Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Royal Brides Part 1--Victoria (and Diana and Kate)


With Prince Harry’s engagement to American actress Meghan Markle set to climax in a wedding in St. George’s chapel at Windsor Castle on May 19th and then Fergie’s daughter Princess Eugenie’s recent engagement to marry Jack Brooksbank in the same place in the Fall, royal brides seem to be much in the news lately.

Over my years of collecting antique photographs—dating from the beginning of photography in 1839 through 1918—I’ve accumulated close to 200 wedding photographs.  In the 19th century, going to a photographer’s studio in your wedding clothes for a formal photograph after the wedding day was traditional-- almost a legal statement that “We are married.”  (And until Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840, the bride was usually not wearing a white wedding dress, but usually the best dress from her wardrobe.)   Often this was the only photograph the bride and groom had taken of themselves in their lifetimes.
Some of my antique wedding photos are of royal brides. One of them is this small carte de visite  (above) of Queen Victoria when she was a 19-year-old girl and ruler of Great Britain, marrying her first cousin, 20-year-old Prince Albert of Saxe Colburg and Gotha in Germany.

The carte-de-visite photograph is a process that was introduced in 1854 and became vastly popular until after the turn of the century.  Unlike the earlier kinds of photographs--  daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, (which were housed in hard book-like cases for their protection) and then the tintype (sometimes in a case, sometimes not)-- the “CDV”s as they are called, were simply paper photographs mounted on a small piece of cardboard about the size of a calling card.  They were produced by the thousands and were very inexpensive and easy to make in multiples—unlike the previous processes. 

By the time of the Civil War in the U.S., just about everyone was collecting in albums the CDVs of their favorite actors, politicians, heroes, royals, entertainers, freaks (including Tom Thumb as well as Barnum’s other stars) and family and friends—both living and dead. If you called on someone who was not at home, you could leave a CDV of yourself, and you could fill albums with signed CDVs of your family and friends. Let’s face it, CDVs were our first selfies!

Queen Victoria and her family were among the most popular subjects for CDVs.  In 1860 John Maryall, an American working in England, published 60,000 sets of his Royal Family album of CDVs.   Victoria herself avidly collected the small photos and put them in albums. 

         Today, among photo collectors, CDVs of ordinary folk are so numerous that they are practically worthless, unless the subject is something rare. But I once saw a CDV of Abraham Lincoln’s dog, Fido, sell on E-Bay for several thousand dollars.  (And if you come across a CDV of Jesse James or Billy the Kid, drop me a line at

            Back to the CDV of Victoria and Albert as bride and groom.   I originally bought it because I was amused that someone acquired the CDV in the 1860’s and valued it so much that she cut a bit off the bottom and placed the photo in the kind of ornate frame and matte that was earlier used for cased images like daguerreotypes and ambrotypes.

            I took the photo apart from the frame and matte (which is something I always do, because you can find all sorts of things behind the image if it’s in a case:  locks of hair, written identifications, dates, love letters, poems).  I could see that the image had been carefully labeled as “Victoria and Albert of England” by someone named Elizabeth “Alleen” or “Allesen”, and that, judging from the pinholes, she had it pinned up several times before putting it in the fancy gold frame.

            By now you have realized, as I did when I took the thing apart—this is not a photograph!   It’s taken from an engraving of the royal pair. And the artist, whoever he is, made them look a teensy bit better than they did in real life.  And there’s one more thing wrong with the image—Victoria did not wear a real crown on her wedding day, but instead chose a simple crown of orange blossoms.  She also had bunches of orange blossoms attached to her gown.

         FYI, because I know you’re going to ask, Kate Middleton did wear a sort of crown at her wedding in April of 2011; a diamond halo-style coronet, which someone said was  “as understated as a headband of diamonds can be.”  It was an heirloom made by Cartier in 1936 and originally bought by King George VI for his wife—the Queen Mother.  It was loaned to Kate by Queen Elizabeth and includes 739 brilliant diamonds and 149 batons.

        Princes Diana, at her wedding on July 29, 1981, wore a much more visible and dramatic crown—the Lover’s Knot tiara, which was made in 1914 using diamonds and pearls from the royal family’s collection.  It was given to Diana by Queen Elizabeth II as a wedding present. Kate has inherited it and has worn it on several occasions.

         Wearing not a diamond crown but a headpiece of orange blossoms was a revolutionary step for Victoria to make at her wedding, as was wearing all white. At first I was disappointed that I couldn’t find an actual photograph of Victoria’s wedding, but then I realized—silly me!--that photography had only been announced to the world in August of 1839 by Daguerre in France, and in January of 1840, when Victoria got married, even if the daguerreotype process was available in England, it required going to a photographer’s studio on a day when there was ample sunlight and then sitting there with your head in a brace for a long time without moving or smiling—not the sort of thing that could be done at a wedding.

        But Victoria herself was quick to embrace the revolutionary new technology of photography.  She even specified which photographs of her loved ones would be buried with her in her casket.   In order to preserve her memories of her wedding day, she had a series of photographs taken by photographer Robert Fenton on May 1,1854—14 years after the real wedding. They were a re-enactment of the original ceremony, with both Victoria and Albert wearing their wedding outfits.  Above and below are two of the Fenton photos. You can see that the couple have aged a bit. I think what Albert has in his hand is a plumed hat.

          Victoria was in love with her wedding dress and wore it on numerous occasions, including for a portrait that she commissioned on her first anniversary from  the artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter, showing her as she looked on her wedding day.  

          The most notable part of the dress was a flounce made from a piece of Honiton lace worked in an antique style by ladies in Devon, England. Here’s how Victoria described her wedding dress in her journal:   I wore a white satin gown, with a very deep flounce of Honiton lace, imitation of old. I wore my Turkish diamond necklace and earrings, and my Angel’s beautiful sapphire broach.”   The sapphire broach was a wedding gift from Albert and you can see it in the portrait she commissioned on her first anniversary, above. 

          Victoria also wore her wedding veil on many other occasions in her life, including for her Diamond Jubilee portrait when she was 78 years old—and when she died in Jan. 1901, she was buried with her wedding veil over her face.     

Coming Next:  Royal Brides Part II- After Victoria

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