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Exhibition reveals Victoria’s ‘feminist transformation’ of Buckingham Palace

The new display highlights the monarch’s life at the palace and how she began many traditions which continue to this day.

An immersive display using a Victorian illusion technique known as Pepper’s Ghost depicts a group of royal guests dancing a quadrille (Jonathan Brady/PA)
An immersive display using a Victorian illusion technique known as Pepper’s Ghost depicts a group of royal guests dancing a quadrille (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Queen Victoria’s modernisation of the monarchy during her reign has been described as a “feminist transformation” by the curator of a major exhibition at Buckingham Palace.

The attraction tells the story of Victoria’s life at the palace and reveals how the changes the Queen and her husband Prince Albert made to the iconic building helped revolutionise the institution of the monarchy.

Victoria turned the unloved palace into a home fit for state, public and private events, by creating the palace balcony used today for iconic public appearances, staging garden parties to recognise citizens and transforming the building into a liveable family home.

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Queen Victoria’s Stuart Ball costume on display at the palace (Jonathan Brady/PA)

The centrepiece of the exhibition, which marks the 200th anniversary of Victoria’s birth, is the ballroom where the Queen loved to dance and socialise. It features a projection on the walls of the original windows and the colour scheme red, green and blue, that contrasts with today’s white and gold.

In the centre of the ballroom a Hollywood-based production company has created holographic-type images of eight dancers in period dress, performing a dance called a quadrille to the sounds of La Traviata, on a three-minute loop.

Dr Amanda Foreman, curator of the exhibition Queen Victoria’s Palace, said: “Queen Victoria transformed Buckingham Palace, the fabric of this building, and in so doing created new traditions, those traditions which we now associate with the modern monarchy.

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Royal Collection employees adjust placings at a recreation of a Victorian dinner in the State Dining Room (Jonathan Brady/PA)

“Whether it’s the balcony, or garden party, or bringing people into this palace to celebrate very important national and public occasions.

“That kind of relationship is very much a female relationship, it’s an expression of female power – it’s about family, duty, loyalty and public service – not about military might, about wealthy.”

The curator described Victoria’s changes as a “feminist transformation” of the monarchy, and she added: “It’s significant that it was a woman who was responsible for these traditions.

“It was a woman who defined this nation’s concept of what sovereign power looks like, how it’s experienced and how it’s expressed.”

A young Queen Victoria moved into the palace in 1837, just three weeks into her reign, and despite not being completely ready for her arrival it was hosting royal events within a few days.

Her marriage to first cousin Prince Albert in 1840 and their large family that followed had Victoria writing to Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel concerning the “total want of accommodation for our growing little family”.

A period of building work followed which saw the east, or front wing, facing The Mall, built with the now famous balcony and the ballroom added.

Dr Foreman described how the new ballroom was something that chimed with Victoria’s personality: “She was very young when she became Queen, just 18, and she had been deprived of the normal aspects of socialisation when she was younger.

“Yet, she was a very outgoing person and she, like any teenager, would embrace social life and loved it, and always loved dancing.”

When the Queen visited the exhibition she was left “totally engrossed” by Hollywood production company Practical Magic’s 3D recreation of the dancers – but quipped she was glad the style of dancing had died out.

After seeing the hologram-like images of the performers she joked: “Thank God, we don’t have to do that anymore,” and as she left the ballroom said: “it’s deceptive”.

Dr Foreman said: “She loved it, she was totally engrossed.”

Victoria had nine children, disliked being pregnant and had difficulty showing affection to her five daughters and four sons.

But she revealed her love in other ways – among the more unusual items on display are a casket filled with the baby teeth of Victoria’s children and casts the monarch had made of her offsprings’ arms and legs.

Other exhibits include paintings showing period details from the palace’s rooms and events taking place, costumes and uniforms worn by Victoria and her family, and other objects associated with the monarch and Albert like musical instruments, documents and art tools.

The exhibition – Queen Victoria’s Palace – can be viewed during the summer opening of the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace, from July 20 to September 29. ends

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