. It seems possible from Frieda’s letter of 1856 that the memorial placed later there by the Queen was not yet in position, because its dramatic appearance would surely have called for some brief description.

The Queen’s journal mentions Ida Bonanomi only twice, although it is worth noting that these mentions are contained with Princess Beatrice’s ‘copies’ – the unedited typescripts by Lord Esher only stretch as far as February 1840. It is possible that the Queen may have mentioned Ida more, as her unedited journals apparently contained more references to her dressers (Annie Gray, The Greedy Queen, 113). The Queen records Ida’s death in her journal, which we must deduce took place at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The only other entry is for 1860, where the Queen mentions visiting Ida’s grave in Edinburgh.

Whilst researching for a forthcoming academic article on Mrs Louisa Louis – the dresser to Princess Charlotte – I discovered that the Queen caused a wall memorial to be erected in her memory when she died. The wording is not dissimilar, although the association was far less personal.

An interesting coincidence is that both of these ‘forgotten’ women were dressers. Their role was mainly an unseen public one, so it is perhaps not surprising that at first glance they seem invisible.

They are remembered in the memorials that Queen Victoria placed to them.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher, specializing in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty. 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 radio, including the BBC.