Unlikely Treasure: an 1866 Gift of Remembrance for the Grieving Queen Victoria

“I need not tell you that since we left, all my thoughts have been with you at Windsor, and that your image fills my whole soul. Even in my dreams I never imagined that I should find so much love on earth.”

Prince Consort Albert to his new wife, 21 year old Queen Victoria, in 1840.

The story of the love affair between Queen Victoria and Prince Consort Albert is as fiery as it is genuine. And tragic. A twenty-something prince in his own right, Albert struggled to find his place in a world centered around the young Queen Victoria.

Albert first began to assert himself by taking charge of the royal household and helping Queen Victoria to manage her correspondence. He would soon invest himself in modernizing the family’s finances and driving significant improvements to various royal properties.

As the royal couple approached their thirties, Prince Consort Albert had the affairs of the royal family well in order, and increasingly turned his energies toward a new project: a Great Exhibition that would serve as the bookend of the industrial revolution and showcasing England’s place at the center of the new industrial age.

The legacy of Prince Consort Albert

Born into the very center of the Industrial Revolution, Albert and Victoria shared a desire to reform that era’s worst abuses. Albert had gained a reputation as a champion for a number of badly needed reforms. His causes included the elimination of child labor in England and the elimination of the last vestiges of slavery worldwide (including in the United States). He also fought for the modernization of university education and an expansion of social welfare programs. Albert’s vision of the possible in the new industrial age was a blending of science, humanity, art and technology that could create a whole new world–and one worth living in.

Inspired by the French Industrial Exposition of 1844, Albert seized on the idea of hosting a major international industrial exposition in London. He drove this dream into reality in the wildly successful first Great Exhibition of 1851. Held in a beautiful, purpose-built glass enclosed venue at Hyde Park that became known as the “Crystal Palace”, this first world’s fair was an international showcase of the very latest developments in science, technology and industry. This event set the precedent for all world fairs that followed, and affected many aspects of modern society, including the development of arts and design education, international trade and tourism.

This event can fairly be characterized as Prince Albert’s greatest achievement, and its enduring legacy is abundant in the area of South Kensington today. The Great Exhibition of 1851 wrought the staggering profit of £186,000 (more than $25M today). Empowered with this windfall and draped in a new level of respect, Prince Albert seized the opportunity to manifest one of he and Victoria’s shared dreams: the creation of a new district of education and culture for London.

The Birth of “Albertopolis”

A large plot of fields in what has become today’s South Kensington was identified and purchased. Broad plans were drawn up, and construction began. Within a year, the museum that would become today’s Victoria and Albert Museum appeared on the southeastern corner of the area which had been popularly dubbed “Albertopolis”.

As the evolution of this cultural district continued in the latter 1850’s, its fine planning was increasingly defined by the vision of its role as the site of the second Great Exhibition, initially planned for 1861. This event would be even larger, and would be the first of many such events hosted in a new, permanent venue.

In an embodiment of the possible harmony of art, cultivated nature, science and industry, a halo of museums and colleges would surround the vast inner grounds of a magnificent, multi-level gardens bordered by beautiful open-walled galleries. The grounds of the gardens would include a great glass conservatory, walkways, grand fountains and staircases. Beautiful works of art would be intermingled with works of nature in the gardens, and would line the surrounding open galleries. Spanning the entire southern boundary would be an immense Exhibition Building, with wide staircases rising from the gardens into the “refreshment areas” at the center of building’s vast northern face. Within the building, visitors along two levels of dizzyingly long art galleries could stare out onto the majestic gardens rising in terraces into the distance.

Its easy to imagine the Queen’s pride in her husband’s accomplishment as frenzied construction raised that enormous building into existence in the months before the opening of that second great exhibition. This first International Exhibition was intended to embrace the whole world, and they were coming.

Tragedy Strikes the Royal Couple

Only twenty years into their marriage, the barely forty-something royals must have felt they had all the time in the world. So much had been done, and they were eager to do so much more. But it was not to be. On the “eve” of his greatest achievement, Albert fell seriously ill. Surrounded by the Queen and their nine children, the relatively young and much loved Prince Consort died of typhoid at age 42. It was December 1861–only months before the opening of the International Exhibition of 1862.

Although not always popular, the shocked and heartbroken 42-year-old queen was embraced by a sympathetic public. So many memorials to Albert sprang up that an exasperated Charles Dickens commented that he longed to find a deep cave where he could escape from them. But the queen would never recover from the loss of her beloved husband and partner. Immediately following his death, she retreated into a seclusion from which she rarely emerged and she wore black for the remaining 39 years of her life.

A photograph taken from the northern end of the vast terraced Gardens of the RHS with half of the face of the 1862 Exhibition Building visible in the southern distance. The pronounced area at the right of the visible building housed the central “refreshment areas”. The other half of that symmetrical hall extends well out of the frame to the right.
Prince Albert’s statue, at the center of the Prince Albert memorial, Kensington. Photo credit Walklondon.com.

The Fate of Albertopolis

The tragedy of Albert’s death cast a shadow over the 1862 exhibition. It hosted many more exhibits, but attracted the same number of people as the wildly successful 1851 Great Exhibition, and therefore barely produced a profit. The enormous Exhibition Building (which had been designed to be beautified later) was widely regarded as inelegant, even hideous. The show had opened without its star, and disappointment was the inescapable result.

It wasn’t just the exhibition that suffered. Without its champion, the vision for Albertopolis also began to drift after the 1862 exhibition. Although the picture galleries and refreshment areas of the Exhibition Building could readily serve as a venue for other events, the primary building itself failed to find a sponsor. By 1885 the bulk of the enormous Exhibition Building had been dismantled and sold for the value of its materials. All that remained was the north-facing façade of picture galleries and refreshment areas that faced the Gardens of the RHS (see my earlier article).

View of the 1862 Exhibition Building as seen from the top of the Gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society

In the end, the vast gardens of the RHS and the surviving picture galleries would outlive the Exhibition building by only another 17 years. In 1882, they were closed so the land could be redeveloped. But it was only the specific form of Albert’s vision that failed to endure. The district the royal couple hoped to create thrives today as a nexus of colleges, embassies and prestigious museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum of Art and design.

A small gift for the Widowed Queen

Queen Victoria in 1866–the year of the First Special Exhibition of National Portraits.

At this point, I owe you an explanation about why I’ve gone to such depth in a story that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the subject of my quest, Sir Richard Lane (1584-1650).

In part, it’s that I’m a sucker for a great story, especially when it really happened. But also to help you understand that it was the royal couple who brought this short-lived venue into existence. And that it may have been a gesture of respect and remembrance of Prince Albert’s dream that prompted someone in the Arundel Society to take a comprehensive set of photographs of an 1866 portrait exhibition that was made possible by the existence of that venue. Those photographs were bound into a custom book that was given as a gift to Queen Victoria, possibly to allow her to experience the 1866 “First Special Exhibition of National Portraits” without leaving her seclusion.

Because it had to be hand assembled from a stack of photographs and caption cards which were glued onto blank pages, this book must have been expensive to make. Owing to the cost and difficulty of producing it (each copy required 77 individual photographs to be exposed and developed) it is likely that very few copies were created. I have been able to locate fewer than 5 copies in existence today.

Seeking a glimpse of Richard Lane’s “Lost Portrait”

When I first uncovered a reference to the existence of a book of photographs of the 1866 exhibition among the holdings of the Royal Collection Trust, it was at the end of a lot of fruitless digging. Imagine my shock at finding what appeared to be an organized photographic documentary of the event, when precious little else of that 1866 exhibition (or the venue that hosted it) has survived!

The cover of the 1866 book of photographs given to Queen Victoria. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Although at the time I had never seen Sir Richard Lane’s “lost portrait”, I knew from a surviving visitor’s booklet cataloging the displayed portraits that Lane’s was one among 1,030 portraits presented in that exhibition. That catalogue also provided a brief description of each portrait, accompanied by biographical information about the portrait’s subject and an acknowledgement of the owner who had loaned it to the exhibition.

Quite plainly, that surviving visitor’s catalogue is the only reason we know that a portrait of Richard Lane ever existed. Its a wonderful bonus that the visitor’s catalogue also included a description of each painting and who owned it in 1866. And now I had found what seemed to be a photographic tour of the exhibition itself!

The book’s description indicated it included 77 photographs of the “galleries and bays” of the 1866 exhibition. I imagined it would contain large but fuzzy black and white photographs from the early days of photography. I imagined flipping through pages of rooms with high walls packed with arrays of portraits lined up as neatly as they could be. After all, to include all of the 1,030 displayed portraits, each photograph would have to include an average of nearly 14 portraits. But what if capturing all of the portraits wasn’t a goal of this book? If the intent of the book was only to capture the most interesting scenes or portraits, then Richard Lane’s portrait might be well featured–or absent altogether.

I wondered: even if Richard Lane’s portrait happened to have been captured in one of those 77 scenes, could I recognize it from its description? Maybe. But I realized I had additional information that could be useful: the portraits were numbered, and were supposed to have been arranged vaguely in chronological order. So, it might be possible to leverage the descriptions of the portraits within a few entries before and after Richard Lane’s. If I was able to recognize some of the more distinctive among the family of adjacent portraits, then perhaps I could isolate Richard Lane’s by elimination. Clearly, I was “grasping at straws”. But at the time, I had no other leads. I was grateful for even an outside chance to find an image of the “Lost Lord Keeper”…

I had taken this inquiry as far as I could online. I couldn’t know whether this “long shot” would pay off until I’d had a chance to study those photographs in person. It was time to see if it would be possible to visit the home of the Royal Collection Trust at Windsor Castle–and be granted permission to inspect this rare book.

Visit to Windsor Castle

Through email, I eventually made contact with Allesandro, the Curator of Photographs for the Royal Collection Trust. Allesandro enjoyed the story of Richard Lane’s “lost portrait”, and was intrigued by the possibility that an obscure item in their collection might hold a clue to the mystery. I was invited to visit Windsor Castle so I could inspect the book myself.

Especially since Queen Elizabeth II was to be “in residence” at Windsor Castle at the time of my visit, I was required to pass a security check to obtain a pass. Unfortunately, by the time I realized that a separate background check was required for Mary, there wasn’t sufficient time, and she was unable to enter the castle grounds with me. I felt awful, but it was too late to do anything about it.

Arriving at Windsor Castle, I obtained my pass, and made my way to the Norman Gate, where Allessandro had agreed to meet me and escort me into the Round Tower (which houses the Royal Collection).

I am standing within Windsor Castle, just outside the Norman Gate. The Round Tower is in the background. This tower was originally built by William the Conqueror in the 1100’s.

Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in that inner area of Windsor Castle, so all I can share are the pictures featured here.

Entering the stone passageway to the tower through a heavy wooden door, we made our way up a long, ascending stone staircase which passed through another heavy door into the tower. At the top of the staircase, we entered a space that has been adapted into a small foyer adjoined by compact offices.

There, on a bookrest on a nearby table, lay the the 1866 book of photographs, which had been brought out for my visit.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019
The first photograph of 77. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

It was so strange to see that book I’d thought so much about, and more exciting than I can describe. I paused a beat. Then, Allesandro and I sat down and began carefully searching to discover whether Richard Lane’s portrait appeared in any of the photographs. Fortunately, through the most dramatic good fortune, a single loose photograph of Richard Lane’s portrait had been discovered only 6 weeks before this visit (see the article), so we knew exactly what we were looking for.

Photograph #57 (of 77). The now-lost 1645 portrait of Lord Keeper Sir Richard Lane hangs at the upper right of the near wall. This fortunate positioning explains why the recently discovered photograph of it is so relatively free of glare–it was not facing the large windows onto the RHS Gardens, as the portraits appearing to the right in this photograph were. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

And we found it in photograph #57.

Several questions were answered immediately. Because it had been hung just above a distinctive portrait of three doctors at a table with books (which was numerically adjacent to Richard Lane’s portrait in the catalogue), I knew that I could have identified Richard Lane’s portrait even without the recently discovered photograph of it. The photograph from the book interestingly showed the portrait’s frame (which had been cropped out of the loose photograph). Finally, the image of Richard Lane visible in the scene from the book was dark and indistinct. Although the portrait had indeed appeared in one of the 77 photographs (and had been positioned better than I could have reasonably hoped), it would have been only an incremental victory by itself. I would not have been able to obtain a useful likeness from that photograph.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this book of photographs was a real sense of the venue and what it must have been like to visit the exhibition. Working our way through the rest of the photographs, Allessandro and I encountered scene after scene of tightly packed portraits covering high walls, apparently taken before the exhibition opened for the day. We found photographs of seemingly unending phalanxes of windows and gallery bays vanishing into an improbable distance within the building. They showed seated stewards in top hats or police uniforms, ready to intervene should any visitor ignore the guard ropes and wall-mounted stanchions keeping the coming crowds back from the loaned portraits.

I could have studied those photographs for hours. But Mary was waiting, and I wanted to be a good steward of the time my host had made to accommodate my visit. So, I pushed back from the table and thanked Allessandro for the privilege of inspecting this singular book. He assured me that due to my interest, the book was scheduled to be photographed and that the pictures would make their way onto the Royal Collection Trust website.

Winding Down

The scant few hours since we’d landed had been a fabulous start to this second visit to England, and it was so gratifying to have found something had only hoped might be in that book! Having already reconstructed the grounds that lay just outside the windows pictured in those photographs, I realized it would be possible to create a reasonable reconstruction of the interior of the building as well (based on the linear chronology of the exhibit and the scenes visible in these photographs). So I have added that task to my list of future articles, in part as a “thank you” to the Royal Collection Trust. Perhaps it will elevate some awareness of this long-forgotten venue that was once the centerpiece of a dream shared by Queen Victoria and Prince Consort Albert.

After meeting up with Mary, we found a nearby spot where we could toast the day with a glass of wine and an evening bite to eat. An hour later, as the light began to fade, it was time to continue our drive to Oxford. Jet lag was starting to set in, and we had a fully booked “Day Two” awaiting us there.

The Royal Collection is one of the largest and most important art collections in the world, and one of the last great European royal collections to remain intact. I am very grateful to my host, Allesandro, for all of his kind assistance. I also wish to thank the Royal Collection Trust for granting private researchers access to their collection, and for granting me permission to include their photographs in this article.

Use this link to see the first of the 77 photographs. That page lists the range of RCIN numbers you will need to enter should you wish to see the remaining 76 photographs for yourself.

–Greg Sherwood

One thought on “Unlikely Treasure: an 1866 Gift of Remembrance for the Grieving Queen Victoria”

  1. These articles are compelling, thank you for sharing! This “salon style” of hanging portraits and art from floor-to-ceiling started in France and was popular in the 19th century. Just got done watching the first three seasons of Masterpiece Theatre’s “Victoria”, which ends after Albert had just experienced wild success after his myriad worrisome issues leading up to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. Unfortunately, the Crystal Palace no longer exists; however, there are wonderful Victorian glass conservatories in the immense Kew Gardens (site of an original royal residence nearly 400 years ago, with the Thames winding behind it). This is about an hour’s train ride from London’s Waterloo station to Richmond. A wonderful day trip should you find the time!

    Liked by 1 person

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