Works of art on paper: a few stories behind the images

When I give a talk about HRP’s collection of works of art on paper, people usually think that our collection is mostly made up of views of the palaces and fusty portraits of Kings and Queens, and often, that is largely what it is. But the truth about many objects is that even if they are quite mundane in themselves, it is the stories behind the image which makes these items so fascinating.

View of Hampton Court from the river, 18th century

For instance, this lovely view of Hampton Court, with a wooden bridge built in 1778. The bridge was demolished in 1840 after its owner appealed to the corporation of London to support the construction of a new bridge, describing his own old bridge as “crazy, hog-backed, inconvenient and obstructive of the navigation”. He must have really wanted to build a new one!

Etching from a portrait of the three children of the King of Denmark for a catalogue of the Royal Collection pictures, incorrectly labelled as the children of Henry VII, 18th century

I really like this 16th century etching of the three children of the King of Denmark, but not because of the picture itself but because of the scathing letter from Benedict Nicolson (son of Vita Sackville-West), then deputy surveyor of the King’s collections, which I found attached to the back of the frame. George Virtue was an 18th century engraver who produced a catalogue of the Royal Collection pictures, but didn’t seem to have checked all his facts or birth dates! He has incorrectly labelled the engraving as the children of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, but Nicholson writes that, “Naturally, Vertue did not know what he was talking about.”

Letter from Benedict Nicolson, deputy surveyor of the King’s collections, January 1947, © Historic Royal Palaces

What I want to show you are three portraits, which are among my favourites. These artworks are not the most beautiful in our collection, but they are linked by the tenderness and delicacy of the hand that drew them. Furthermore, these are painting not prints so they are unique.

Portrait drawing of Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) by William Hoare, pencil and red and black chalk on paper, 1761-7

This portrait of Queen Charlotte comes from a collection of sketches by William Hoare and dates back to around 1760 when the Queen was still in her teens. This was meant to be a preparatory drawing for an oil painting, but the portrait was never painted. It is a very gentle drawing, made with just pencil and watercolours, very different from the court paintings of Charlotte later in her life.

Victoria on the knee of her nanny, Lady Elizabeth Keith Heathcote, ‘Victoria Sketches’, © Historic Royal Palaces
Victoria on a donkey, Lady Elizabeth Keith Heathcote, ‘Victoria Sketches’, © Historic Royal Palaces

This picture of Queen Victoria as a child is part of a set of twelve bought at auction in 2016. It shows Queen Victoria sitting on her nurse’s lap and was drawn by Lady Keith-Hiscote who was a friend of the family and who had a daughter of the same age. The drawings were made in 1822 while Lady Keith-Hiscote was staying with the royal family at Ramsgate on the Kent coast.  The royal family stayed at Townley House in Chatham Street, and Victoria was allowed to play with other children and have donkey rides on the beach. Indeed, there is a small sketch of the future Queen Victoria on a donkey. In all twelve pictures Victoria is represented as this happy, rosy cheeked child, a very heart-warming look into her childhood.

Lady Charlotte Finch by Princess Elizabeth. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019
Lady Charlotte Finch by Princess Elizabeth, c.1802. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

This last portrait is a miniature of Lady Charlotte Finch and was painted by Princess Elizabeth, oldest daughter of George III, now part of the Royal Collection. Lady Charlotte was governess to all of George’s children for 30 years. She was much loved by all the children and on all accounts a very progressive teacher who believed that girls should be as well educated as the boys. The children affectionately called her lady Cha. This painting is delicately and beautifully described, and I think really captures the intimate and fond relationship between the Princess and her governess.

Laurie Gibbs
Preventative Conservator

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