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Victoria Day

Victoria Day

It’s been a long weekend in Canada, and today we are celebrating Victoria Day.

Queen Victoria was the first Queen of Canada, sitting on the throne when this country was founded in 1867. Victoria, British Columbia is named after her, as is the capital of Saskatchewan – Regina.

Much has been written about Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Not all of it good. She was, difficult, shall we say. No fairy tale queen, she was selfish, downright peculiar, tyrannical to her nine children, and given to rages (her husband would slip notes under the door rather than confront her). All in all, she was a 5-foot force to be reckoned with. It was her stringent moral values that formed the lynchpin of an entire era known as the Victorian Age.

But on the positive side, she was a popular Queen and the second longest-reigning British monarch in history (1837-1901) – Queen Elizabeth II surpassed the record of her great-great-grandmother in 2015. Other admirable qualities included Victoria’s lack of racism (unusual for her class and era), her (albeit intense) sense of humour, and her loyalty.

On June 20, 1837, King William IV died, leaving the British throne to Princess Victoria of Kent. She was only 18 when she became Queen and Empress of the British Empire.

Elegant Portrait of a young Queen wearing the King George Diadem. Artist: Thomas Sully

During her 63-year reign, Queen Victoria doubled the size of the British Empire to make it the largest empire in history. She ruled over more than 450 million people in an empire spanning a quarter of the globe–stretching from India to the Americas, and from Africa to the Far East. So vast, it was described as being the Empire on which the sun never sets because the sun was always overhead on some part of it at any given time. Britain became one of the most powerful nations in the world. A strength underpinned by the steamship and the telegraph–new technologies invented during her monarchy. Not a ceremonial role, Queen Victoria ruled with absolute power.

Map of the British Empire in 1886 | Walter Crane

At age 21, she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1840. He was her first cousin, the son of her mother’s brother.

Portrait of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha | By Alfred Edward Chalon

Victoria set an enduring sartorial trend when she wed in a white wedding dress–a highly unusual choice in the day. Made of heavy silk satin with Honiton lace, her bridal dress single-handedly created a resurgence in the popularity of the virtually obsolete craft of handmade lacework, with a demand akin to the phenomena when whatever Kate wears becomes an instant internet sellout. The train of the royal wedding dress, which was carried by Victoria’s bridesmaids, was 18-feet long. She described her attire in her journal:

I wore a white satin dress, with a deep flounce of Honiton lace, an imitation of an old design. My jewels were my Turkish diamond necklace & earrings & dear Albert’s beautiful sapphire brooch.

Portrait painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1847, as an anniversary present for Prince Albert
Wedding Shoes, Image via Wikipedia

She dearly loved Albert and upon his death in 1861 at the age of just 42 from typhoid fever, Queen Victoria withdrew from public life for 13 years. She resumed public duties in the early 1870s but remained in mourning for the rest of her life, wearing only black. Heartbroken, she wrote in her diary,

Without him, everything loses its interest

Alexandrina Victoria Hanover died at the age of 81. And today we commemorate the day of her birth.

Queen Victoria at the Drury Lane Theatre, November 1837, Parris, c1837. Photo: Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Queen Victoria at the Drury Lane TheatreParris | c1837 | Photo: Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

This painting was a Christmas present from Victoria to Prince Albert

Queen Victoria | Partridge |1840 | Photo: Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A portrait which was painted by Victoria’s drawing master

Queen Victoria when a Girl, Westall, 1830. Photo: Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Victoria when a Girl, Westall, 1830. Photo: Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A superb portrait, almost Impressionistic in its lighting, which was apparently something of an experiment on the part of the artist

Queen Victoria, Winterhalter, 1845. Photo: Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Queen Victoria, Winterhalter1845. Photo: Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Queen Victoria at age 80 by Benjamin-Constant. A wonderful story about this work follows

Queen Victoria, Constant, 1899. Photo: Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Queen Victoria, Constant, 1899. Photo: Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

This portrait was commissioned by the proprietor of the Illustrated London News. According to a contemporary, Sir Frederick Ponsonby, the Queen only agreed to give a sitting (which was not to last more than 20 minutes) under pressure from the Prince of Wales. To her surprise, the artist ‘never painted at all, but sat with his face between his hands gazing at her during the whole sitting in a most embarrassing way. Of course, Benjamin-Constant realized that twenty minutes was ridiculously inadequate for the purpose: he had, therefore, tried to stamp an impression of her on his brain.

The portrait was purchased from Sir William Ingram in 1901 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1902, after Queen Victoria’s death. King Edward VII did not like the colour of the Garter ribbon in the portrait and sent the artist ‘a whole Garter riband’ so that he could amend it. Constant misunderstood and thought the Order had been conferred on him. When he realized his mistake he ‘absolutely refused to alter the picture’.

Royal Collection

Queen Victoria by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1842


In sculpture

Queen Victoria bronze sculpture, John Hughes, 1908

In currency

Victorian farthing, 1884
Victorian farthing, 1884

Interestingly, Victoria Day is a uniquely Canadian holiday. So to my fellow Canadians, I hope you had a wonderful long weekend.

This post first appeared May 23, 2016

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