Almost everyone owns a digital camera these days, or at least has a camera on their mobile phone. After a holiday, we return home with hundreds of pictures though most of them will never get printed. Photographs are everywhere, which makes it difficult to imagine what an impact the invention of photography had on the 19th-century public. Back then, photographs were treasures, to be collected or given away as a most personal gift. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were fervent collectors of this new art and the Royal Collection contains thousands of specimens of early photographic works.
A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography is a publication of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to celebrate the 175th birthday of photography. It accompanies an exhibition of pictures of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and shows their sponsorship of this new technique and form of art. From the very beginning the Queen and her husband showed their interest; by patronising the Photographic Society, giving their royal approval to exhibitions and not in the least by sitting in front of the camera themselves. At the same time photography visually recorded Victoria’s reign, showing her as Queen and Empress, a loving wife and mother, and as devoted mother of the nation.
The book contains four interesting essays about the development of photography, the Queen’s private photographs and the place of photography in portraying the monarchy. But most impressive are the numerous beautiful plates, that give the reader an inside look of the Victorian era. Firstly, there are the pictures of the royal family themselves; and as most pictures were meant for private eyes only, we see the members in relaxing, more informal poses, like during holidays at their estates. A lot of these pictures are rarely shown, so it feels like you get a new look into the life of the royal couple. They afford us a more intimate picture of Victoria and Albert, in a way that paintings or text could scarcely convey.
A Royal Passion also features many other pictures that offer a close look at various aspects of Victorian life. I especially loved the two pictures made in an asylum, looking straight into the eyes of two working class women that lived so long ago. There’s a sense of romance in being able to look into the faces of long gone men, women and children; to take a step back in history and stare at the carriage in front of Windsor Castle; to see the tired faces of wounded men in the Crimean War, or seeing fisherwomen posing in their daily dress. Although we’ve all watched the films, seeing a photograph of men with top hats really takes you back to the times of Oliver Twist. It is this very personal and human aspect of photography, and the remembrance of either famous or simply unnamed people lost to history that I love most about this selection of works. It is also very impressive to learn that even early on in the history of photography, artists managed to create such complex and beautiful pieces of art. I was especially impressed with Oscar Gustave Rejlander’s ‘The Two Ways of Life’ (1857), a combination of several negatives, which portray a surreal image of the choice between good and evil.
The essays are fascinating, although when it comes to the lay-out of the book the reader might get discouraged by the walls of text. However, browsing through the plates in this book is really a feast for the eyes. Unfortunately, most of us won’t be able to visit the exhibition in Los Angeles and many of the photographs are not often on display. So to get a closer look into the Victorian era and into the lives of Victoria and Albert, I would recommend getting your hands on this one!
To get an impression of the collection of photographs, visit the Getty website. The exhibition in the J. Paul Getty Museum will run from February 4th until June 8th 2014.