You are at the top of the page

Skip to content or footer

Start of main content

Lifting the Royal Curtain: How Victoria and Albert Used Photography to Rebrand the Monarchy

Date: 01 May 2024

Author: Claudia Acott Williams

Photographs of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – now synonymous with the Victorian age – might appear restrained and unremarkable to modern eyes but behind their rigid poses lies a pioneering sentiment. Albert sat for the first photograph of a member of the British royal family just three years after photography was introduced to the public in 1839. In the years that followed, their early experiments in the fledgling technology would put them at the forefront of a scientific and cultural revolution.

Here, Curator Claudia Acott Williams explores how the royal couple's use of photography helped to cement their image in the public imagination for generations to come.

Prince Albert (1819-1861) by WILLIAM CONSTABLE (1783-1861)

Daguerreotype, showing a head-and-shoulders portrait of Prince Albert looking slightly to the left. The image has now faded considerably. The daguerreotype is mounted in a dark brown leather case with a red velvet interior. 'P. A. Feb 1842' is embossed on the lid in gold lettering and 'Beard Patented' is stamped beneath the daguerreotype.

Image: Prince Albert by William Constable. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024

Prince Albert

5 March 1842, William Constable

It was Brighton-based photographer William Constable who first captured the likeness of the intellectually and artistically curious young Prince Albert on an overcast spring day in 1842. Constable used the daguerreotype process, in which a highly polished metal plate is coated in a cocktail of chemicals and exposed to the light, before being ‘fixed’. The remarkably crisp results of the first commercially available photographic technology caused a sensation but it would quickly transpire that they were also lethally ephemeral.

By the time this ghostly copy of the original daguerreotype was made with a more advanced camera in 1891, the original image was fading from view. Today, it lives in a climate-controlled store in the round tower at Windsor Castle, yet when I was permitted the privileged opportunity to cradle it as Queen Victoria might once have done, I could see only my own reflection staring expectantly back at me. While Prince Albert’s likeness may have long since evaporated, the significance of this moment has become no less potent with the passage of time. Queen Elizabeth II is reputed to have said, ‘I have to be seen to be believed’ and indeed photography has become perhaps the most powerful tool of communication in the royal armoury today. Victoria and Albert appear to have immediately understood this extraordinary potential.

Within months of its establishment in 1853, the couple became patrons of the Photographic Society; were Prince Albert alive today, I imagine that he would be courting the tech firms of Silicon Valley! Royal encouragement in the century that followed would be instrumental to photography’s popularity and development.

For the royal couple, this new art-science was initially a novel means with which to document their art collections and their growing brood of children. In the Royal Photographs Collection at Windsor Castle, neatly arranged in chronological order, are shelf after shelf of volumes titled ‘Portraits of the Royal Children’. These tender family albums collated over 51 years are largely devoid of the recognisable accoutrements of monarchy and instead document an affluent young family. This isn’t an unusual fact in itself, but what is remarkable is that it was a photograph from these distinctly personal albums that was chosen as the first of a British sovereign to be shared with the public.

Photograph of The Royal Family on the terrace at Osborne. From left to right:  Prince Alfred, Prince Albert, Princess Helena, Princess Alice, Prince Arthur, Queen Victoria holding Princess Beatrice, Princess Royal, Princess Louise, Prince Leopold and Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. There is a statue of Urania in the alcove behind the family.

Image: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their nine children, 1857, by Caldesi & Montecchi. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their nine children

26 May 1857, Caldesi & Montecchi

In 1858, this relaxed family photograph slipped quietly into the public arena. Displayed at the London Photographic Society’s fifth annual exhibition for a small public audience, it was nonetheless a watershed moment. Queen Victoria had just given birth to her last child, Princess Beatrice, and had retreated to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight to recuperate with her family.

Victoria commissioned this photograph as a birthday gift to Albert and to record the last happy moments before her eldest daughter, Victoria, was to marry the following year. The Liverpool and Manchester Photographic Journal described it as ‘well executed and highly interesting, as displaying most vividly the domestic character’.

Though it seems innocuous enough to modern eyes, by allowing the public into this private moment, Victoria and Albert lifted the curtain on royal life for the first time. While court artists like Franz Xaver Winterhalter and Sir Edwin Landseer continued to cultivate the grandeur and status of monarchy in their virtuoso portraits, the Queen's photographs centred on her identity as a woman, wife and mother. This domestic informality would be the defining feature of Victoria and Albert’s photographic approach.

Photograph of a full length double portrait of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Prince Albert is seated with an open book on his lap. The Queen is stood to the side of the Prince looking down and holding a white hankerchief in her left hand.

Image: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1860, by John Jabez Edwin Mayall. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

1860, John Jabez Edwin Mayall

Two years later, Queen Victoria gave permission for the photographer John Mayall to publish a series of photographs of her family in carte-de-visite form. This innovation, consisting of small photographs pasted on to a card backing, enabled the relatively cheap production of large numbers of portraits.

Within a few years of its invention in 1854, Europe was gripped by ‘cartomania’, a frenzy around the collection of cartes-de-visite. Print-sellers capitalized on the trend by selling cartes depicting well-known public figures. Politicians, actors, writers and royalty were all popular collectables.

Like their subjects, Victoria and Albert enjoyed collecting these small photographs in specially designed albums and frequently sat for their own cartes, to be shared privately among family and friends. The photographs published in Mayall’s Royal Album were the first of the royal family to be made widely available to the public and they proved an instant success. The Times reported on 16 August 1860 that wholesalers had ordered 60,000 sets, far outstripping requests for other celebrity portraits. Public demand was so high that in February 1861 Mayall visited Buckingham Palace once again to make a new set of negatives.

Queen Victoria with the Princess Royal, the Prince of Wales, Princess Alice, Princess Helena and Prince Alfred 17 Jan 1852.

Daguerreotype of Queen Victoria with Princess Victoria, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, Princess Alice, Princess Helena and Prince Alfred. The children are gathered in a group around Queen Victoria, whose face has been scratched out. The daguerreotype has been mounted under glass.

Image: Queen Victoria with her eldest children, 1852, by William Edward Kilburn. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024

Queen Victoria with her eldest children

17 January 1852, William Edward Kilburn

The publication of Mayall’s Royal Album had a seismic impact on the relationship between the monarchy and the public. The realistic likenesses possible with the camera gave the royal family an unprecedented immediacy, transforming them into real people who could be brought into the nation’s homes and cradled in their hands.

Amid the avalanche of photographic images that bombard our senses today, it's perhaps difficult to comprehend just how radically this technology changed the way Victorian society saw the world – and indeed how individuals saw themselves. I’m always particularly struck by this curious photograph of a headless figure surrounded by a group of five small children. The figure in question is Queen Victoria but she appears to have destroyed the negative, presumably in a fit of indignation at being confronted by her own appearance.

Victoria’s journal provides useful explanation: ‘a daguerreotype by Mr. Kilburn was taken of me & 5 of the Children. Mine was unfortunately horrid, but the Children’s were pretty.’ I loathe having my picture taken, despite regularly being subjected to the camera since birth, so I can well understand the monarch’s alarm at the uncompromising honesty of the lens.

Such unbridled intimacy may have been uncomfortable, but it was also powerful PR. Victoria and Albert were acutely conscious of their public profile and quickly became wise to the ways a photograph could be contrived to convey a particular image.

Unlike painted portraiture, which was flattering, costly and thus inherently exclusive, their presentation in a medium increasingly accessible to much of the population, and in the same formulaic configurations as their subjects showed them to be, in essence, ‘normal people.’ Employing the two media simultaneously enabled them to position theirs as a middleclass monarchy amid the increasingly liberal public sentiment of 19th-century Britain. In so doing, they established a new – and what would prove to be a winning balance in their public image between intimacy and splendour.

Together Victoria and Albert had identified photography’s potential to shape a royal rebranding for a new age. Following the Prince Consort’s shock death on 14 December 1861 at the age of just 42, Victoria would be left to harness that potential alone.

Life Through A Royal Lens

Until 27 October 2024

A must-see exhibition at Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, documenting the British Royal Family's ever-evolving relationship with the camera over the last 200 years.

More from our blog

The Revealing Tale of Queen Victoria's Early Biography

24 May 2024

In 1839, Queen Victoria's engagement to Prince Albert prompted one of the first biographies of the young monarch. But the book's release was a disaster.

Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha: Monarchy's moderniser

26 August 2019

On the 200th birthday of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Professor John R Davis argues that Albert's influence helped Queen Victoria rescue the British Monarchy.

Queen Victoria's Petticoat: a rare survivor from her Early wardrobe

19 September 2017

This magnificent petticoat is a recent acquisition to the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection and requires conservation for both storage and display purposes.

Share this on:

Twitter Facebook