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This small rectangular oil painting by the British artist Walter Richard Sickert depicts an older woman holding a small boy towards her body. The woman’s eyes appear to be closed and she turns her face slightly away from the child, towards the right side of the painting. The boy tilts his head towards the woman, his hair touching her elaborate, whitish-cream headdress, and the woman holds the child’s hands in her own on either side of his body. The boy has short blond hair and wears a traditional-looking dress of white fabric with a blue band around its middle. Aside from the light tones of the child’s garments and the woman’s headdress, the other dominant colours in the painting are shades of dark brown, which are used for the woman’s dress as well as the composition’s largely featureless background. Although realistic, the work is executed in a rough, sketchy style and as a result certain details of the painting, such as the boy’s eyes and the woman’s lips, appear blurred, so that the sitters’ expressions are ambiguous.
Sickert created Queen Victoria and her great-grandson around 1936, when the artist was living and working in London. It was painted not from life but from a black and white photograph clipped from a newspaper, and Sickert transposed the image using a grid that he drew onto the canvas in order to ensure the proportions were accurate. Although Sickert added colour to the scene and painted it in broad brushstrokes, he maintained the grainy quality characteristic of a newspaper photograph, especially in the child’s hair and eyes and the mottled brown of the backdrop.
The title suggests that the painting shows the former monarch of England, Queen Victoria (1819–1901), with one of her great-grandsons. However there is no record of Sickert giving the work this title and research suggests that the child depicted in the painting is in fact Victoria’s grandson, Prince Arthur of Connaught and Strathearn (1885–1938) (see Daniels 2002, pp.30–5, and Malcolm Rogers, Camera Portraits: Photographs from the National Portrait Gallery 1839–1989, National Portrait Gallery, London 1989, p.142). This is evinced by the similarity between this painting and the photograph that Sickert is likely to have used as its source, which was taken by the high society Victorian portrait photographer Alexander Bassano in 1885 and depicts Queen Victoria sitting with Prince Arthur and his sister Princess Margaret (1882–1920) (see the print in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitLarge/mw209163/Prince-Arthur-of-Connaught-Queen-Victoria-Margaret-Crown-Princess-of-Sweden, accessed 12 December 2014). Although it was taken in 1885, this photograph was not well known until it was published in The Star newspaper on 7 December 1936, where it was cropped so that only Victoria and Prince Arthur are visible and was accompanied by the erroneous caption ‘Queen Victoria with the late King George V’. As the art historian Rebecca Daniels has shown, Sickert lifted many of his images from The Star during the last decade of his life – the period during which this painting was made – and it is likely that the cropped version of the photograph in The Star was his source for the work rather than the original image (Daniels 2002, pp.30–5).
Queen Victoria and her great-grandson is one of many works made by Sickert that he referred to as ‘echoes’ – paintings that the artist created between 1927 and 1942 in which he reproduced scenes found in Victorian photographs and press cuttings. According to Daniels, ‘his intention was to become the first artist to declare publicly his use of photography, thereby denouncing the secrecy surrounding what was a widespread practice’ (Daniels 2002, p.30). The image Sickert used for this painting was published to accompany a column in The Star entitled ‘In Town Today, Arthur Lawson Looking Round’. In this piece, Lawson pointed to a rising support for Victorian moral codes, claiming that ‘a new Enlightened Victorianism will be sold’ to the next generation of mothers, many of whom were already rebelling against the legacy of female emancipation. Lawson described these as
[a] rising cultivated feminine generation, aged seventeen to twenty, in general profoundly against flats, cocktails glitter, divorces; all for houses, domesticity, solid Victorian values.
(Arthur Lawson, ‘In Town Today, Arthur Lawson Looking Round’, The Star, 7 December 1936, p.5.)
Queen Victoria and her great-grandson could therefore be seen as a reflection on the continued or renewed relevance of the royal family in light of this shift in middle- and upper-class values during the 1930s.
Late Sickert: Paintings 1927 to 1942, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1981, pp.84, 107.
Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1992.
Rebecca Daniels, ‘Press Art: The Late Oeuvre of Walter Richard Sickert’, Apollo, October 2002, pp.30–5.