In her official portraits, Queen Victoria was stoic and imposing, the majestic head of a powerful empire. But a series of newly released images have shown a more intimate side of the monarch who reigned over Great Britain for much of the 19th century. Earlier this month, the Museum of London published two personal photographs of Victoria in honor of the 200th anniversary of her birth on May 24. And now, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City has announced the discovery of rare archival footage of the queen—footage that shows her smiling, greeting the public and sporting a pair of shades.
The film was taken during her last trip to Ireland in 1900, according to the Telegraph’s Helena Horton, just one year before Victoria died at the age of 81. In the clip (around the 1:45 mark), the monarch sits in a carriage, holding a parasol and wearing a “very classy pair of queenly sunglasses,” says MoMa curator Dave Kehr. She smiles as two young girls present her with a basket stuffed with flowers. Later, as her carriage is being pulled down the street, Victoria nods to the waving crowds.
The clip represents one of very few known moving images of the queen. It is part of a collection of 36 reels of 68mm nitrate prints and negatives acquired by the MoMa in 1939, but it had long sat unstudied in the institution’s archives. All of the reels in the collection were produced by the Biograph Company, a major player in the field of early film. Headquartered in New York, Biograph sent film crews around the world and established a separate division in England, which shot the sequence of Queen Victoria. Also included in the collection is footage of three of Victoria’s great-grandchildren—Edward VIII, George VI and Princess Mary—who can be seen playing on a lawn.
In order to circumvent Thomas Edison’s patent on 35mm film, the Biograph Company relied on relatively large 68mm prints. This in turn required the use of an unwieldy camera, but the resulting films were remarkably smooth and clear. “It was kind of like the IMAX of its day,” notes James Layton, manager of the MoMa’s film preservation center.
Indeed, Bryony Dixon, a curator of the British Film Institute, was astonished by the quality of the Queen Victoria footage. “I nearly fell off my chair,” she says in a BBC video, “because I’d never seen Queen Victoria in close-up before.”
Victoria’s subjects, many of whom would never have seen their monarch in person, may have been equally enthralled by this vivacious depiction of a woman known primarily from still portraits. “In a moving image you get so much more … of the personality and the presence of this woman,” says Kehr.
“Only when you see her like this, when she’s moving, when she’s alive, when she’s in the middle of a scene, do you really get a sense of being in the same world with her, really connecting to that living being that was Queen Victoria.”