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Princess Victoria aged Four

The small scale of this portrait matches the doll-like figure at its centre, just a few inches high. Wearing a heavy coat, a fur tippet wrapped around her shoulders and looking out from beneath an oversized hat piled high with exuberant feathers, this lone child is almost overwhelmed by her clothing yet she appears to stand firm, unfazed, engaging the viewer’s attention. One glove has been removed and is held in her hand, drawing the eye down to a rose sprig abandoned on the path, the pink petals adding a splash of warm colour to the cool palette. The portrait shows Princess Victoria, later Queen Victoria (1819–1901), aged four, wearing the black finery in mourning for her father, Edward, Duke of Kent (1767–1820). Pictured in a minimal landscape, there is a sense of isolation that reflects the tales of a solitary childhood spent at Kensington Palace, London. The empty horizon brings an aura of melancholy, a state that was commonly associated with contemporary views of a fatherless child. Even the single gloved hand could be interpreted by early nineteenth-century viewers as melancholic. Despite the subdued mood, there is a wilfulness and confidence in Victoria’s stance, her gaze bright and enquiring. A sense of spring hopefulness is suggested in the flashes of sunlight on the ground, with grey, scumbled clouds pushed out by emerging blue skies.

It is possible that British artist, Stephen Poyntz Denning (1795–1864), painted this picture after a chance encounter. Denning enjoyed minor royal patronage, and was commissioned by Queen Victoria to paint a miniature of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha (1819–61), amongst other works. As Denning was in royal circles for several years, there was some debate about which Princess Victoria he painted here. It could show Queen Victoria’s eldest child, also named Princess Victoria (1840–1901). However, the child’s fair hair and blue eyes are similar to other contemporary images of the Queen as an infant, while her daughter’s hair had turned darker by the age of four. Denning kept the painting in his private collection and, although he was Keeper of Dulwich Picture Gallery from 1821 to 1864, the painting did not enter the Gallery’s collection until 1891. It was reproduced as a mezzotint in 1901 following the Queen’s death, and has remained popular with visitors ever since.

Currently on display

Stephen Poyntz Denning
Gallery 10
27.9 x 22.7 cm
Oil on panel
Purchased by Dulwich College from Mr Quatrich, 1891
Accession number