Queen Victoria receiving the news of her accession to the throne at Buckingham Palace on June 20, 1837, from a painting of 1887 by Henry Tanworth Wells, RA (1828-1903). Source: Benson and Esher, frontispiece. The painting itself was later presented to Edward VII by the artist's daughters, and is in the Royal Collection.
An earlier version of the work, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1880, and shown on the left here, is now at the Tate (available for reproduction on the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives (CC BY-NC-ND) licence). In this original painting, the background is simpler, the focus more intense, and the shaft of light more diffuse, so that the young queen looks more radiant as she receives homage for the first time. The tall open door is an important feature here, and an extra figure can be glimpsed behind it, as if to suggest the life she is leaving behind. She is standing on the very threshold of independence as well as her new role.
This was, of course, a momentous occasion. As the first editors of the Queen's correspondence wrote: "It is no exaggeration to say that the accession of the Princess Victoria reinstated the English monarchy in the affections of the people. George IV had made the Throne unpopular; William IV had restored its popularity, but not its dignity. Both of these kings were men of decided ability, but of unbalanced temperament" (Benson and Esher 19).
This leads the editors on to some comments on her character which still seem perceptive today, for instance in their references to her dependence "upon some manly adviser" and her understanding of the "middle-class point-of-view":
She was high-spirited and wilful, but devotedly affectionate, and almost typically feminine. She had a strong sense of duty and dignity, and strong personal prejudices. Confident, in a sense, as she was, she had the feminine instinct strongly developed of dependence upon some manly adviser. She was full of high spirits, and enjoyed excitement and life to the full. She liked the stir of London, was fond of demcing, of concerts, plays, and operets, and devoted to open-air exercise. Another important trait in her character must be noted. She had strong monarchical views and dynastic sympathies, but she had no aristocratic preferences; at the same time she had no democratic principles, but believed firmly in the due subordination of classes. The result of the parliamentary and municipal reforms of William IV's reign had been to give the middle classes a share in the government of the country, and it was supremely fortunate that the Queen, by a providential gift of temperament, thoroughly understood the middle-class point of view. The two qualities that are most characteristic of British middle-class life are common sense and family affection; and on these particular virtues the Queen's character was based; so that by a happy intuition she was able to interpret and express the spirit and temper of that class which, throughout her reign, was destined to hold the balance of political power in its hands. Behind lay a deep sense of religion, the religion which centres in the belief in the Fatherhood of God, and is impatient of dogmatic distinctions and subtleties. [Benson and Esher 20-21]
Such an introduction helps us to understand how the untried princess with her sheltered background, standing in the shaft of light with which Wells has illuminated her in both versions of the painting, could take on the mantle of Queen (and later Empress of India) and at the same time interest herself in the ordinary lives of her subjects.
Images downloaded and text added and formatted by Jacqueline Banerjee. You may use the black-and-white scanned image too without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the source and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. [Click on the images to enlarge them; the first leads to more information about Queen Victoria's childhood and her visits to Surrey.]
Benson, A. C. and Viscount Esher, eds. The Letters of Queen Victoria: A Selection from Her Majesty's Correspondence between the Years 1837 and 1861. Vol. 1. 3 vols. London: John Murray, 1908. Internet Archive. Copy contributed by the University of California. Web. 20 June 2017.
Victoria Regina: Queen Victoria receiving the news of her accession. Royal Collection Trust. Web. 20 June 2017.
Last modified 21 June 2021