21 January 2021

Museum Week: Queen Victoria's Sapphire Coronet

Victoria and Albert Museum

Our tour of royal tiaras in museums this week has taken us to Houston, to Washington, D.C., and to Paris. Today, we're traveling to London, where we find Queen Victoria's Sapphire Coronet in the spotlight at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Here's a little history behind this iconic tiara.

Illustrated portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, ca. 1840, from the collection of the British Museum (Wikimedia Commons)

The year is 1840. Twenty-year-old Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, who ascended to the throne less than three years earlier, is preparing for one of the biggest days of her life: her wedding. Her chosen groom is Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The twenty-year-old prince is her first cousin; his father, Duke Ernst I of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, is the brother of Victoria's mother, Princess Viktoria, Duchess of Kent. The young couple were raised in different countries and different kinds of households, but they share one major thing in common: they grew up without one of their parents. Victoria's father, the Duke of Kent, died before her first birthday. Albert's parents separated when he was five, and his mother, who was forced to leave her sons behind with their father, died seven years later.

The Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and the Duchess of Kent had another brother who was an important figure in both the family and the political world: King Leopold I of the Belgians. Uncle Leopold, as he was known to both Victoria and Albert, had been married to Princess Charlotte of Wales, the daughter and heir of King George IV. The couple had been primed to ascend together to the throne, but Charlotte died in 1817 after giving birth to a stillborn son. Leopold maintained a life and a residence in England, but in 1831, he was elected as the first king of independent Belgium. Still, he retained a serious interest in the future of the British monarchy. Thrilled by his niece's accession, Leopold wanted to consolidate the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha family's power in Britain. He saw his nephew, Prince Albert, as the ideal Prince Consort for Britain, and he heavily promoted the match.

Encouraged by Leopold, Albert traveled to England to meet Victoria for the first time in 1836, and then again in October 1839. Victoria thought that Albert was very handsome, and she decided that she did indeed want to marry him. During the second visit, she proposed. Albert accepted, and plans for a royal wedding were put in motion.

George Hayter's painting of the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, ca. 1840 (Wikimedia Commons)

As preparations moved forward in England, including decisions about wedding dresses and annual incomes and the order of precedence, Albert returned to Germany. He worked with his father to procure a special wedding gift for his bride: a brooch with a large sapphire ringed by a cluster of diamond brilliants. Duke Ernst communicated with a jeweler in Amsterdam, Wolf Josephus Jitta, to secure the jewel.

On the night before their wedding in February 1840, Albert presented Victoria with the sapphire brooch. Victoria adored the gift. In her diary, she noted that her husband-to-be had given her "a splendid brooch, a large sapphire set round with diamonds, which is really quite beautiful." On their wedding day, Victoria pinned the sapphire brooch to the lace bodice of her wedding gown and wore it during the ceremony at the Chapel Royal in St. James's Palace.

Winterhalter's portrait of Queen Victoria posing in her wedding dress and jewels, ca. 1847 (Wikimedia Commons)

Several years later, the court painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter painted a portrait of Victoria wearing her wedding gown and jewels. The sapphire cluster brooch is prominent on the front of her gown. She wears it with the diamond earrings and necklace set with diamonds presented to her by the Sultan of Turkey, just as she had done on the wedding day seven years earlier.

Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for The V&A

Victoria had been so thrilled with the sapphire brooch that Albert was soon planning to present her with another piece of jewelry to wear with it. Working with Joseph Kitching, he designed a small diamond and sapphire coronet for his new wife. Kitching was half of the partnership Kitching and Abud, the firm that did significant work for the royal family during Victoria's reign. The tiny silver and gold tiara features festoon and trefoil ornaments set atop an intricate base of diamonds and sapphires in cushion and kite cuts. Kitching was paid £415 for the construction of the coronet (something in the neighborhood of £37,750 in today's money).

Winterhalter's portrait of Queen Victoria wearing the sapphire coronet, ca. 1842 (Wikimedia Commons)

The new tiara first pops up in documented history in 1842, when Queen Victoria wore it for a portrait painted by Winterhalter. The painting was one of the first collaborations between Winterhalter and the British royal family, and it remains one of the most iconic images created of Victoria during the early years of her reign. In the painting, she wears both of the sapphire jewels that had been given to her by Albert. The cluster brooch is pinned to her bodice, while the coronet balances atop the bun on the back of her head. 

The placement of the tiara might initially seem odd; it's certainly not how they're usually worn. But the choice was a deliberate one. Albert, who had a keen eye for aesthetics, wanted the portrait to be a visual reference to the classic royal artwork of seventeenth-century court painters like Van Dyck. Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I, was often depicted wearing her hair in a similar fashion, with small crowns or strands of pearls perched at the back of her head. The Royal Collection identifies this particular portrait of Henrietta Maria by an unknown artist as the inspiration behind Queen Victoria's styling in the 1842 Winterhalter painting.

An illustrated portrait of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, ca. 1840s

One of the most intriguing things about the coronet is its flexibility. One of our earlier posts shows just how finely articulated the tiara is, able to be worn in a very open setting or closed tightly as a small coronet. In the illustration above, Queen Victoria is depicted wearing the coronet in its more open form, more like a traditional tiara.

Queen Victoria at the 1866 State Opening of Parliament, wearing the coronet with the crown held nearby, in an illustration from the Illustrated London News (Wellcome Collection)

In 1861, the unthinkable happened: Prince Albert died at the age of only 42, leaving Victoria without her closest companion and advisor. She mourned him for the rest of her life. Conventional wisdom has often suggested that, as a part of her mourning attire, she put aside colored jewels completely after Albert's death. But that's not true. She continued to wear the diamond and sapphire coronet for years afterward, perching it atop the white lace cap that she wore habitually during her widowhood.

One of her first significant public appearances after Albert's death came in 1866, when the Prince of Wales convinced her to come out of her self-imposed exile for the State Opening of Parliament. She wore Albert's coronet for the occasion; the Imperial State Crown was carried beside her on a cushion during the ceremony.

Queen Victoria wears the tiara after Prince Albert's death in an illustration by Samuel Cousins, ca. 1871

This 1871 illustration appears to depict some of the same jewels and clothing that she wore in the illustration of the 1866 appearance in parliament. Additional rows of diamonds appear to be affixed to her cap. You'll also note the Coronation Earrings here, as well as a diamond necklace with a cross pendant and the Koh-i-Noor Diamond in its brooch setting pinned to her bodice.

Queen Victoria wears the coronet in a portrait painted by Henry Richard Graves, ca. 1874 (Royal Collection)

Several years later, Queen Victoria wore the coronet for another royal portrait. This time, the painting was done by Henry Richard Graves, a British artist with an aristocratic lineage who had exhibited numerous works at the Royal Academy. He traveled to Osborne House, Victoria's residence on the Isle of Wight, to complete the painting in 1874. It wasn't the first meeting of the monarch and the artist: Graves had previously been commissioned to complete a larger group painting that included the Queen and other family members. (She had not been pleased with the final product.)

This time around, Victoria was certainly happier with the results. But the process wasn't particularly pleasant for Graves. He disliked staying at Osborne, noting that the costs of living were rather exorbitant. Moreover, he wasn't satisfied with the monetary payment he received for the work, noting that while the honor of the commission was certainly great, "it don't pay painting The Queen." He may also not have been satisfied with the results of the work he did during multiple sittings with the Queen, as the final portrait is based quite clearly on a photograph taken of Victoria several years earlier. The coronet, however, does not appear in that photo, but has been added for the Graves painting. Ultimately, the Queen was very happy with Graves's final 1874 portrait, declaring it to be a "very nice picture" and a "good likeness."

Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for The V&A

When Queen Victoria died in January 1901, the coronet passed to her son, the new King Edward VII. After his death in 1910, the jewel was inherited by his son, King George V. Though Queen Mary's tiara collection did not include any other important sapphire tiaras, George and Mary made the intriguing decision to send the tiara to another branch of the royal family.

Princess Mary wears the coronet shortly after her marriage, ca. 1922

When George and Mary's only daughter, Princess Mary, Princess Royal married Viscount Lascelles (later the Earl of Harewood) in 1922, they gave her the sapphire coronet as one of her wedding presents. They supplemented the gift with additional sapphire jewels that had belonged to Queen Victoria, including a necklace and bracelet. 

Princess Mary, Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood wears the tiara, ca. 1920s (Interfoto/Alamy)

Mary posed for several portraits in the sapphires, and wore them for occasions like gala concerts and receptions. She also allowed the coronet and the demi-parure to be exhibited at the Dorchester Hotel in 1953, as part of the hotel's Jewel Ball, one of the celebrations in the lead-up to the coronation festivities of her niece, Queen Elizabeth II.

The Countess of Harewood wears the coronet in Leeds, 1977 (PA Images/Alamy)

When Princess Mary died in 1965, the family sold many pieces of her jewelry. The sapphire coronet, however, was retained as part of the Harewood collection. In the photograph above, taken in July of 1977, the Earl and Countess of Harewood (Princess Mary's son and daughter-in-law) greeted his cousin, Queen Elizabeth II. The occasion was a dinner and reception at Leeds Civic Hall during the Queen's Silver Jubilee tour of Yorkshire. The Countess wore the coronet for the event in its more open, tiara-like form.

Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for The V&A

While the tiara was in the Harewood family collection, it was worn for at least one family wedding, and loaned to the landmark tiara exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2001. After the 7th Earl's death in 2011, though, the family decided to sell the tiara. It was purchased by an anonymous buyer, who retained it for several years before deciding to sell the piece as well. The proposed buyer of the tiara was a foreign national, a detail which caught the attention of the British government. They decided in 2016 to step in and attempt to prevent the historic piece of jewelry from leaving the country. The minister of culture, Matt Hancock, imposed a temporary ban on the coronet's sale by deferring the approval of an export license for the piece.

Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for The V&A

For those keen to see the tiara stay in Britain, good news came in 2017. The Victoria and Albert Museum announced that their jewelry gallery in London would be the new home of the coronet: "We are delighted to announce the acquisition of one of Queen Victoria’s most important jewels. The stunning sapphire and diamond coronet was designed by Prince Albert in 1840, the royal couple’s wedding year. The coronet, generously gifted to the V&A by William Bollinger, will go on display as the centre-piece of the Museum’s newly-refreshed William and Judith Bollinger Jewellery Gallery in 2019, the bicentenary year of the birth of both Victoria and Albert."

The refurbishment of the gallery was completed in the spring of 2019, and the tiara went on display as the centerpiece of the room. Since then, it's been sparkling for visitors from around the world, who are able to enjoy the romantic little piece of royal jewelry history up close and in person.

Have you gotten to see Queen Victoria's Sapphire Coronet on display in London?