If you saw this image in your social media feeds, you’d do a double take. The birthday table is positively groaning under the weight of all these gifts. This fine selection of watercolours, ceramics and paintings are clearly meant for an art-lover. Garlands of greenery decorate the walls, there’s fresh flowers on every surface and their initials are even spelt out in foliage! But this isn’t an image by an egoistic Instagram influencer. Instead, it’s from the private, curated feed of Queen Victoria and her husband, Albert. They spent many happy evenings choosing from the thousands of watercolours, prints and photographs they collected, carefully pasting images such as this one into albums, to help remember their life together. Even more poignantly, this birthday was the last that Victoria would ever be greeted with such a lavish table of gifts from her husband, due to Albert’s untimely death that winter.
This birthday table is from Victoria and Albert’s most personal albums, made of watercolours capturing moments, places, and events they experienced together. When Albert died, the sequence ended but they meant so much to Victoria that they travelled with her. The albums were so well thumbed that they literally fell apart by the early twentieth century. Now these private, emotionally charged images are now on display, many of them for the first time, in the touring exhibition Victoria and Albert: Our Lives in Watercolour.
EMPERORS AND AMATEURS
Victoria and Albert were very enthusiastic patrons of the arts, and often commissioned watercolours and other artworks as gifts for each other. These show exactly which moments they wanted to remember, from family life, travel, and big events such as Albert’s Great Exhibition. Watercolours were such a great medium for the Victorians – quick and colourful, easy to do anywhere, great for crowd scenes, and able to convey the moment’s energy. Although both royals also embraced the new fangled photography, it was limited to cumbersome equipment with black and white staged results. There was also great scope for artistic licence – in one image, Victoria arrives triumphantly in daylight Paris, several hours before her actual twilight arrival. Watercolours really were the instant image capture of their time, with all the scope to divert from reality that we are acutely aware of today.
Some pictures were gifted to them on their visits, ambassadorial gifts if you will, from Emperors and Princes who had caught wind of the royals’ love of watercolours. Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie sent over an album of watercolours commemorating the Queen’s visit to Paris. Other may have been more unintended gifts, like this amateur landscape of Killarney Lakes in County Kerry, Ireland. It graced the walls of a nearby home the Queen stayed in, until she admired it. Whether she asked for it or it was offered to her is not recorded, but despite its more humble origins it became a treasured part of the Queen’s private collections.
‘SCENES OF LIFE’
The pictures in Victoria and Albert: Our lives in Watercolour really give me a sense of the person behind the monarch, the mother, the wife, and the proud diplomat. My favourite images are those which Victoria called ‘scenes of life’ as they give a glimpse of ordinary family life, taking place in extraordinary surroundings. Through the opulent Grand Corridor of Windsor Castle meander a woman and child, perhaps Queen Victoria and Princess Alice. Despite the grandeur, it feels like a private moment. In Buckingham Palace, a children’s fancy dress party is a riot of colour and movement. And at Osborne House we see Swiss Cottage, the Alpine-style chalet which Albert and his two eldest boys built themselves. In this playhouse, the royal children learnt housekeeping, cookery, and gardening. The fact that Albert and Victoria chose these watercolours to place in their private albums indicates that parenting was an important part of their lives together.
In summer 1846 Victoria and Albert made a surprise visit to Guernsey, the first by a reigning monarch for 600 years. The islanders went into a frenzy, making garlands, preparing flags, and squeezing onto terraces and roofs to get a view of this historic moment. This warm welcome must have made an impression on the royal couple, as afterwards they commissioned local artist Paul Jacob Naftel to paint the scene.
The royals travelled throughout the United Kingdom and overseas, and many of their watercolours capture the impressions these travels made on them. It’s not all warm welcomes and idyllic views. Take for example William Wyld’s Manchester from Kersal Moor, commissioned by the Queen after her visit to the city. It’s drawn from an idyllic park with goats in the foreground, but at its heart are smoking chimneys, belting out plumes of smoke. Modernity is celebrated in other images, such as Britannia tubular bridge over the Menai Straits, an engineering marvel which carried the railway to the tip of North Wales. The cherishing of these watercolours indicates a sense of real pride in Britain’s growing industries.
‘SHE PAINTS TOO WELL FOR AN AMATEUR’
One particular travel moment draws me in – it was painted by the Queen’s own hand, most likely sketched during a train ride through Italy. I can almost imagine Victoria gasping at the view, grabbing her sketchbook, and hastily trying to capture the scenery. She had regular lessons from the age of eight, but it was Scottish landscape painter William Leighton Leitch who taught her the most during their 22 years of lessons together. On display are some of his step by step guides on how to paint in watercolour that he created for the Queen. She must have progressed well – when artist Clarkson Stanfield saw some of the Queen’s (unidentified) sketches in Leitch’s studio he declared ‘she paints too well for an amateur. She will be soon entering the ranks as a professional artist’.
Victoria and Albert: Our lives in watercolour is a fascinating exhibition which gives remarkable insight into the private lives of this royal couple, what memories they created and wanted to keep hold of. It doesn’t just document what happened during Victoria’s reign – the travel and diplomacy, key political events, and modernisation – but indicates how they felt, and how they chose to see them. It’s a rare chance to see history through royal eyes, not for the history books, but for their personal memory banks. It’s a surprisingly intimate and rewarding display that has given me a fresh perspective on the person behind this fascinating historical figure.
What’s on for families at the Laing Art Gallery
Right in the heart of Newcastle, Laing is home to a diverse British art collection including 19th century pre-Raphaelite art, a watercolour collection of national importance and Henry Moore sculpture. The older works sing in the 1904 Art Noveau art galleries, with their domed ceilings and frescoes.
But don’t let the grandeur put you off, as the Laing has all of the warmth of a local museum. Even young children are encouraged to join in with a dedicated playspace, family activities inside the galleries and art studios, and fun touches throughout the galleries.
Take for example, the dynamic display of The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by local Romantic artist John Martin in the ‘Northern Soul’ display. Push a button and you’ll be rewarded with a thunder and lightening show – a modern reintepretation of the artist’s demand that the apocalyptic painting be shown with pillars of real fire. It’s that mix of frightening and fascinating that’ll have kids repeatedly pressing ‘start’. A much calmer example is the ‘please touch’ marble sculpture in the grand Marble Hall, sprouting sea creatures to help bring the origins of the material to life, or the child friendly caption booklets to carry round the galleries. On weekends, the art studio is stocked for inspired families to make their own artworks.
UNDER 5s PLAY AREA
FAMILY EVENTS AT LAING ART GALLERY
Make and Take
Wednesdays during school holidays, 10.00-14.00.
£5 per child. Drop-in
Explore new art techniques and materials through three hands-on art activities. Includes a timed messy session, and a free tote bag to take your ‘makes’ home. This summer will see watercolour and Victoria themed sessions to tie-in with Victoria and Albert: Our lives in watercolour. For all the family.
Tuesdays during term time, 10.00-11.00
£3 per child (online in advance)/ £4 (on the door). Booking advised
This under 5s group imaginatively responds to the art, building and displays – previous activities include using ink and shaving foam to make marbled pictures, and making ‘leaves’ to drop into the Marble Hall from the rotunda above. All sessions end with storytime in the Under 5s area.
Saturday Art Classes
First and third Saturday of the month, 10:15 – 11:45am
£5 per person. Booking essential
An inclusive art class for 10-15 year olds, working with an artist, a different medium or technique each month.
Art Academy (7-10 year olds) / Art School (11-16 year olds)
During school holidays, 10.00-15.00
£75 for 3 days (7-10 year olds); £100 for 5 days (11-16 year olds)
Learn new art techniques in a jam-packed art camp that feels nothing like school. At the end, family and friends are invited to an art show, the new works displayed on easels alongside the greats in the galleries.
Victoria and Albert: Our lives in watercolour runs at Laing Art Gallery until 14 September 2019, then tours to Poole Museum and Wolverhampton Art Gallery. Open Mondays to Saturdays 10.00am-4.30pm, closed Sundays and Bank Holidays.
Tickets from Adult £8; Concessions £7.20, Children 12 and under FREE, Family £16.00.
For more information visit their website: https://laingartgallery.org.uk/whats-on/victoria-and-albert-our-lives-in-watercolour
Travel from London to Newcastle by train from only 2 hours 45 minutes. The Laing Art Gallery is an easy 12 minute walk from the train station.