The British Royal Family has had a fractured relationship with photographs, to say the least. Whether it’s Harry being caught in a state of extreme undress (or, alternatively, dressed up too extremely), or the paparazzi hounding Princess Diana to her tragic fate, the demand for photos of the Royals often ends extremely badly.
It may be surprising, then, to learn that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were very early proponents of photography, a technology that was developed (excuse the pun) only shortly into her reign. Victoria took to the throne in 1837, and two years later Henry Fox Talbot announced the invention of photography to the British public.
The Victorian Royal Family was well known for championing innovation, perhaps most famously through The Great Exhibition of 1851 held in Hyde Park’s Crystal Palace. The event was organised by Prince Albert and Henry Cole (the man who invented the Christmas card) as a means of introducing new technologies and cultures to members of the public. By that point, however, the Royals had been besotted with the camera for almost a decade.
Although Victoria narrowly missed being the first monarch in the world to be photographed (Louis Philippe I of France pipped her to the post in 1842), she and Albert took to the newfangled method of image reproduction like ducks to water – ultimately playing a significant role in popularising the medium. An invitation to miniature painter-turned-photographer Henry Collen to take a photo of Queen Victoria and the Princess Royal resulted in the first ever photograph of a British monarch, taken in 1844:
Queen Victoria was so taken with the art form that she set about acquiring all manner of photographic portraits, building up a collection of images that together formed a relatively comprehensive portrait of Victorian society – from other British and European monarchs to the cooks, gardeners and seamstresses that comprised the Queen’s household staff. It is even thought that Queen Victoria commissioned one of her favourite photographers – William Bambridge – to catalogue her extensive collection of furniture, artwork, crockery and ornaments.
The Queen set a new precedent in 1860, when portraits taken by JJE Mayall of her and Prince Albert became the first Royal photos to be published and made available to members of the general public. She embraced the celluloid image and its ability to connect Royals to their subjects in a way that is still practiced today; with official Royal portraits released at Christmas, for example, or on the occasion of Royal weddings.
All this was still novel – the Royal Family finding their footing with a technology in its infancy, experimenting with its potential and its potency. The equipment was not yet widespread, obtainable or mobile enough for it to pose the threat to privacy that would haunt future generations of Queen Victoria’s family.
Yet even at this early stage, Victoria had some recognition of the extreme power of the photograph – the most faithful reproduction of reality – and its ability to connect with and relate to people that paintings never had. Where a painted portrait elevates the subject to some higher plane, the photographic image places its subject almost within reach of the viewer.
When Prince Albert died suddenly in 1861, Victoria called on William Bambridge once more, and had him photograph Albert’s body in the Blue Room of Windsor Castle. Bambridge took two photos and made a print of each, after which Queen Victoria ordered that the negatives be destroyed – perhaps fearful of demystifying the Royal family too much.