Queen Victoria’s sapphire and diamond coronet will be on permanent display this year at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, as part of the museum’s 2019 bicentenary celebration to mark the births of both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, to whom of course, the museum owes its name. Displayed in the V&A Museum’s Jewellery Galleries, this magnificent coronet is among those pieces of personal jewellery to which the Queen attached extreme sentimental importance and was acquired for the museum’s collections and thus for the nation and Commonwealth, thanks to the generosity of William & Judith, and Douglas & James Bollinger.
Queen Victoria wore the completed coronet in her July 1842 portrait by the fashionable German portraitist Franz Xaver Winterhalter; it formed a pendant in paint as the very first of the royal commissions from the artist who would go on to produce over one hundred works under their patronage. We must suppose that the Queen valued this coronet mainly because Prince Albert designed it in 1840, the year of their marriage.
It was made by Joseph Kitching, of Kitching and Abud, between 1840 and 1842 and may be seen unusually, not on the Queen’s head in the portrait, but instead looped around her attractive plaited hairstyle that draws into the nape of her neck. Allusions to the Queen’s marriage are subtle in this portrait but numerous, with the inclusion of Honiton lace, a spray of roses and the sapphire and diamond brooch which the Queen particularly loved and wears at her bodice in the portrait, as Prince Albert’s wedding present. After their marriage, the Queen and Prince Albert set about ranging her jewels, and this was the important sapphire piece, alongside more personal terms like the deeply significant brooch. Of course, we know that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert expressed their love through an abundance of art and this extended to jewellery even before their wedding, with the gift of the sapphire brooch, for example.
The brooch was given by the Prince to Queen Victoria on the eve of their wedding, and she wore it on her lace collar in the beautiful portrait by Winterhalter made seven years afterwards for their seventh wedding anniversary, Queen Victoria, dressed in her wreath of orange blossoms and wedding lace. The brooch was described by the Queen as ‘dear Albert’s beautiful sapphire brooch’ and was considered by her to be of such extreme personal value that she willed it to the Crown on her death (cit., Charlotte Gere, Love and Art: Queen Victoria’s personal jewellery, 7).
In the 1842 portrait, Queen Victoria is probably also wearing the locket containing Prince Albert’s hair, which was a gift from Queen Louise of the Belgians. The Winterhalter portraits were hung in the White Drawing Room at Windsor Castle, and numerous copies were made, notably those on Sevres porcelain which hang in the Council Room at Osborne House, executed by Antoine Beranger and Marie-Adelaide Ducluzeau. These were gifted to the Queen by Louis, Philippe, King of the French, in 1846.
The sapphire and diamond coronet – which well matches the brooch which Prince Albert gave Queen Victoria – is believed to have been inspired by a portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria in the style of Van Dyck, today at the National Portrait Gallery. Although the Queen’s journal details her sitting to Winterhalter throughout the summer of 1842, she does not mention the coronet, at least, not in the edited versions of the journal that have come down to us.
With a touch of poignancy, it was this very same sapphire and diamond coronet which Queen Victoria chose in 1866 – five years after the death of Prince Albert – to wear when she finally opened Parliament for the first time after his demise in 1861. She wore the coronet at the State Opening, whilst her crown was carried on a cushion. In a way, this replicated Prince Albert’s missing presence, in the way that a bust of him was placed in family group photographs. As the Queen treasured deeply every item connected with her wedding, we must suppose it lent her strength on this arduous occasion.
Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice, wrote to her mother from Germany on the State Opening of Parliament in 1866, sensitively writing to the Queen on February 10 – the Queen’s twenty-sixth wedding anniversary – and wishing she could have sent ‘a fine nosegay of orange blossoms for to-day’ (cit., Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 123). She wrote in the same letter: ‘The emotion and all other feelings recalled by such an event [the State Opening of Parliament] must have been very powerful and have tried you much… It was noble of you, my darling Mama, and the great effort will bring compensation. Think of the pride and pleasure it would have given darling Papa…’ (cit., Ibid, pp. 122-123).
It must have been difficult for the Queen, who had replied two years earlier in 1864 when this was proposed to her, that it was ‘totally out of the question’ (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 310). She thundered that it had been hard enough even with ‘the support of her dear husband, whose presence alone seemed a tower of strength, and by whose dear side she felt safe and supported under every trial’ (cit., Ibid, 310).
This outburst shows us that the coronet probably enabled the Queen to see through the massive ordeal of the State Opening. In her own words, she had always been ‘especially [nervous] at the opening of Parliament, which was what she dreaded for days, and hardly ever went through without suffering from headaches before or after the ceremony’ (cit., Ibid, pp. 310-311).
She was painted wearing the coronet again, this time in 1874 by Henry Richard Graves in his portrait Queen Victoria. She wore it this time reading a book of verse, her black mourning slightly relieved by ermine trimmings. It was formed a pair with a delicate painting of her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice. A telling analogy for Queen Victoria, she wore the coronet that Prince Albert designed for her in 1840, on top of one of her famous widow’s caps.
The sapphire and diamond coronet was later gifted in 1922 by King George V to his daughter, Princess Mary, who wears it in a photograph across her brow in keeping with the fashion of the era, in a strange echo of Queen Victoria’s unconventional use of intertwining it with her hair, in 1842.
The coronet is a spectacular symbol of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in jewellery, of their royal partnership and personal terms, of their marriage.