The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady , with its pretty, labored watercolor drawings, has earned over $25 million since it was published a few years ago, believe it or not. This suggests that we have come so far from the days of our grandparents, when drawing was as much a part of education as reading, writing and arithmetic, that we are knocked out by even a mediocre talent. Polaroid has ousted paints.
However, the excuse that nowadays there is no time to draw what can be photographed is rebuked by Queen Victoria's Sketchbook . Besides being wife, mother of nine and sovereign, the original Victorian lady was a well-trained draughtsmen who took time out of busy days to record their intimate moments. She had no inflated opinion of her talent but, as Marina Warner explains in this revealing account of the informal side of the Queen's life, with its charming illustrations, she believed "preservation was a sacred duty," and in her sketches she caught "the fugitive images of her life and character, of her curiosity and affections, her immediacy and gusto, her extraordinary simplicity in the midst of grandeur."
She had her first lessons at eight; they continued regularly for nine years, with later instruction from the Edward Lear, Edwin Landseer and watercolorist W. L. Leitch. Her first self-potrait at eight is a real likeness, with sharp eyes and corkscrew curls. In her next, at 13, she is an eager, observant little person with a tense half-smile; at 16, bottled-up spirit lurks in a pleasantly serious face; but at 26, already eight years as a queen, she has the hint of an encroaching double chin and no smile at all hovering about the stubborn mouth.
The assurance and spontaneity with which she could grasp a likeness were there from the start. Her first models were the only people she regularly saw, household members and visiting relatives. Her governess Louise Lehzen faces the young artist with watchful eyes, then turns her back for a quick scetch indicating the stylish details of her custume -- lacy cap, balloon sleeves. Victoria strongly favored rear views, though she was so good at faces. There is a charming profile of a sister-in-law, and another of a little niece kneeling to read a big book opened on a chair; still other potraits depict a young companion with squinty eyes and mean mouth, Victoria's prancing horse, her spaniel Dash with caramel eyes and silky ears, a gypsy family, and the first two queens (Portugal and Brazil) the 14-year-old princess ever met. All these drawings show her flair for getting expressions and gestures.
The theater was her passion and she was often "Very, VERY MUCH AMUSED INDEED" -- three underlinings.
"My Operatic and Terpsichorean feelings are pretty strong," the princess told her uncle. She loved plays and drew melodramatic scenes from them with care and relish; she adored the ballet, above all the great Marie Taglioni; opera ranked higher yet. The soprano Giulia Gris -- "very pretty , and an equisite singer charming actress!" --- was her darling, and her favorite opera "dear Puritani." She drew them all with beglamored excitement. Her singing teacher, the great Luigi Lablache, assured her that Mozart was "le Papa de tous," but Victoria preferred Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti: "I am a terribly modern person."
When she became queen at 18, that brilliant, handsome 18th-century person Lord Melbourne captured her eager heart and molder her child's mind. She drew him often -- playing with her terrior, paying her homage at the coronation -- one of the few official scenes she ever attempted, and in it she gets her own vulnerable young face just right, bowed under the crown. She could not resist good looks and delighted in tousled Count Walstein, the saturine ex-Duke of Brunswick -- "his expression is dreadful, so very fierce and desperate" -- and then Albert "-- who is beautiful!" She hardly dared represent his beauty, and only once confronted him with her watercolors, in which he is beautiful indeed, blue-eyed and dead-serious.
Albert had a genuine, well-formed taste for art. Together they learned to etch, and the arrival of babies offered new subject matter. The first daughter, plump and pretty, appears in Victoria's early etchings, taking a bath with her hair skinned back, sitting naked on her nurse's knee to be dried. Victoria didn't like children naked -- "the prettiest is frightful when undressed!" -- and though she was a good mother, she considered everything to do with bearing children "the shadow side of life."
But this feeling doesn't show in the charming sketches of Vicky pushing her toy perambulator, Alice on her second birthday in a pink dress with a wreath of spring flowers in her short hair, or toddling beside her nurse on the palace grounds, both their faces hidden in poke bonnets; Arthur dressed, as small boys were then, in a decollete red dress with pleated skirt; Bertie, sensitively drawn in profile -- a profile already, for Victoria's taste, too much like her own, with its long nose and receding chin; Beatice, always known as Baby, holding her infant nephew William, two years her junior, who would grow up to be the kaiser -- and who, when she said he must call her aunt, retorted, "Aunt Baby, then!" There is a delicious watercolor of the children walking together in the dappled sun and shade of the gardens at Osborne, in straw hats and light summer clothes.
Osborne on the Isle of Wight was the cozy big home. Albert and Victoria built for their family, with bay windows overlooking the sea -- a sea she paintedoften in fine weather, tender blue-violet, dotted with sailboats and a blur of smoke to show a distant steamboat. Her diary describes a summer day, "very hot, and perfectly still," when they went sailing with the children, and came back in the evening, "the sea like oil. Home late. We dined alone -- and afterward went out on the Terrace and watched falling stars." Though Albert never appeares in her pictures of dometic life, it was because of him she painted them: "She did this," Marina Warner says, "as she did so much else, because he liked it. The imagery of family pleasure was not exactly hollow for her, but it was borrowed, and she needed Albert beside her to mastermind it."
His death after 20 years of marriage was the end of her life "as a happy one." The painting that he had encouraged did not altogether cease, however, and at their home in Scotland she went on recording the scenery he had loved -- purple mountains in every weather, cattly (beautifully drawn), cottages, highland children, (shy Maggie Dow, with bare feet and scarlet cheeks is the most winning little girl she ever painted), a dashing drawing of herself having "tea in a snowstorm," and John Brown himself, with a rough, sensuous mouth and bright blue eyes.
Toward the end she painted less, but she never grew tired of familiar, well-loved scenes, and even with failing eyesight went on sensitively noting the changing light and atmosphere as the seasons and hours revolved. There were too many grandchildren to keep track of, but she drew gravely pretty Alix ("how impossible it seemed that the gentle simpled Alicky should be the great Empress of Russia!") and little William of Prussia, in a plumed hat, driving a toy coach with his baby sister as passenger.
"Her art is an exclamation at life," Marina Warner writes, "like the punctuations in her journal and the underlinings in her letters; through it we see her round eyes widen, her small mouth part, her brow wrinkle at the effort to take down the images as they passed by all too quickly in a life in which increasingly it seemed that she was the only fixed star while so many others fell, as the shooting stars she had watched with Albert on the terrace at Osborne and fallen into the sea. Her painting commands us to participate in her uncomplicated vitality -- though the gift for enjoyment, when possessed as fully as she possessed it, is no "uncomplicated thing."
Victoria's last years are fleetingly glimpsed in a lady in waiting's scrapbook, reproduced in faithful sepia. Louisa, Countess of Antrim, came into service at court in 1890, when the Queen was 72 and she was 35. It wasn't a very gay life, though Victoria enjoyed a pratfall as much as anyone and "burst into fits of laughter" when a duchess' bustle fell off. But meals, though cupious, were simple and hasty, and as no one could sit in the royal presence after dinner, there was a lot of mortifying standing about (no leaning on the royal chair, please). After Victoria's death Louisa served Queen Alexandra in Edward VII's jollier court.
Her albums are chock-a-block with invitations, menus, spiky royal autographs, commemorative programs, lugubrious studio portraits, and snapshots of dressed-up people on yachts, bicycles, tricycles, horses, skates, skis, terraces and thrones; at harps and dinner tables; in pony carts, prams, sleighs and motor cars; playing cricket, golf and cards; planting trees, posing for their pictures. A knowledgeble text by Victoria's premier biographer, Elizabeth Longford, gently guides us through Louisa's years at court, but the general impression, though obscurely fascinating, is one of constraint, boredum and emptiness.