In August 1855, with the Battle of Waterloo still vivid in the nation’s collective memory, Queen Victoria made a momentous state visit to Paris. It was the first by a British monarch in over 400 years, and was designed to cement the historic alliance between France and Britain in the Crimean War.
This exhibition organised by Royal Collection Trust in collaboration with Compton Verney displays the watercolours that were commissioned as mementos of Queen Victoria’s week in the French capital. The watercolours vividly capture the opulent surroundings and the pomp and pageantry of her visit, and provide a snapshot of art and taste during Victoria’s reign. Generously loaned by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection, half of the works have never been exhibited before, and introduce the remarkable work of little-known French artists to today’s audiences.
In 1854, the centuries-old antipathy between Britain and France came to an end in an alliance against Russia in the Crimean War. After decades of political turmoil, Napoleon III – nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte – was elected President after the revolution of 1848. Four years later he declared the creation of the Second Empire, with himself as Emperor – the sixth change of regime in as many decades. Queen Victoria’s initial distrust of Napoleon III was overturned during a visit to Windsor in April 1855, when he and his wife, Empress Eugénie, captivated the young Queen with their charm and attentiveness. The return visit to Paris, arranged by the Emperor in August the same year, confirmed this new ‘happy alliance’ between France and Britain amid frequent reports from the Crimean front.
The watercolours that make up the exhibition were all presented to or commissioned by Queen Victoria as a souvenir of the visit. Queen Victoria was a passionate collector of watercolours, compiling a sequence of ‘Souvenir Albums’ throughout her marriage to Prince Albert that recorded their lives together through journeys, events and visits. At Christmas 1855, Napoleon III sent an album containing ten watercolours of the Paris visit to the Queen, who was thrilled with the ‘ravishing drawings’.Queen Victoria commissioned a further fifteen watercolours to add to the sequence, including views of her apartments at Saint-Cloud on the outskirts of Paris – a palace that was razed to the ground during Napoleon III’s downfall in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Another album containing nineteen scenes from a spectacular ball at the Hôtel de Ville on 23 August was sent by the Préfet de la Seine, Baron Haussmann, best known for the dramatic remodelling of Paris’s streets that was well underway during Queen Victoria’s visit. Queen Victoria was herself a keen watercolourist, and also on display will be a number of her own drawings made during the Paris tour.
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