Behind the Royal Image

Queen Victoria

In the first of the eight programmes, Will Gompertz looks at some of the most personal royal portraits in the Royal Collection and considers how important understanding and managing image has been to the Monarchy.

Princess Elizabeth watches Charlotte the parrot

The Duke of York (the second son of King George V) here photographs his young daughter, much as any father would photograph his children. This photograph, and others taken at the same time, were not intended for publication; they were private, taken away from the public gaze while the Royal Family was at the private residence of Balmoral, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The photographs portray an affectionate family life, consisting of much time spent with grandchildren and pets, something that is familiar to most people. This particular photograph ended up in the Duke’s personal photograph album, as well as in the photograph album of his mother, Queen Mary (shown here with her brother, the Earl of Athlone).

Prince Albert (1819-61)

This tiny object, now fading fast, was the first photograph ever to be taken of a member of the British royal family. Prince Albert (1819-61) visited William Constable’s studio in Brighton, while the court was residing at the Royal Pavilion. Accompanied by visiting family members from Germany, he had his portrait taken. The results were delivered to Queen Victoria a few days later.

This daguerreotype is a small and intimate object, designed to be held in the hand and easily carried around.

Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset (1519-36)

Measuring only 44mm in diameter, this small-scale portrait sits comfortably in the palm of the hand. It is painted with fine squirrel-hair brushes on vellum and laid on to a playing card (the ace of hearts) to give the soft vellum the required tension. The figure of the young man in this striking image is set against a brilliant blue background prepared with pigment ground from the mineral azurite. The portrait is surrounded by a circular border applied with gold. Around the upper edge of the miniature, and on either side of the sitter’s head, is an inscription in gold giving the name and age of the sitter.  He is Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, painted at the age of fifteen.

Henry Fitzroy was born in June 1519 to Henry VIII and Elizabeth Blount, a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon. It is possible to see in the features of the teenage boy the same shallow features that are familiar in portraits of his father.  Acknowledged as Henry’s son from birth, the child was highly favoured and was invested a Knight of the Garter in June 1525.  Shortly afterwards he was created Duke of Richmond, and other appointments, as well as sources of income, were showered upon him.  An advantageous marriage to Lady Mary Howard, daughter of the third Duke of Norfolk, Treasurer of the Household and Earl Marshal, was arranged for him in 1534.  At the point when this miniature was painted, c.1533-4, Henry VIII had divorced Catherine of Aragon for her failure to give him an heir and had married Anne Boleyn, who had in turn, produced only a daughter, Elizabeth, in January 1533. Prior to Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, it had been thought that the King might name his illegimate son, Henry, Duke of Richmond, as his heir. As Anne, too, had failed to produce a son, this once again became a possibility.

In these circumstances, the portrait surprises us by presenting an image not of a privileged and wealthy young courtier – and possible aspirant to the throne – but of an invalid, clothed unusually in a nightcap and linen shirt. It allows us a glimpse of the vulnerable young man who was already succumbing to tuberculosis, the disease that finally killed him in 1536.  It is one of the first truly intimate portraits in English art, and we can be certain that it was intended for private enjoyment by someone close to the sitter and not for public display.  It may have been painted at the time of Henry Fitzroy’s shortlived marriage in 1534.

George III (1738-1820)

During much of the last decade of his life, George III lived – increasingly deranged and eventually totally blind – in a suite of rooms on the north side of Windsor Castle. In 1811 a Regency was declared in the person of his eldest son, who succeeded his father on the throne as George IV, on 29 January 1820.

This mezzotint portrait of George III facing left, with his head resting on his hand, has become one of the defining images of the elderly King. It was made by the prolific printmaker Samuel William Reynolds. Another impression of the print in the British Museum is signed on the verso by Dominic Colnaghi (the print-seller and publisher) who states, ‘This portrait was taken by Mr Reynolds the Engraver from a slight view he had of the King. I showed the impression to the Prince Regent [later George IV]; he was much struck with the good likeness, and said it might be published, but with his own hand marked out at the back of the head where then was too much hair (vide the pencil marks)’. The print was published in its revised state on 24 February 1820, just over a month after George III’s death, with a dedication to George IV. It was on the strength of this, and his obvious willingness to toe the royal line, that Reynolds was made Portrait Engraver to George IV.

The Royal Collection includes a number of early proofs of the image, recording the stages Reynolds went through to achieve his final image. This very early state shows the distinctive nature of mezzotint, in which the plate is worked all over to print a uniform black, before the printmaker works with a burnishing tool to smooth the areas that are to print white. Here, the central image has been finished in its first state, but most of the margin remains blackened.

Read more about George III's portraits in Royal Collection curator Kate Heard's blog post for BBC Radio 4

George III (1738-1820)

Joseph Lee's enamel depicts George III as an old man, bearded and with grey hair, wearing a blue ermine-lined cloak; organ pipes can be seen in the background on the left. The profile pose disconnects him from the viewer and compounds the sense of isolation that we feel on behalf of this sightless Lear-like figure.

The counter-enamel is signed, dated and inscribed in black paint: 'His Majesty George the 3rd / from the Original sketch by John Jackson Esq. R.A./ Joseph Lee Pinxit / London / 1827'.  Although a painting of this subject by John Jackson must have existed, the source for Lee's enamel appears to have been the mezzotint by Samuel William Reynolds which was modified in direct consultation with the Prince Regent.

Lee’s enamel is remarkable within his oeuvre for its unsurpassed depth of colour and richness of finish, qualities made all the more admirable and technically challenging by the large scale of the enamel.  There are no individual payments to Lee recorded in the Georgian accounts in the Royal Archives at this period, although the possibility remains that this enamel was acquired through Rundell, Bridge & Rundell by the George IV when Prince Regent.

Joseph Lee (1780-1859) was self-taught as an enamellist at a late age, but made a successful career as an enamel painter, exhibiting intermittently at the RA and the SBA between 1809 and 1853 from addresses in London. He styled himself as ‘enamel painter’ to Princess Charlotte of Wales and later worked as ‘enamel painter’ to Augustus, Duke of Sussex. It may have been the gift of a small enamel of the Duke of Sussex to Queen Victoria that first made her familiar with Lee’s work. She employed his services for producing enamel copies based on oil paintings between 1844 and 1850. He retired from miniature painting in his final years and died, aged seventy-nine, in Gravesend, Kent, on 26 December 1859.

Queen Victoria (1819-1901)

While Queen Victoria and Prince Albert chose the court artist Winterhalter to paint their official portraits, they also entrusted him with more private images. Here Queen Victoria is seen in an intimate and alluring pose, leaning against a red cushion with her hair half unravelled from its fashionable knot. In her Journal (13 July 1843), the Queen recorded the progress of this, ‘the secret picture’, prepared as a surprise for her husband’s twenty-fourth birthday. The plot was successful, as the Queen wrote: ‘he thought it so like, & so beautifully painted. I felt so happy & proud to have found something that gave him so much pleasure’ (Journal, 26 August 1843). The painting was hung in Prince Albert’s Writing Room at Windsor. Several copies were made in miniature – a particularly suitable format for such an intimate image. The Queen later referred to it as ‘my darling Albert’s favourite picture’ (Journal, 2 January 1873).

In many of his portraits Winterhalter delights in depicting costume with veracity and exuberance. Here, however, the focus is not on fashion, and the white flounced gown is minimally painted. The only detail of ornament is the purple ribbon and the jewellery – a pair of simple drop earrings and a heart-shaped pendant on a gold chain. This may be the glass heart-shaped locket containing a lock of Prince Albert’s hair that the Queen wore ‘day and night’ before her marriage (Journal, 12 November 1839). Such a jewel would have been a touching symbol of the Queen’s devotion to her husband in a picture meant purely for his eyes.

Learning resources to accompany the series have been developed in partnership with BBC Schools. These can be accessed on the BBC's Famous people website.

To listen to The Art of Monarchy series, please visit the BBC Radio 4 site.


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