“How proud I feel to be the Queen of such a nation” Victoria wrote in her journal ~ June 1838
When I first planned this post my intention was to share my experience of the ‘Victoria Revealed’ exhibition because with my renewed interest in her life and my love of history I couldn’t resist! While wondering around the display of words and objects I found myself wanting to know even more which is typical of me with most things. However, once I started to research a few things for background I found there was so much I wanted to include that this would end up being far too long so I am going to break it down into more than one. Please come back after reading this, you won’t be disappointed.
Revealing Victoria at Kensington
On my arrival to Kensington Palace, I was met by this statue (below) of Queen Victoria herself, standing at the top of the walk to the visitor entrance. A very symbolic place for it, both welcoming and reminding that she is still very much part of this historic building.
This marble statue was designed and created by Victoria’s 4th daughter, Princess Louise, who by the age of 20 had her other work displayed at the Royal Academy. Commissioned for her Golden Jubilee in 1893 has been situated here since the Palace’s £12m transformation which was completed in 2012 in time for our Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Damage by shrapnel during World War Two meant her nose was in need of repair which was carried out in 1950 and since then it has also undergone several restorations, most recently in 2016. A very regal and imposing way of reminding us of her historic reign of 63 years, as if we could forget such a majestic and commanding woman!
Kensington Palace is not only the childhood home of Queen Victoria but also where she and her beloved Albert first met. This meeting was engineered by her Uncle Leopold (King of the Belgians) who, by all accounts, had always hoped and planned for his Nephew to become her betrothed. Below are my pictures from that very spot, it felt a little surreal standing in the same place as her, imagining that moment, the rustle of her skirts as she would have descended the stairs to greet them. These are also the same stairs she ran down the morning she was told of the death of King William VI’s death making her the new Queen. It crossed my mind how plain they are really, no fancy decor or large paintings on the walls unlike the King’s Grand Staircase (picture below), also at Kensington Palace, which are the exact opposite! But then why would they be? I suppose I was expecting something different, more stately considering the significance of what took place here.
Victoria & Albert’s words narrating their story
This exhibition was designed to appeal to all ages, to show visitors that there was much more to Victoria’s character than the one we’ve become accustomed to. “We want people to come away realising that she was not just a grumpy old lady but a woman of strong opinions who liked to have fun,” Deirdre Murphy, Curator. Bringing her alive with her own words and sentiments is a great way to bring the past into the present and giving visitors a tangible insight into royal life. Words are woven into the red carpeting and upholstery, make up the pattern of the wallpaper, are stencilled onto mirrors, drawers and table tops everywhere and are full of emotion and spirit. The most poignant of these etchings is Victoria’s frank and emotional description of Albert’s final moments, which is accompanied by a recording recreating her diary entry. She was by his side for his final moments, the book she was reading to him at the time has remained open on page 80 since then. It’s on display with her handkerchief which she’d had embroidered with black tears. Victoria wrote in her diary of his passing, “my life as a happy one has ended” and “the world is gone for me”. She was true to her words with her grief lasting for the rest of her life, she only ever wore black after that, one of her many tributes to him.
My favourite illustration of their words of endearment is a lovely screen made from laser cut steel (picture below), with some highlighted in gold.
The exhibition includes some of the many gifts they exchanged reinforcing their famed happiness… She once gave Albert a portrait of herself in a nightgown, hair undressed and loose around her shoulders. Though this portrait was not in the exhibition I’d like to believe it does exist because I’ve learnt that she was a women who had plenty of spirit and was very much in love with her husband. She once described Albert as “excessively handsome” and “Oh, to feel I was, and am, loved by such an Angel as Albert, was too great a delight to describe!” This more informal side of her is regularly depicted in the current ITV drama, ‘Victoria’ with several scenes of her in her nightgown, long hair down with Albert (actress Jenna Coleman had hair extensions added to her much shorter hair to replicate Victoria’s).
Without Victoria being an almost fanatical journal keeper writing detailed entries pretty much every day we probably wouldn’t be lucky enough to know so many intimate details. Stemming from a gift given to her by her mother as a 13 year old, though not originally intended to prompt her to document her life for the rest of her days. It is because of these journals that we now have such a comprehensive insight into her day to day life, not only as a monarch but as a person, mother, wife and friend. I doubt she realised, as she wrote, how valuable and treasured her words would be for future generations. I was struck by her extremely neat writing which never changed, almost like it had by typed in a fancy font in Microsoft Word! To see her actual words on paper, in these famous journals was just wonderful.
One of the rooms open to the public is the Red Saloon where Queen Victoria held her first Privy Council and where would have signed her first official document as the new Queen. Her shaky signature on the oath is proof of how nervous and afraid she must have been though she didn’t let it show to all of the men assembled in the room at that moment and there were many.
She was tiny!! I already knew that Queen Victoria was not very tall but had no idea she was so slim in her younger years. When I saw this dress (below) I was astonished at just how tiny she actually was and not just in height, seeing this really put it into perspective for me. Being only 5ft tall and after having nine children it’s not surprising her figure expanded over the years. I took a picture of my 10 year old next to illustrate how small she was, the build of a child! The actress, Jenna Coleman, is slightly taller and of similar build, so no need for clever camera angles!
The Coronation Gown (below) is made with real gold and again shows the younger Queen’s small frame. (Also below a replica worn by Jenna Coleman for the ITV Drama).
One of the first global celebrities her clothes were of great interest, the topic of many newspaper articles and conversations amongst the ladies. Acutely aware of this she only ever wore gowns by British designers and manufacturers so it appears Princess Diana wasn’t the first Royal fashion icon. Victoria is believed to be the one who inspired what is now the tradition of brides wearing a white wedding dress because she chose an ivory silk dress with a long train for her bridal gown which was unheard of at the time. Then it became the preferred choice for most women though, at first, only by the wealthy as they were the only ones who could afford them. Sadly there isn’t much of Victoria’s wardrobe that has endured the test of time but, thankfully her wedding dress has. It has previously been on display but wasn’t during my visit.
The exhibits are intended to disclose more, portraying her as a lover of the arts, dedicated mother, devoted wife and of course caring pet owner. It’s very informal and you are encouraged to open drawers to view some of the artefacts, though I was still looking over my shoulder when I did this! There are approximately 300 items for you to look over with no structure to how you are meant to make you way around so having the guide book is really helpful, as are the staff who really know their stuff. As usual when I go to these places I wish I’d had the time to do more research before because I think you get more out of it.
I loved seeing some of the dolls Victoria made as a child with her nanny, out of the 132 there are 12 on display. Before this exhibition they hadn’t been on display for a century and had undergone painstaking restoration by experts in preparation. Ever the keen record keeper Victoria kept a detailed inventory of them and gave them names inspired by people she’d met or seen perform on stage. An an avid theatre goer she named and modelled a couple of them on one of her favourite performers, Marie Taglioni. As a child she wasn’t allowed to mix with other children and this is possibly why she was so devoted to them.
Other pieces you can view are Victoria’s stockings, a fan and writing materials with Albert’s ‘dressing case’ including bottles, brushes and a solid silver tongue scraper! Some of her children’s baby clothes and fancy dress costumes, a very ornate baby crib, riding outfit, marble busts of her children and toys.
Summing up …I certainly came away with a different more sympathetic view of her than when I’d first arrived. I feel like I know her on a human level now rather than a distant, unreachable figure from the past who was rather stern and forbidding and one that I hadn’t felt inclined to get to know better. I came away wanting to know more, feeling that I’d misunderstood her.
There is something majestic about her, she may have been a Queen but that didn’t mean her life had been easy, that she hadn’t experienced pain, loss and disappointment. It’s no surprise that she became the woman she was in later years.