Friday, May 25, 2012

Royal Riches

I was driving to a local Indian restaurant with Tyler and a friend last week when I made an executive decision to take a quick right off the main road into a shopping plaza that houses an antique mall we frequent. I was rather hungry, but I could not resist the lure of the large red and white "SALE" sign that had caught my attention.  Daydreaming about the deals to be had, I scrambled into a parking spot.

"Are they still open?," I wondered aloud as I jogged to the door.

It turned out that the mall closes at 8pm, and so that meant we had a hour to shop.

Within the first thirty seconds, I spotted this eye-catching hand-colored 1838 Godey's Lady's Book engraving of Queen Victoria in one of the first booths.


At $38 (minus 15%), it was not a steal, but I liked it.  I am always looking for colorful prints depicting people or things I appreciate to adorn my walls, and this fit the bill. Great color, cool vintage frame, and it depicts a royal.

My penchant for English royalty dates back as long as I can remember.  As a little girl, I spent hours paging through this commemorative book featuring photographs of Diana, Princess of Wales, on the floor of my maternal grandmother's "front office" each time I visited.

The book is not even an inch thick, but my memories of it were that it was incredibly unwieldy and heavy.  In fact, when the copy pictured above arrived in my mailbox recently (thank you, Tyler), I insisted that this wasn't the same book I enjoyed as a child.  But then I opened it, and the photographs immediately brought back the memories.  The lustrous emerald green silk dress, Diana's blushing cheeks, the tiara.  She looked so elegant.  It never got old.

I don't really know what the appeal is in following the British "working" royals.  I was one of 22.8 million Americans who tuned in to watch Ms. Middleton become a Duchess (and presumably future queen) around 6 AM last year.  I admit to choking back a few tears when Catherine emerged from her car before gliding into Westminster Abbey. One essay I read last year suggested that we like watching attractive young couples because they look fit to perpetuate the human race.  I suppose I support that.  But I think I enjoy following the British monarchy because I like jewels (and nice clothing).

But it's not just royal women and their grace and beauty.  They wield power, too!  They don't get an orb, septer, and crown for nothing.  Furthermore, recent scholarship has emphasized this element of the monarchy's significance in history.  So you can imagine why I pounced on the Victoria engraving.  

Godey's paired the Victoria print with two texts: the first is about the admirable power of female monarchs such as Queen Elizabeth I; the second is about Victoria's looks in real life.  From the first text, we learn that readers should be overjoyed that Victoria is "promoting female education, and rendering her own sex capable of wielding, judiciously, the immense moral influence they are destined to posses."  Upon her ascension to the throne in 1837 (crowned 1838), the world anticipated that Victoria (and by extension, mothers everywhere) would do no wrong.

Then things got ugly.  

Tyler noted that he was not particularly taken with the print, as he deemed it an unflattering likeness.  I, on the other hand, thought Victoria looked attractive.  The reason Tyler felt the likeness to be unflattering might have its origins in how one contemporary observer described Victoria in 1838, just following the first essay on the virtue of women.  The observer began by describing Victoria's "aquiline" nose as her "best feature," but the writer continued on with other unflattering observations.  We learn that Victoria was "an agreeable, good-humoured looking, but by no means a handsome young woman."  The observer went on to explain:

The queen's neck is longer than the due proportion warrants. Her head sits well upon it. Her waist is small. Her hands and feet are small; the hands white and plump, with taper fingers, loaded with many neat rings.

Were you to see the queen on her throne, or on a chair, or on horseback, you would think that she was fully of the middle height, but when she rises you see that she is of the "dumpy" genus. The fact is she sits as if she were five feet five inches high, and she stands more than three inches less. This is owing to her legs being disproportionably short. This disproportion causes her to walk indifferently - waddling along in fact.

To carry off her want of height, she is fond, on state occasions, of having her train borne by two very little pages - youngsters of ten years old. - But as ill luck would have it, the Marchioness of Wellesley, Marchioness of Lansdowne, Countess of Mulgrave, Duchess of Sutherland, and other ladies about her person, are tall women, and the contrast makes the queen appear of lower stature than she really is.

Certainly beauty is not merely skin deep.  Either way, Godey's editors suspected that readers would be interested in fashions associated with the new Queen (watch out, Kate!).  For example, in an 1839 issue, readers read about a gold "walking dress" designed after one worn by the young Queen.

Godey's Lady's Book, December 1839
And for riding, this handsome number (second from right) was "worn by Queen Victoria" and was "coped from The World of Fashion." 
Godey's Lady's Book, July 1840
The excitement surrounding Victoria's ascension settled, but Godey's continued to print fashion plates and news associated with the Queen for decades afterward.  The print history of Victoria in Godey's alone attests to a long-time fascination with royals in the United States.   Just another reminder of the fact that America severed its political ties with Great Britain, but never its cultural ones.   

Further Reading
For more on the persistence of British monarchal fashions and trends in America, see Richard Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (1992).

In celebration with Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, the Royal Archives, in cooperation with Bodleian Libraries and ProQuest, released an online database of Queen Victoria's journals (she wrote regularly, starting at the age of 13) as well as her sketches (stunning!).  The collection will be available free of charge through July, so be sure to check it out while you still can.

If you have royal fever, search for "Queen Victoria" at the National Portrait Gallery and at the Victoria & Albert websites.  Both institution holds numerous examples of Queen Victorian portraiture in conventional forms (paintings and prints) as well as on ceramics, coins, and more.

If you want to start your own Victoria collection, check out this upcoming auction of Queen Victoria-related artifacts.  The Times wrote about it here, and you can check out the catalogue online here (link may not work after the auction on June 6, 2012.).

The next time you are in London, be sure to check out the recently refurbished Kensington Palace.

Fore more on recent revisionist scholarship on the monarchy, see this article in the Times.

No comments:

Post a Comment