Princess Louise: The career of a royal artist, part I.
In the first of a new series, Ann Galliard shares new research on the artistic life of Princess Louise (1848-1939), the sixth child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, was born Louise Caroline Alberta on 18 March 1848 at Buckingham Palace, the sixth of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's nine children. In this new series, Ann Galliard takes a look at the princess's life as an artist, exploring her work in sculpture, painting and architecture, and the artists who worked with her and influenced her.
The Bohemian lifestyle of an artist was, for a royal princess, exceptionally unusual. Never conformist, Louise was fortunate in having a mother who was a talented artist, and a father who was determined to see that his children were well educated and encouraged to fully exploit their natural skills. Prince Albert was artistic himself, and supported living artists by buying their works and engaging tutors for the royal children. From her childhood Louise excelled at drawing and painting and as a teenager she experimented with sculpture. Her early efforts were presented to members of the Royal Family and included busts of her brothers and sisters. Victoria thought that watercolour painting was a much more suitable pursuit for a young lady.
After Albert’s death Victoria allowed Louise to study art formally because of Albert’s strong views on the subject. Louise studied sculpture under Mary Thorneycroft, a respected sculptor, who had made many likenesses of the royal children for Victoria. In 1868 the princess enrolled at National Art Training School, and in 1869 met Joseph Edgar Boehm, a young Hungarian sculptor who had become popular in the art world. He was appointed sculptor-in-ordinary to Victoria, making a statue of the Queen and another of Louise on horseback. Fascinated by the skills and amusing conversation of the charming man, Louise asked the Queen if he could give her lessons, and surprisingly Victoria agreed.
Louise loved mixing with people who inhabited a world far removed from her own at the palace, and one which was populated with artists who had interests like her own. Louise was thrilled when her sculpture of her brother Prince Arthur was chosen for the Royal Academy exhibition in 1868. It was so good that it was highly praised, but as usual not everyone thought the praise was genuine, and some believed that she should have used an alias. Unfortunately Louise was compromised by her position as a princess, but the quality of her work speaks for itself.
Perhaps influenced by Boehm, in the early 1870s Louise modelled an equestrian statue of Edward The Black Prince (left), which fortunately survived a major fire at Inveraray and it remains there on display for visitors to enjoy.
Princess Louise was shocked by the death in 1871 of one of her closest friends, Sybil St Alban. The Duchess’s memorial was made by Boehm, but Louise put her skills to use for a marble plaque for Bestwood Church. This appears to be the first of the memorial tributes that Louise made for members of her family and close friends.
An artist emerges
This period marks the beginning of Louise’s more extensive involvement with the world of art. There was never any question of a Royal Princess becoming a commercial artist, but there is no doubt that Louise had the ability to do so, and the professionals acknowledged this by admitting her to their circle. Louise was not able to sell any of her work, but it was exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery, a very modernist establishment which concentrated on the daring new style of art which was a departure from earlier Victorian interpretation.
Louise was also invited to show her work at the Royal Academy and at the Society of Painters in Watercolour. The Princess had avant-guard taste, admiring the Pre-Raphaelite movement and was in contact with many of that daring group of artists, forming close friendships with some of them, including Millais, Waterhouse and Burne-Jones.
Another artistic friend was the American artist Edwin Austin Abbey, and Louise was also a close friend of Sir William Blake Richmond, a Professor at the Royal Academy and the American artist Whistler. Edwin Godwin was commissioned to design a studio in Kensington Palace for Louise, who delighted in working there.
May I remind you of the Society of the British Artists - You were graciously inclined towards us when unofficially a year ago I entreated that you would acknowledge the Galleries in Suffolk Street - May I now remind you of your kind promise to send us one day a work however small - that under your favour we might above others prosper -
If your Royal Highness would now recognize the Presidentship of your most devoted subject by entrusting to my care a sketch or drawing - whatever you may have ready - or would intimate your willingness to do so within the next few days - I should indeed begin my new year of official duty with the success that could never after desert me -
I pray you bring to us the joy that inaugurated with your own work would attach itself to our Society and distinguish us among all others as the one whom Your Royal Highness has delighted to honour -
I am, Madam
Your most loyal & obedient Servant
J McNeill Whistler
(Letter To Princess Louise 1887)
Part II: Princess Louise's public sculptures
About the author
With a background in NHS Personnel Management, Ann Galliard enjoys reading and writing about local history and World War I. She has had several articles and two books published (including Sandbank: War and Peace, a Scottish Village), researched & recorded the history of the Argyll Mausoleum (the burial place of the Dukes of Argyll) and is currently writing a history of Ardkinglas. Recently a Committee Member of the WW1 Commemoration Steering Group for Argyll & Bute, and Organiser for the WW1 events in Cowal, she is a member of the Management Committee of the Friends of the Argyll Papers and volunteers in the Archive at Inveraray.
(Princess Louise image By Vianelli Brothers - Royal Collection Object 2903653, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37887450; statue copyright Hartlepool Marine 2014;