John Francis (1780-1861)
The present work, which was previously unknown to scholars, appears to be unique within Francis’s recorded sculpted likenesses of the Queen and as such is an exciting new addition to the iconography of arguably Britain’s greatest ruler.
This bust of Queen Victoria was sculpted in 1844 and shows the young monarch at a transformative moment in her reign. Still radiating youth – not the austere figure that she was later to become – she is nonetheless shown at the moment of transition from impressionable adolescent to reigning queen...
With Victoria having been crowned only in 1837, the 1840s were a period of test for the still-new queen. It remained to be seen whether the monarchy would abandon the perceived licentiousness of its Hanoverian forebears, and so gain the affection of a public that had learnt to be weary. This was made a still more pressing issue by the widespread famines that swept throughout England – and Europe more generally – causing the period to become known as the ‘Hungry Forties’.
Victoria achieved this by learning to rise above politics.The two most important moments in this process came in the form of her marriage in 1840 to Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg Gotha (1819-1861) and, in 1842, the mental and physical decline of her former Prime Minister, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (1779-1848), who had left office following a surprise Tory victory at the polls the previous year.Following the death of William IV (1765-1837), Melbourne had provided Victoria with invaluable assistance, guiding her through the complexities of parliamentary politics and providing an aide on whom she could always place her trust. His dogged loyalty to Queen Victoria drew comment; indeed, so close was their relationship that rumours of a potential marriage abounded until her actual engagement to Prince Albert was announced.When Melbourne was forced out of office, Victoria was so upset that she begged him to keep up a secret correspondence with her. This he did, risking political scandal and even potential constitutional crisis.
However, in his retirement, Melbourne’s health began to decline precipitously following a stroke in 1842. As his influence began to wane, so Albert’s grew. The match between the couple had been encouraged by Victoria’s uncle, Leopold I, King of Belgians (1790-1865), who had also showered political advice on the young Victoria, some of it helpful but much of it unsolicited. Albert’s near-unique position as the male consort to a female monarch conditioned much of their future relationship and was the constant source of friction and discontent, especially within the palace where Albert was constantly trying to change procedures and modernise certain areas.
Gradually the relationship stabilised, with Albert’s role growing in clarity with the arrival of the first of Victoria’s children in 1840. She was to go on to produce nine further children between 1840 and 1857, seven of these conceived over the course of the 1840s.This near-continuous stream of pregnancies left Victoria physically weakened and mentally despondent, following bouts of what would later become known as post-natal depression. As a result, Albert’s role in Victoria’s life in the 1840s became one of increasing importance, to the point that he became a powerful political figure at court and Victoria’s unofficial private secretary. His continuous and committed political support rose above that which could be guaranteed by any prime minister, allowing Victoria to attain the aloofness over politics that was demanded in a monarch. So successful was this collaboration that it would be termed by later historians as ‘The Dual Monarchy’.
By the end of the decade, Victoria had proved that she could triumph over the unique difficulties faced by the British monarch. In 1851, with the Great Exhibition, this period of uncertainty and experiment would soon fade into distant memory.
Nothing in John Francis’s background suggested that he would rise to a position of great eminence in the snobbish and exclusive Victorian artworld. The son of a Lincolnshire farmer, Francis began his life by tilling the fields. Marrying the daughter of a local mill owner, Francis had every expectation that, like his father before him, his future was in agriculture. It was, in fact, a profession that he never left entirely behind; even as his career began to take off, he would return to the fields during quiet periods to make additional income. His professional break came when around 1815 he met the noted agriculturalist and local landowner, Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester (1754-1842), who was impressed by Francis’s already-evident talent for sculpture and endeavoured to introduce him to leading figures of the Whig aristocracy.
Good fortune arrived again when one of his works caught the eye of Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843), who commissioned a series of miniature busts of himself and his family from the sculptor, thereby providing him with an introduction to further royal patrons. William IV was another early admirer. With the accession of Victoria, Francis’s stock rose further still; he executed a portrait of Prince Albert’s father, several of the prince himself, and was even commissioned by the Prince to make a sculpture of his favourite greyhound, Eos, a bronze cast of which was placed above the animal’s grave in Osborne House, the Isle of Wight.
The present work is one of a small number of busts that Francis executed of Victoria. The first shows Victoria wearing classical robes and was sculpted in 1840. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy the same year and in 1841 was given to the Reform Club by the engineer and politician Benjamin Hall, 1st Baron Llanover. A reduced scale ‘cabinet’ bust of Victoria was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1841 and the following year Francis exhibited another marble bust of the monarch – possibly the one now in the Guildhall Art Gallery. The present work, which was previously unknown to scholars, appears to be unique within Francis’s recorded sculpted likenesses of the Queen and as such is an exciting new addition to the iconography of arguably Britain’s greatest ruler.