Victoria and Albert’s precious watercolour albums
‘My valuable albums … containing most beautiful water color[sic] paintings by the first Artists, and some by Amateurs, collected by my beloved Husband & myself, and representing the different places we visited & scenes of our life etc; arranged by my dearly beloved Husband.’
- Queen Victoria, after 1861
Watercolours today are experienced by gallery visitors as individual works of art, frequently mounted and framed up on a wall or perhaps displayed in a case. So it is in Royal Collection Trust’s current touring exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of the births of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert: ‘Victoria & Albert: Our Lives in Watercolour’. Queen Victoria herself reminds us, though, that the original context of these watercolours was quite different, and the exhibition includes a reconstruction of one of her watercolour albums which gives visitors a sense of how the Queen and her husband would have enjoyed some of their collection.
Enthusiasts and amateur practitioners themselves of watercolour painting, together Victoria and Albert created albums of watercolours that they had commissioned, purchased at exhibitions or received as gifts. Probably the most important of these was the series of nine volumes which Victoria called her ‘View Albums’. The royal couple chose which watercolours should be included and in what order they were mounted, as well as deciding on the text for the captions inscribed on the page underneath each work. Victoria and Albert organised the series chronologically, meaning that it formed a visual record of their marriage and the first two decades or so of the Queen’s reign.
Initially somewhat introspective (the first album contained several views of the royal family’s homes), the scope of the albums broadened considerably over the years. When husband and wife turned the pages together, or engaged in the common social after-dinner activity of looking at albums with others, they reminisced over scenes of family life, such as their eldest daughter’s wedding day, placed alongside views of modern Britain from their travels around the kingdom, watercolours illustrating the pomp and pageantry of State Visits abroad and those capturing events of national significance, including the Crimean War and Great Exhibition.
The shared act of creating the albums was clearly as important to Queen Victoria as the watercolours they contained. Testament to this is the fact that she ended the series after Prince Albert’s untimely death in 1861. The albums themselves no longer survive (they were dismantled c.1930), probably a reflection of their frequent consultation by the widowed queen. That the watercolours they contained were preserved demonstrates the recognition in the 20th century of their intrinsic documentary and artistic value.
As part of ‘Victoria & Albert: Our Lives in Watercolour’, apprentices in the Royal Bindery have produced a facsimile of one of the View Albums. It is a little smaller (for ease of handling) than the originals were, but is bound in blue leather and bears Queen Victoria’s cypher on the cover in accordance with the surviving evidence detailing the appearance of the albums the queen and prince made. The reproductions of the original watercolours inside appear in the order given in a listing of their contents made c.1910, before the albums were disassembled. As well as enjoying the detailed, vibrant original watercolours on the walls of the gallery, visitors to the exhibition can also look through the facsimile album at their leisure as Victoria and Albert did themselves nearly 200 years ago.
‘Victoria & Albert: Our Lives in Watercolour’ was previously at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, and travels to Poole Museum and Art Gallery (26 October–5 January 2020) and Wolverhampton Art Gallery (7 March–31 May 2020). Carly Collier is the exhibition curator and Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings, Royal Collection Trust.