Queen Victoria, Smiling and in Sunglasses, Is Found Anew on Film
LONDON — Rare footage that shows Queen Victoria smiling, sporting sunglasses and greeting the public has been rediscovered, challenging history’s immortalization of the British monarch as an imposing and sullen figure.
In most photographs and portraits, the queen, known for leading Britain through much of the 19th century as it embraced industry and built its empire, is shown sitting with a grave expression on her face. But in the recently restored black-and-white footage, found on reels held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Queen Victoria appears smiling and happy during her last royal visit to Ireland, in 1900.
Although the art of moving pictures was still in its nascent stage, the movie of the queen is remarkably clear. And compared to other footage of the same trip, the film is apparently unique in showing her face close up.
“When I first saw the film, I let out a yelp and I was dancing around,” said Bryony Dixon, the British Film Institute’s silent film curator, who recognized how special the clip was when she was shown the footage by archivists at the museum while on a working visit to New York in January. “It was such a shock to finally see Queen Victoria’s face.”
Being able to see the monarch’s facial expressions in sharp, high quality calls into question the traditional depiction of the monarch.
“Quite often, the description you get of Queen Victoria is that she was very stiff and irritable,” Ms. Dixon said on Thursday. “This humanizes her. She is clearly being very affable, and you can see how enthusiastic people are to get a glimpse of her.”
In one clip, the queen nods several times to the public as she travels past in a carriage while carrying a parasol. (Her fashionable accessories can be explained, Ms. Dixon said, by a sensitivity to the sun, which she developed in her later years.)
She is also captured beaming as she receives a basket filled with flowers from two girls wearing ribbons in their hair and hats adorned with feathers.
“In moving image, you get so much more, even in something as brief as this, of the personality of the presence of this woman,” Dave Kehr, a curator in the department of film at MoMA, said in a video produced by the museum. “This is the embodiment of the British Empire; here she is.”
“You really feel like you are living in the same space as she is,” Mr. Kehr added in a phone interview on Thursday. “That is the wonder of a moving image — it can give an immediacy that great photography cannot.”
Simply titled “Queen Victoria’s Last Visit to Ireland (1900)” and shot by the Biograph Company, the film sat in MoMA’s collection for decades before it was understood this year how rare the footage was.
The reel was restored by MoMA over the past year and shown to audiences in New York in January, and nearly 500 people watched it at the British Film Institute’s Victorian Film Weekender this month, coinciding with celebrations to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth.
The footage of Queen Victoria smiling and happy is only the latest evidence that reveals a monarch far removed from the dour descriptions in most history books. The recent biography “Victoria the Queen,” for example, portrays a queen who opposed animal cruelty, loved to dance and cried loudly in public.
During her 63-year reign, Victoria saw and embraced many new technological developments. She was the first British monarch to be photographed, according to biographers, and took a keen interest in the art form. She was first captured on film a few years before the turn of the 20th century.
MoMA also holds footage of American presidents from around the same time that the queen was filmed. “This was the first generation of political leaders who were captured on moving picture film,” said Mr. Kehr, the curator at MoMA.
“Seeing famous people was like seeing famous monuments,” he added. “It was like saying, ‘Finally, here’s that person or thing I have been reading so much about.’ It was an entirely new sensation.”
Even though more than a century has passed since Queen Victoria was filmed on her trip to Ireland, the excitement of seeing a member of Britain’s royal family has not dulled.
“To this day, if you go to a royal occasion, getting a glimpse of a royal is still quite a buzz,” said Ms. Dixon.