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Victoria's Self-Fashioning

Fashioning VictoriaVictoria's Self-Fashioning: curating the royal image for dynasty, nation and empire is a collaboration between Historic Royal Palaces and University of Warwick, funded by an AHRC Research Networking Grant. Project partners include the Royal Collections Trust, Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art, the Bodleian Library, and TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities).

This research project examined Queen Victoria’s role in the fashioning of her own image, and the consequences of this for monarchy, nation, and empire from the nineteenth century to the present. The project ran in 2019, the bicentenary of Victoria’s birth at Kensington Palace, and provided the underpinning research for new exhibitions at Kensington Palace.

Queen Victoria’s name is used to identify an era. Over her long reign the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe. The birth of photography, and an explosion in print culture and the press, allowed her image to touch its furthest reaches. Her image, painted and sculpted, still dominates public spaces scattered throughout every continent. The narrative of Victoria’s life has been rehearsed continuously since her death, testament to an enduring fascination with her as subject. However, these narratives have not cast her as the focus of a culturally political study. Instead, orthodox approaches have set her up as a curiously inert figure, detached from public life and from the political shaping of the monarchy.  

Victoria's Self-Fashioning challenged these orthodoxies by examining Victoria herself as a pro-active political agent in the construction of an image for nineteenth century monarchy and empire, and therefore directly implicated in what would become the Queen Victoria phenomenon.

The project had three objectives:

First, examined Victoria’s creation of her own image, and the ways in which she managed her conflicted role, as a Queen Regnant, but also a wife and mother, and how this image was used in the service of dynastic and imperial power.

Second, it mapped the journey of this self-curated image from Victoria’s private sphere to the public realm, and particularly across the British Empire.

Third, the project considered how the image of Victoria might be curated today, both physically and through the digital humanities, and how the interpretation of Victoria might be de-centred and diversified in order to account more fully for the empire and its legacy.

The project involved three workshops, generously hosted by the Royal Collection, Historic Royal Palaces, and the Paul Mellon Centre, drawing participants from universities, museums and public policy organisations in the UK, Europe, India, Canada, the USA and Australia, as well as artists and practitioners. These were followed by an international conference at Kensington Palace: Victoria’s Self-Fashioning: Curating Royal Image for Dynasty, Nation and Empire.

A related special issue of the academic journal 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century will be published in winter 2021.

The project also involved a doctoral research project, funded by the University of Warwick and Historic Royal Palaces, and co-supervised by Michael Hatt and Joanna Marschner.

The project also generated much impact. The research, which revealed the queen’s complicity in the crafting and ideological use of her image in the UK and across the empire, underpinned events and programmes at Kensington Palace for the bicentenary of her birth in 2019. It formed the basis of the exhibition Victoria: Woman and Crown and of Bright Nights, a series of three ‘salons’ which explored historical, political and ethical questions raised by the research. Importantly for HRP, the events brought in different audiences to Kensington Palace, particularly younger people and those from BAME communities, for whom the presentation of monarchy at Kensington Palace may appear irrelevant or even hostile. The research of Hatt and Marschner also led to the re-attribution of three paintings in the Royal Collection.