Victorian Masquerade

NPG D8157; Queen Victoria possibly by and possibly after Louis HagheA very small exhibition, ‘Victorian Masquerade’,  in the National Portrait Gallery explores the Victorian middle- and upper-class interest in fancy dress. Dressing up was popular for balls and parties among the well-to-do, particularly on a historical theme (thus perhaps offering people the chance to show off their knowledge as well as their wealth), and, as this exhibition shows, alongside this interest in  masquerades grew the concept of the ‘fancy portrait’, paintings or photographs which show the sitter in costume, perhaps with suitable props and against an appropriate backdrop. After all, if you’re going to go to all that trouble, one might as well record it for posterity. For example, the image on the left, from the NPG collection, shows Queen Victoria (yes, it really is) in the 1840s, in the dress of the eighteenth-century French court.NPG P79; Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt by David Wilkie Wynfield

The display discusses the case of Victoria and Albert first, looking at the way they used fancy dress to ‘adopt an alternative persona’ and ‘experiment with their royal identity’ when dressed as Queen Philippa of Hainault and Edward III. (I love that these costumes were modelled on tomb effigies, but include a nod to Victorian corsetry!) The medievalism so beloved of the Victorians is here, as well as the sense of continuity in the royal line. It all makes sense and is, if a little staid, quite appealing. The craziness comes later: I really want to understand and appreciate, seriously, the portraits by David NPG x131224; Walter Crane as Cimabue by Sir Emery WalkerWilkie Wynfield of John Everett Millais as Dante, and Holman Hunt in medieval dress, likewise Emery Walker’s photograph of Walter Crane as Cimabue. These medieval, idealised, literary characters are bound to appeal to such eminent Victorians, and yet I find it hard to take them seriously, all the more because the expressions on their faces suggest that they take it very seriously indeed. And in my mind, fancy dress is not something to be done with a straight face, but perhaps it was different then.


  1. What is that sculpture called at the NPG showing Victorian and Albert in medieval dress, with her looking so adoringly up at him?
    I know what you mean about that display, it all appears so serious but could it simply be a reflection of the photographic pose style of the age?
    I looked at those images and for that matter the images in pre-Raphaelite art and thought of our 21st century fondness for medieval fairs and re-enactment events, not to mention steampunk where participants dress in pseudo Victoriana. That display made me feel the Victorians are not so different from us. Now that I think of it, is there perhaps a similarity in the way the past became a source for Victorian immagination in the same way that the Victorians are now influencing our contemporary culture with the popularity of the steampunk aesthetic???
    It is a fascinating display at the NPG.

  2. The display discusses the case of Victoria and Albert first because it is, after all, about Victorian Masquerade. And I enjoyed the reference to fancy portraits, images that show the sitter in costumes with suitable props.

    But I particularly liked the reference to the sense of continuity in the royal line. Imagine James I in tights and costume, frolicking around in his courtly masques. Across the ditch, everyone would have seen Louis XIV dancing in ballet costumes at Versailles. Hilarious but serious.

  3. Yes, I liked the idea of continuity too. And I like to think it shows a sense of humour, even if it’s hidden beneath serious faces!

  4. Yes, I know the one you mean. And, yes, I think perhaps it is about photographic style which was still heavily reliant on artistic models.
    I like the idea that their ‘re-enactment’ is not dissimilar to the ideas contemporary society has. I suppose there is always a longing for an idealised past which people try to recreate. Perhaps Queen Victoria was a forerunner of steampunk 🙂

  5. I saw this delightful show at the NPG a few weeks ago. People still knew how to make their own entertainment in those days. It gave me great pleasure to see Walter Crane as Cimabue: a medievalist artist disguised as a medieval artist. That’s continuity too, right? Does anyone know if Crane’s costume was based on a painting? It seems familiar. (I don’t mean Leighton’s ‘Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna’ – Cimabue looks different in that one.)

  6. Thanks Nic, and I’m glad you got to see the exhibition too. Yes, the continuity in Crane’s costume is appealing, isn’t it, although I can’t help but see the humour too! I don’t know if it was based on a painting, perhaps I’ll do some further research on it!

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