This portrait by an unknown artist represents Queen Victoria (1819-1901) with the youngest of her nine children, Princess Beatrice of the United Kingdom (1857-1944). Judging from the height and maturity of the young princess, the work can probably be dated to the later 1860s. Since the death of her husband the Prince Consort, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819-1861), at the age of 42, on 14 December 1861, Queen Victoria had been in a state of mourning and was systematically depicted (both in paintings as well as in photographs) wearing a long black dress and either a white or a black veil. The usual prescribed mourning period was one year. However, so devastated was she by her loss, Queen Victoria wore black for the rest of her life.
In this picture, beyond her mourning attire, Victoria also exhibits the painful ever-present absence of her husband by the insignia she is wearing. Indeed, from 10 March 1863, the date of the marriage of her eldest son, the Prince of Wales and future Edward VII, she had decided to wear her husband’s blue riband of the Order of the Garter. Her own George Cross (the emblem of the oldest order still used and the highest in Great Britain) is however barely visible against the black garment. Victoria also changed the design of her Royal Order of Victoria and Albert, the double cameo portrait of the Royal couple mounted on a cream silk ribbon which was distributed by the British sovereign to female members of the Royal family and the court as well as to other monarchs (for the most part from northern lands). Victoria had created the “Victoria and Albert” in 1856 on the occasion of the communion of her first-born, Victoria, Princess Royal, known as “Vicky”. After the death of Prince Albert, the double portrait was modified so that it was no longer Victoria’s profile in front but that of her late husband. In this painting, the Royal Order is artificially turned sideways to face the viewer to remind the viewer of the painful loss that weighed on the Royal family.
This touching portrait in the shape of a medallion expresses intensely but also presciently the intense relationship linking Victoria and Beatrice. The vague gaze of the Queen, who it was said appeared sad until the end of her life, and her absent seriousness – a reflection of her withdrawal into herself – dovetails with the compassionate, attentive and submissive gaze of the daughter kneeling before her mother. Their entwined hands, a sign of the need for physical contact, almost suggests that Victoria is clinging to her last-born, whom she never ceased to call “my baby”. The bare decor, recalling the Protestant portraits of the 16th and 17th centuries, prolongs the impression that mother and daughter live in a world apart, as if closeted behind the velvet curtain in the background of the double portrait here. The book placed on the Queen’s knees prefigures Beatrice’s later role of reader and personal secretary (which she performed until her mother’s death). The daughter would also be executor of Victoria’s will as well as guardian of her memory, undertaking to publish (and heavily censor) her memoirs.
After the fall of the Second Empire, in the autumn of 1870, Empress Eugenie and Louis went into exile in Britain, finding a comforting welcome there, soon to be joined by Napoleon III. Of all the various European powers during the second half of the 19th century, relations between these two sovereigns were undoubtedly the strongest. Having spent almost seven years in Great Britain during his earlier period of exile, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte had become quite an anglophile. Victoria, who became Queen in 1838, was related to the family of Orleans via her mother but the intrigues surrounding the marriage of the Queen of Spain in 1846 tarnished relations between Louis-Philippe and the Queen of the United Kingdom. Like the British parliament and the British ministries, Victoria was at first somewhat cautious after the arrival in power of the nephew of Napoleon I and the coup d’état on 2 December 1851. Relations between the two countries began to improve, however, when Louis-Napoleon sent a clear message of goodwill to the United Kingdom by sending the French ambassador to Great Britain, Count Walewski, to represent him officially at the funeral of the Duke of Wellington, on 18 November 1852. Cordial relations between the two countries were further enhanced when, unlike Austria, Prussia and Russia, Great Britain officially recognised the title of Napoleon III and the re-establishment of the Empire on 2 December two weeks later. This tentative alliance between the two nations was set in stone in 1855 by the joint intervention in Crimea against Russia and then, with less fortunate results, during the expedition to Mexico from 1861-1867. Although their political visions sometimes diverged strongly, notably on the Italian question from 1859 onwards, personal relations between Victoria and Napoleon III were always good, and they met on many occasions, whether it be at a universal exhibition or some other official visit. Victoria described Napoleon III as having always been a “faithful ally to England”. She did not abandon him after his fall and, after his death in 1873, she protected Eugenie and her son, whom she regarded with much affection.
There was even a rumour of a project of a marriage between Princess Beatrice and the Prince Imperial. The report made by a French spy working for the French Third Republic referred in 1877 to such a rumour: “Relations between the Imperial Prince and the [British] Court are excellent. On [Friday] he was well received by the Queen who spoke with him over lunch. There is talk of a possible marriage between the Prince and one of the Queen’s daughters, the Princess Beatrix, it is said”. In reality, it is highly unlikely that such a matrimonial plan was ever conceived for or by them: the difference of religions, the political and military preoccupations of Louis, who was preparing for a Third Empire, but most especially the maternal shadow and overbearing figure of Victoria, who was not able to part with her daughter, make such a hypothesis doubtful. Beatrice eventually married Prince Henry of Battenberg in 1885 … but on the condition that the couple remained under the same roof as the Queen, an arrangement which would have been incompatible with the destiny for which Louis was preparing. The Imperial Prince and the youngest daughter of Queen Victoria undoubtedly liked and appreciated each other, however: on the untimely death of the son of Napoleon III, Beatrice had a small bouquet of porcelain flowers placed at the foot of his tomb, a sign of a friendship that had been passed from one generation to another.
Marie de Bruchard, July 2017 (translation R. Young)