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Death and Dying in Victorian Britain    

Monthly Archives: October 2015

Dead or Merely Sleeping? Queen Victoria’s Relationship with the Post-mortem Photograph of Prince Albert

It is well known that Queen Victorian had a number of mourning relics made after Prince Albert’s death. Among these were a marble bust, casts of both his hands, as well as post-mortem photographs. It is less well known that the queen arranged for one of these photographs, which had been coloured in by hand and framed with an evergreen wreath, to be hung above the vacant side of the bed wherever she was to spend the night (Rappaport 409). Her relationship with this portrait is intriguing as her response to it differs widely from her reaction towards the death mask made by William Theed the Younger, as according to Helen Rappaport Queen Victoria refused to see the death mask upon its completion (Magnificent Obsession, 92).

Whereas Stanley Weintraub suggests that the Queen did not wish to see the death mask out of respect for the prince, who was against the practice of the taking of casts after death, this argument fails to account for the fact that the Queen did keep at least one of the plaster casts of the Prince’s hands on her nightstand. Moreover, the death mask would form the basis for several commemorative effigies which she personally commissioned. It was used both for the marble statue which was to be placed in the Royal Mausoleum near Frogmore House, as well as for the marble bust created by Theed, which became one of her favourite statues of the prince. If she was troubled by any disrespect shown towards the prince’s wishes it would seem improbable that she would have allowed artists to use it as the basis for their work and more likely that she would have provided them with one of the post-mortem photographs instead.

Perhaps a more plausible reason may be that Queen Victoria refused to see the death mask as it would present her with an image of Prince Albert which too directly linked him to suffering and with that to death. After he was summoned to Windsor castle to take the casts, William Theed would describe the Prince’s envisage as peaceful, but for “lines of suffering around the mouth” (as qtd in Rappaport, Magnificent Obsession, 137). The plaster cast, merciless in its representation of reality, would have displayed these lines as well, linking the object undeniably with the prince’s death. Rather than being confronted with imagines invoking her husband’s death, the Queen preferred to surround herself with idealized objects and images which invoked memories of the Prince when he was still alive. That the Queen had a post-mortem picture of Prince Albert hung above her bed seems to contradict this, but if we examine one of the two surviving photographs and place it within a broader framework of postmortem photography, it will become clear why the image was likely reassuring, rather than disturbing.

Postmortem photography has its roots in a long-standing tradition of postmortem portrait paintings. It was customary for middle- and upper-class families to commission a painting of a deceased loved one, if no prior portrait existed, for commemorative purposes. The invention of photography made postmortem portraiture accessible to most classes. Although in Britain it never attained quite the same level of popularity it held in America, post-mortem photographs nevertheless came to be viewed by some British Victorians as an important way to keep their deceased loved ones close to them. As Deborah Lutz has argued, the Victorians believed that photographs were capable of capturing part of a person’s presence. In 1843 the poet Elizabeth Barret Browning would write to Mary Russell Mitford:

It is not merely the likeness which is precious … – but the association, and the sense of nearness involved in the thing… the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever! It is the very sanctification of portraits I think– and … I would rather have such a memorial of one I dearly loved, than the noblest artist’s work ever produced (emphasis added, as qtd in Lutz 161).

To the Victorians photographs thus resembled other relics which literally incorporated a part of the deceased, such as hair jewellery. As Marcia Pointon suggests, “hair possesses remarkable qualities of durability” in that it does not decay after having been severed from the head (43). Like a photograph it provides the mourner with an unmitigated, lasting item which captures a segment of the ‘truth’ of someone’s existence, as it represents them, or a part of them, as they truly were. Much like a photograph hair also invokes a sense of continuity, as the severed lock serves as a reminder of the hairs still attached to the body which will continue to grow (45). Like the shadow forever dormant in the portrait, it appears to signify eternity rather than death.

What is remarkable about postmortem photography is that the subject is portrayed in a way that creates the illusion that he or she was still alive. This was achieved by placing the corpse in everyday postures and in a homely environment.[1] Grown-up men were occasionally depicted reclining in a bureau chair in their Sunday clothes, with or without their eyes open, as if merely resting after a busy day of work. Children and adolescents were often held by one of their parents, or surrounded by their siblings, in order to make the photograph appear like a family portrait.

Post-mortem of a mother with her deceased daughter

Post-mortem of a mother with her deceased daughter

If the family wished to have a picture of a child in a sitting position without appearing in the photograph themselves, this posed a serious problem to the photographer. Due to the child’s size it was nearly impossible to have its corpse maintain a realistic sitting position despite the rigor mortis. The result was a whole range of rather awkward photographs in which the child corpse was seated on the lap of one of its family members, mostly the mother, who in turn was covered by a black cloth so as to make it appears if they were not there.[2]

The mother is hiding behind a cloth whilst holding her deceased child.

The mother is hiding behind a cloth whilst holding her deceased child.

In some cases the photographer went so far in their attempt to make their subject appear to be “alive” that they painted eyes on the eyelids of the deceased after the photograph had been taken.

Photograph of a deceased child. The colour on the cheeks and eyes were added after the photograph was taken to make it appear alive.

Photograph of a deceased child. The colour on the cheeks and eyes were added after the photograph was taken to make it appear alive.

In other cases a decision was made, as with Prince Albert, to have a picture taken of the deceased lying in bed. The photographer then went to great lengths to give the body “the appearance of being asleep, if not bedded down for the night” (Litten 13).

Image 1: Post mortem Photograph of Prince Albert

Postmortem photograph of Prince Albert in 1861.

If we examine the photograph of Prince Albert, we find that the photographer indeed went to great lengths to create the illusion that the prince was still alive. Although the wreath which is hung above his head appears to serve as a strong reminder that the man in the photograph is deceased, the symbolic meaning which it held for the Victorians appears to negate such a simple reading. To the Victorians the “circular shape of the wreaths is meant to symbolize eternity, while their flowers and leaves represent life and renewal; thus the funeral wreath promises resurrection and eternal life” (Batchen 92). Rather than being a symbol of death, the wheat represented life to the Victorians. Upon taking a closer look at the picture it is noticeable that there is a piece of cloth placed underneath the chin, which was customary to do before rigor mortis set in, so as to prevent the mouth from opening (Jalland 22). Through careful rearrangement of the pillow and bedlinen and selection of a right camera angle, the photographer has attempted to create the illusion that the cloth is an extension of the bedlinen. Strikingly, the very presence of the bandage indicates that great haste was made in taking the picture, likely within 6 to 12 hours of Prince Albert’s death (Dominick and Vincent DiMaio 26). It is therefore likely that Queen Victoria wished the photo to be taken before death had any chance to alter her deceased husband’s appearance. The result is a photograph of a man who looks peaceful and at ease and displays no signs of a prolonged struggle with illness.[3] In this it forms a contrast to the death mask, which displayed signs of suffering. The photograph in a sense beautified the prince’s dead body, portraying it as more peaceful than it had been in reality. As such, it provided Queen Victoria with an image of her husband as she had last seen him, without immediately invoking memories of his illness and death, unlike the death mask. It is this very denial of death inherent to post-mortem photography, which allowed the Queen to retain “a sense of nearness” to her husband. To believe that his “very shadow [was] lying there fixed forever” (emphasis added, Browning as qtd in Lutz 161).

 

Footnotes:

[1] Most often these postmortem photographs were taken in a studio, as this was cheaper. Only the wealthy were able to afford to pay the photographer compensation for the costs he incurred for the transportation of his equipment. The décor in these studios very much mimicked that of the Victorian parlor so as to invoke a homely feeling.

[2] This was also quite customary when photographs were being taken of infants who were still very much alive. By positing a parent behind them under a cloth, or hiding behind furniture, the adult could force them to keep the a position for the duration of half a minute, which was the necessary time for the photograph to be taken.

[3] Although it is by no means certain that it was this particular photograph which Queen Victoria would have had hanging above her bed, the other photographs taken would have displayed similar characteristics.

 

Works cited:

Batchen, Geoffrey. Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance. Princeton Architectural Press, 2006. Print.

DiMaio, Dominick, and Vincent J. M. DiMaio M.D. Forensic Pathology, Second Edition. CRC Press, 2001. Print.

Litten, J. ‘The English Funeral 1700-1850’. Grave Concerns: Death and Buial in England 1700-1850. Ed. Margaret Cox. York: Council for British Archaeology, 1998. Print.

Lutz, Deborah. Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2015. Print.

Museum, Cincinnati Art, Julie Aronson, and Marjorie E. Wieseman. Perfect Likeness: European and American Portrait Miniatures from the Cincinnati Art Museum. Yale University Press, 2006. Print.

Netzley, Patricia D. Queen Victoria. Lucent Books, 1996. Print.

Pointon, Marcia. ‘Materializing Mourning: Hair, Jewellery and the Body’. Material Memories: Design and Evocation. Ed. Marius Kwint, Christopher Breward, and Jeremy Aynsley. Oxford: Berg, 1999. Print. Materializing Culture.

Rappaport, Helen. Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death That Changed the Monarchy. London: Hutchinson, 2011. Print.

—. Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion. ABC-CLIO, 2003. Print.

Weintraub, Stanley. Uncrowned King: The Life of Prince Albert. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

 

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