Painting an Ascendant Queen

By Herman, Carol | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 28, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Painting an Ascendant Queen

Herman, Carol, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

In "Queen Victoria and Thomas Sully," Carrie Rebora Barratt, associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writes of a young monarch's penchant for having her image painted over and over again. As a child she posed for many portraits and this activity would only increase. "Queen Victoria sat seventy-two times between her ascension in June 1837 and her coronation on June 28, 1838, but did not by any means sit for all the artists who would have wished to paint her portrait."

Queen Victoria's 61st sitting was with the esteemed American painter Thomas Sully, and this enchanting book, a story of rivalries, art, idealism and business, tracks the sequence of events that led from Sully's fortuitous commission to his remarkable and unconventional portrait of the 18-year-old queen.

The book is divided into six parts: Queen Victoria's "early life in pictures," Sully and other portrait painters of the times, his defining association with the actress Fanny Kemble, the art and logistics of painting the queen and, on Sully's return to America, a lawsuit brought against him by the organization that commisioned the painting. Sully supplements these events in his journal (which takes up half the book) recording in an understated, detailed way his day-to-day life among the cultural elite of London.

Victoria was born in 1819, the daughter of the Duke of Kent and Princess Victoria of Saxe Coburg. Though the sixth in line of succession, fate intervened, and after the death of her uncle, King William IV in 1837 she inherited the throne. As a child Victoria "had over 130 dolls but no companions her own age" to amuse her. She also had a very strict upbringing, which included punishment for bad behavior in a secluded stairwell with "hands shackled by ropes."

But this "highly managed upbringing made time for the portrait sittings . . . that offered diversion in the princess' tight schedule of essential and obligatory lessons and meager entertainments." From this point, the author writes, "Victoria was well on the road to becoming the most portrayed British monarch in history." Certainly her dominating, ambitious mother with whom she shared an increasingly distant relationship exerted influence, but Victoria herself was an enthusiastic subject.

And the portraits continued to issue forth, serving in no small way important political goals. "As a matter of international diplomacy, the reigning monarch sent her image not only to British embassies, colonies and outposts, but also to rulers of other nations." Victoria sat "frequently and willingly" for ambitious artists, having been born to the idea that "her person, her very body represented her dominion."

From an early childhood portrait at 4, decked in feathers and furs, she would advance to portraits dressed in long, sumptuous robes and wearing a crown. Among the artists she favored were Sir George Hayter, Sir David Wilkie and Alfred Edward Chalon. "Queen Victoria thought William Charles Ross `a very silly man and very tedious to sit to,' but nonetheless consented to pose for him every day, save one in the last week of November 1837 for her portrait in miniature."

So the competition was fierce at the time Thomas Sully was presented with an irresistable opportunity: "On October 9, 1837, the day before his decided date of departure from Philadelphia to London, the portraitist Thomas Sully received a missive from the local chapter of the Society of Saint George, a benevolent association devoted to supporting indigent English emigrants and their families. The gentleman prevailed upon the artist to paint for their meeting room a full-length portrait of Queen Victoria who had ascended to the throne just months before . . ."

Sully was born in Horncastle, England, in 1783. He was the son of actors Matthew Sully and Sarah Chester. In 1792 he immigrated with his family to Richmond, Va., two years later settling in Charleston, S.

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