With Queen Elizabeth II’s lengthy reign (my entire lifetime, and more!) now overtaking that of Queen Victoria, it makes sense to look at some of Te Papa’s fascinating and diverse objects that relate to the earlier monarch and empress. I can’t hope to summarise what Queen Victoria was like – that requires not a blog but a book. But historian Colin Matthew put it like this: ‘In her sincerity, her enthusiasms, her effort to do her duty, Victoria was truly Victorian: the age rightly bears her name’. In contrast, even the present Queen’s warmest admirers cannot convincingly characterise the past 63 years as ‘Elizabethan’.
‘In Memoriam of our Beloved Queen Victoria’
When Victoria died in January 1901, ‘astonished grief swept the country’, according to essayist Lytton Strachey. He could have added ‘empire’. Why were people so ‘astonished’? Well, she had always been the constitutional ruler and had no right to die; it was unthinkable and to loyal souls unbearable. A relatively humble example of memorial memorabilia is this chromo-lithographic portrait printed on silk and published as a special supplement to The Gentlewoman magazine. Note how the elderly Queen wears her sensible lightweight crown and holds a fan, conveying an image that is arguably more domestic than majestic. This hints at Victoria’s charisma. She was special, but she was also, somehow, just like us!
A global monarch
We have many notions of what Queen Victoria and the Victorians were like, some accurate and some absurd. For a pop culture mash-up of these, enjoy this video clip of ‘Victoria’ by post-punk band The Fall:
But seriously… historian John McKenzie, recognises how ‘Victoria adopted a global approach and, despite the limitations of her education, she knew and corresponded with many of the prophets and visionaries of her time’. Victoria’s lively and often intelligent observations and opinions on everyone and everything fill 122 volumes of her journals, spanning 1832 and 1901. Here was a woman – in her youth, during her marriage to her beloved Prince Albert, and in the later years of her widowhood – who enjoyed an intense appetite for life.
Flying the Flag
Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) coincided remarkably closely with the colonial status of New Zealand (1840-1907). When it had overtaken that of her grandfather George III (1760-1820), there were numerous, invariably reverent references in our newspapers to her ‘Record Reign’. Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee is commemorated in this flag, depicting her as a teenager at the time of her accession to the throne in 1837, and as the mature mother of the mother of all empires 60 years later. The young and old Victorias provide an effective graphic device which is also found on stamps and medals. They caused people to reflect on the mind-boggling progress of that era, as well as the continuance that the Queen symbolised. The donor’s father, John Albert Kerslake, was given the flag as a schoolboy to wave at Jubilee celebrations in Wellington. After Victoria’s death, her birthday (24 May) was inaugurated as Empire Day for ‘the double purpose of keeping fresh and green the memory of a most illustrious reign and rejoicing in the consolidation of our great Empire’ (Oamaru Mail). The New Zealand School Journal enthused: ‘Our Union Jack, on Empire Day/ Floats proudly in the breeze;/ Not here alone, but far away/ In lands across the seas.’ Empire Day remained celebrated until World War Two, and was more reverently observed in New Zealand, Australia and Canada than it ever was in Great Britain.
Bronzes in black and white
With statues of Victoria in the four principal metropolitan centres, Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin and Wellington, she enjoyed a more prominent profile per head of population than anywhere else in the British Empire apart from the Bahamas, Malta and Mauritius, all far smaller than New Zealand. Te Papa has a good collection of early photographs of these memorials, their tones poignantly reflecting the colour of the bronze. What also emerges is a sense of splendid, imperious isolation, emphasised by the ornamental railings and the absence of later incursions, be they luxury hotels (as in Victoria Square, Christchurch) or denser planting (as in Albert Park, Auckland). The Auckland statue was the only one erected in the Queen’s lifetime, and remains the smallest and plainest. A game of memorial one-upmanship occurred between the cities. Christchurch’s Victoria, commissioned just before she died, holds a stately sceptre and is placed atop an elaborate pedestal. Reflecting colonial ingenuity in its conception, the Christchurch monument combines three functions in one: it worthily honours the late sovereign; it memorialises the South African (or Boer) War (1899-1902) and Canterbury’s sons who died in it; and it commemorates the 50th anniversary of the province’s settlement and subsequent achievements.
Monarch in a Monsoon
The Muir & Moodie studio photographs of the newly erected statues belong to a distant, didactic world when we consider Brian Brake’s image of barely half a century later. Queen Victoria forms part of his photo story Monsoon, created during the rainy season in India in 1960 and published the following year in Life magazine. Brake has been described as ‘New Zealand’s most renowned international photographer’ and was accorded an admirable Te Papa exhibition, Brian Brake: Lens on the World (2010), with an accompanying catalogue by Athol McCredie. I find Brake’s artistry breathaking and literally (as here) brilliant. There is no mistaking the identity of the silhouetted statue – this is the sculptor George Frampton’s majestically enthroned Victoria, Empress of India. Beyond the frame, she forms part of the stupendously imperialistic Victoria Memorial in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Brake’s image makes us speculate about Victoria’s thoughts on an empire on which the sun would supposedly never set. The shrewdly apolitical photographer might have responded: ‘You’re welcome to think that!’ His priorities were emphatically formal and modernist.
The Widowed Victoria
Although I have stressed Queen Victoria’s appetite for life, we cannot minimise the devastating impact that Prince Albert’s shockingly premature death had on her, and how this blighted her prime years. Sadly too, its timing early on in New Zealand’s history (1861), means that there are few items in our collection that relate directly to him. Victoria’s passionate grief is evident in a letter to her uncle Leopold, first King of the Belgians: ‘I am anxious to repeat one thing, and that is my firm resolve, my irrevocable decision… that [Albert’s] wishes, his plans, about everything… are to be my law! And no human power will make me swerve from what he decided and wished… I live on with him, for him’. We experience powerful visual confirmation of this in our copy of J. P. Mayall’s official photograph of the mourning Queen and family members seated around a bust of Prince Albert at Windsor Castle. I say ‘copy’ because it was published by Burton Brothers, one of New Zealand’s most prominent photographic studios for nearly half a century (1866-1914). At the time it was commonplace to rip off other photographers’ works, and Burton Brothers were no more and no less culpable than their competitors here. They saw an image like this as a commercially attractive prospect for their customers’ albums.
A similarly doleful carte-de-visite photograph of the widowed Victoria in the collection was published by the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Co. in the 1860s. We are confronted with the Queen who was, according to the legend, ‘not amused’. Analysing her fragile mental state at this time, Colin Matthew concluded: ‘Victoria could be temperamental, passionate, opinionated, proud, selfish, obstinate, stubborn and difficult, but she was not mad’. For several years after 1861, he claims, ‘she was simply very sad’.
Surely New Zealand’s unique Victorian treasures are her first postage stamps, the so called ‘Full-Face Queens’ or ‘Chalon Heads’ of 1855, named for the Anglo-Swiss artist Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860) and his portrait of the 18-year-old sovereign painted just after her accession. This portrait provided the model for stamp designs from numerous colonies from 1851 onwards, including the Bahamas, Canada and Tasmania. They were expertly adapted for their new function by Irish engraver William Humphrys, who rendered the slim neck, shoulders and ermine Coronation wrap with real delicacy. Although Victoria was never a beauty in real life, there is a definite aura about her in these designs and one can quite believe how Albert fell in love with her. What the New Zealand stamps surpass the ‘Chalon Heads’ of other colonies is in their outstanding designs. Philatelist John Easton declared: ‘…the New Zealand stamp has come alive. This is partly due to the relegation of POSTAGE to a subsidiary position above the value, and the fact that, for the first time, the name of the colony has been cut larger than the value of the stamp; one feels that one is interested in New Zealand’.
New Zealand’s nineteenth-century stamp designs are alarmingly uneven in their quality. From the sublime achievements of Chalon and Humphrys, let us move to Alfred Ernest Cousins’s more homely ‘Second side-face’ design, which was issued for 2½ penny stamps in 1891. For all its shortcomings, there is a Victorian fervour in this celebration of maritime prowess. Philatelist Robin Gwynn writes: ‘Alfred Cousins was a competent craftsman, but he never greatly surpassed the assessment of his first reference: “a steady, sober and industrious workman”’. That reference contains a Victorian honesty that contrasts refreshingly with today’s addiction to hyperbole.
Victoria in the twentieth century
A later age could be more lighthearted about Queen Victoria. In her pageant costume designs, Mollie Rodie (now Mollie Mackenzie) (1919- ) provides a living connection with early to mid-20th century views of the Victorians. Stylistically, she connects with slightly older British artists like Nina Hamnett, Osbert Lancaster and Rex Whistler. Their work is a witty ‘take’ on Victorian characters and values, though mingled with affection and nostalgia. The watercolour illustration reproduced here comes from a series of Rodie’s designs for costumes that portray Victoria at various stages in her life. The Carnival Queen phenomenon in which they featured brought a touch of Hollywood-style glamour to fundraising pageants and helped to rally spirits on the New Zealand home front immediately before and during World War Two. In 2013-14, a small but charming Te Papa exhibition showcased Rodie’s designs and delighted their creator.
A postcolonial Victoria?
I will end this blog on a strange and unsettling note. In the 1990s, William Dunning produced a series of startling imagined, counterfactual monuments to New Zealand history. Here, in a tableau vivant, the colonial governor and premier Sir George Grey towers over the Māori King Tāwhaio and Queen Victoria. He places a familiar hand on’s Tāwhaio’s shoulder, but wisely does not attempt to do a ‘Paul Keating’ on the Queen. Is Dunning trying to say that Grey as governor had to straddle responsibility to Queen Victoria in London (whom he personally revered), with Tāwhaio whose King Movement potentially challenged her sovereignty during some of the most turbulent times in New Zealand history? Later, seeking to have the Treaty of Waitangi honoured, Tāwhaio and his visiting deputation were denied an audience with the Queen. Perhaps Dunning is trying to tell us that Victoria was just part of a complex colonial sovereignty conundrum rather than the glorious, evidently untroubled ruler depicted in official imagery. He may well be right.
Afterword: for Te Papa’s blog on Queen Victoria’s bloomers (or, more properly, drawers), go to: