From the moment of her first visit in 1842, Scotland made an impression on Queen Victoria and in turn she would shape how others saw the country in paintings and visual culture. To mark 200 years since the influential monarch's birth on 24 May 1819, curator Freya Spoor reflects on how her legacy can still be seen in Scotland’s national art collection.
Queen Victoria's familiarity with literary descriptions of Scotland is evident from her journals. Among other sources, she referenced passages from Shakespeare, Robert Burns and Walter Scott which seemed apt for the place or activities she encountered. Similarly, depictions of her travels in Scotland tend to present a vision of Scotland as seen through the lens of literary Romanticism.
In Rosslyn Castle, Horatio McCulloch (1805-1867) suggests the revelatory experience of viewing the Castle from below, caught in a beam of sunlight amidst a dark and rugged landscape.
This painting was selected to be engraved as an illustration to the official account of the Royal Progress in 1842.
The accompanying text details Victoria’s fascination with the history and legend surrounding Rosslyn, noting that “the whole surrounding scenery is enchanting, and the more so that it is intimately associated with Scottish song.”
Paintings and prints produced in relation to her near annual visits created opportunities for Scottish artists and helped to popularise Scottish culture across Britain. For emerging artists this trend helped to ease their transition into the competitive London art market.
Indeed, John Phillip (1817-1867) and Thomas Faed (1825-1900) debuted at the Royal Academy with sentimental scenes of rural life in the Highlands. Her journals reveal that Victoria believed in the faithfulness of such images as her limited encounters with the rural poor are couched in similar terms. The demand for works like Faed’s Home and the Homeless was so immediate that he was able to establish a studio in London.
The influx of Scottish artists and subject matter into the Royal Academy annual exhibition was recognised in the associated press commentary.
The 1851 show was believed to represent a particularly strong year in regard to this development.
As well as featuring the Queen’s favourite artist, Edwin Landseer’s, Monarch of the Glen, the show had examples by artists from McCulloch’s generation as well as new talents like Faed and Phillip.
This prompted one reviewer to note “Scotland has hitherto been deficient in her artists; but she is now asserting her claim to be considered as the birthplace of [David] Wilkie.”
In addition to precipitating the demand for landscapes, sporting subjects and Scottish genre scenes, Victoria’s attendance at military and civic occasions allowed for a more contemporary view of Scotland to emerge. Thus, Sam Bough’s Royal Volunteer Review, 1860 records the cosmopolitan crowds amassed in Holyrood Park to watch the Queen’s inspection of the Volunteer regiments. This commemoration of a recent event had ready appeal and was widely exhibited before being reproduced in print.
The Edinburgh and Glasgow International exhibitions held in 1886 and 1888 respectively represent a culmination of Victoria’s support of the Arts in Scotland. Her attendance gave royal credence to both events and generated considerable publicity. She also loaned several significant works to the Fine Art sections. Thus, the Edinburgh International could boast an impressive collection of work by the “galaxy of gifted Scotsmen who lifted the “Scottish School” as it may be called into renown…” over the course of Queen Victoria’s reign.