Queen Victoria and photography

Queen Victoria had a unique relationship with photography. Announced to the world in 1839, just two years after she ascended the throne, photography grew to become a popular art form with a wide sphere of influence by the time of her death in 1901. 

Her personal relationship with photography as a sitter, collector and patron provides a fascinating insight into how photography developed during her reign and beyond.

To mark the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria's birth on 24 May 1819, curator Louise Pearson examines this relationship in more detail.

John Mayall, Queen Victoria, 1861.

The earliest photographs of Queen Victoria and her family were taken in the 1840s and were intended to be seen only by the Queen’s closest circle of family and friends. In 1860, she gave permission for a series of portraits by John Mayall to be published in the popular carte-de-visite format.

Showing the Queen as a mother rather than a monarch, these portraits marked the start of the royal family’s complex relationship with photography. Her early engagement with photography as a means of recording family life is an indication of the enduring popularity of family photographs, while her use of photography to shape her public image set a precedent for future royal and celebrity portraiture.

With her husband Prince Albert, Queen Victoria amassed one of the most significant collections of early photography. The Queen recorded in her journal the pleasure of evenings spent compiling albums with her husband, while her lady-in-waiting Eleanor Stanley remarked that her passion for cartes-de-visite was such that she ‘could be bought and sold for a photograph’.

In many respects Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were a typical middle-class couple engaged in a popular leisure pursuit, albeit that their collection included work by the best photographers of the nineteenth century. Their developing interest in photography reflects the rapid growth in its popularity at this time.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were also active patrons of photography at a crucial point in its development. Their patronage of the Great Exhibition in 1851 gave millions of visitors their first opportunity to see a photograph, some of which had been lent by the royal couple themselves.

Their public support for photography continued through their patronage of the newly formed Photographic Society. Among its early members was Roger Fenton, whose favour with the Queen was instrumental in his successful career.

Fenton established his reputation through photographing the royal family, and his much celebrated series of photographs of the Crimean War was made possible by the connections afforded him through his relationship with the Queen and Prince Albert.

Roger Fenton, Lord Raglan, 1855
Roger Fenton, Group of the 57th Regiment, 1855.
George Washington Wilson, Balmoral Castle, from the South East, 1870s.

Another photographer to benefit from royal patronage was George Washington Wilson, who was among the most prolific Scottish photographers of the nineteenth century. One of Wilson’s first commissions was to photograph the new Balmoral Castle during its construction. Further royal commissions followed, and the Royal Warrant this granted him enabled him to build a successful business based in Aberdeen. This rise of commercial photography, fuelled in part by the Queen’s support, led to the development of affordable new photographic processes and the mass popularisation of photography.

As both a participant and a patron Queen Victoria fully embraced the new medium of her reign. This legacy is reflected in the National Galleries of Scotland’s collection and in photography collections around the world.

Julian Calder, Queen of Scots, Sovereign of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle and Chief of the Chiefs, photographed in 2010 (printed 2013) © Julian Calder.
By Louise Pearson