July 1, 2013 by Victorian Body Parts Conference
Of all the memorabilia of Queen Victoria that exists, scattered throughout the world, nothing quite captures my imagination like these little arms and legs. A tradition developed of having the children’s limbs sculpted in their early childhood, of which there are fourteen in all, still part of the Royal Collection. Plaster casts were taken from the infants while they slept, and copies made from these models. Made of marble, rather than corruptible material like wax, the models can articulate Victorian notions of childhood innocence, purity and incorruptibility, as well as safeguarded bourgeois leisure status, reclining on a velvet cushion under the eye of their mother under glass covers.
What does this synecdoche of the baby’s body mean, especially when we know that Queen Victoria didn’t relish her children’s babyhood? She wrote of her ambivalence towards ‘ugly’ newborns with their ‘terrible frog-like action’ (Victoria 1964, p. 191), which is so against the norms of our own time, let alone the era of the “angel in the house”. Yet at other times spoke of her love and admiration for her offspring, and these limbs were on display throughout her long life in her private apartments at Buckingham Palace.
This example was sculpted by Mary Thornycroft (1809-1895), who enjoyed a long and productive working relationship with Victoria and Albert, although several artists would make such limb casts of hands or feet. I’ve selected an example of Thornycroft’s work because she’s a fascinating example of a female artist in Victorian society, whose work and biography demonstrates the tensions of women’s roles in public and creative life, as well as throwing up some interesting parallels with the queen.
While this limb is deliberately truncated, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography relates a family tradition that Thornycroft’s husband, a fellow sculptor, would decapitate her clay models in frustration at her greater commercial and artistic success. What inflection would this destruction of her creative life have on her moulding of fragments of a living infant, supposedly the source of women’s idealised status in mid-Victorian society, have held for Thornycroft? Four out of her own six children would go on to be successful artists, in a different model of lineage and legacy than patriarchal society envisioned for women. Women like Mary and Victoria excelled in their “professional” lives, but their role was always complicated by the nominal requirements, even amongst royalty and the upper classes, of nurturing motherhood and self-sacrifice.
Victoria’s preference for this type of memento would persevere into her widowhood, when she had a cast of Albert’s hand kept within her reach at night – which would eventually be placed in her coffin.
Stay tuned for a further post on Victoria’s taste for making jewellery from baby teeth!
PD James chats about the effect these relics had on her creative process: http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/microsites/VandAHL/42013-custom.html