The artist who dared to disagree with Queen Victoria

Monday, 27 February 2012

A miniature that provoked a debate between the artist and Queen Victoria is going on display for the first time.

For the artist, the shade of his royal sitter’s tie was of great importance. His client thought so too – but they didn’t agree on colour. Although Kenneth Macleay argued quite vehemently that his miniature portrait of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh should show the subject wearing a white tie, he was eventually overruled by the sitter’s mother, Queen Victoria, who wished the tie to be black. 

As the miniature goes on public display for the first time, in the Diamond Jubilee exhibition Treasures from The Queen’s Palaces at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse from 16 March, correspondence between Queen Victoria and the Scottish artist reveals the debate over the finer details of how the Prince should be portrayed. 

The portrait of the Prince is a rare example of Macleay’s work in miniature. It depicts Prince Alfred, who stayed at the Palace of Holyroodhouse for several months in late 1863 and early 1864. Macleay had already painted a watercolour portrait of the Prince and two of his brothers. The picture met with great acclaim when exhibited in Edinburgh.

Despite such praise, Queen Victoria obviously believed there was room for improvement. She requested a miniature of Prince Alfred based on the watercolour portrait, but asked for some alterations. Particularly, a black tie, rather than a white one. Macleay tried to accommodate the Queen’s wishes, but after painting a black tie, decided it wasn’t quite right. He repainted it in white – and wrote to the Queen to tell her so, when despatching the portrait on 4 August.

'The Queen will observe that I have done the Miniature in a Black Handkerchief at Her Majesty’s Command, but on again seeing the large picture (as it was painted in a white Tie by The Queens desire at first, and all the arrangements in accordance & with reference to the white,) that it would quite spoil it to put it in a Black Handkerchief – in which opinion The President & all the members of the Royal Scottish Academy who have seen it, entirely concur, I have left it white. The complexion I have darkened as the Queen commanded. & also darkened the left Eyelash.'

The Queen, however, was not persuaded. Her response, written in pencil on the reverse of the artist’s note, which is in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, stated, ‘The Queen does not like this miniature as well as the original and she wishes Mr. Macleay to alter it by and large.’

Book tickets to The Queen's Gallery,  Palace of Holyroodhouse.