5 Ways to celebrate the Victoria and Albert bicentenary

Rosie Pentreath

We compile five of the best events you can attend to mark 200 years since Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were born

1. See Victoria’s sapphire coronet designed by Albert at the Victoria & Albert Museum

What better way to celebrate the Victoria and Albert bicentenary than by visiting the Victoria & Albert Museum and feasting your eyes on Victoria’s stunning sapphire and diamond coronet? Designed by Prince Albert in 1840 to celebrate the first year of their marriage, the coronet was cherished by Victoria and she wore it in a Franz Xaver Winterhalter portrait that was shared around the world in engravings and reproductions.

While in deep mourning after Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria wore the coronet over simple garments in place of the lavish robes she was expected to don for public engagements. “Victoria was very reluctant to appear in public, but her arm was twisted to do the state opening of parliament,” explains composer Joby Talbot, who has been commissioned to write a new choral work for the unveiling of the coronet. “She was expected to show up with the crown on her head and full robes and ermine, but she refused and came in simple widow’s dress with the coronet perched on her widow’s cap. It was a real statement about her love for Albert and about his legacy”. 

The coronet will be the centrepiece of the V&A’s William and Judith Bollinger Gallery from April 11 onwards, and will be displayed alongside 80 other new pieces. The Bollingers generously acquired the coronet for the V&A in 2017 as a gift to the Nation and the Commonwealth. 

V&A Senior curator, Richard Edgcumbe, says, “Queen Victoria’s sapphire and diamond coronet is one of the great jewels of her reign. We are entirely indebted to William and Judith Bollinger, and their sons, for the gift of this masterpiece, which is so intimately associated with Victoria and Albert that it will become part of the identity of the V&A”.

Visit: vam.ac.uk

 

2. Attend the premiere of Joby Talbot’s A Sheen of Dew on Flowers at The Barbican

To celebrate the unveiling of Victoria’s precious coronet (see above), V&A patrons William and Judith Bollinger have commissioned a new cantata from British composer Joby Talbot through Independent Opera.

As well as celebrating the bicentenary of Victoria and Albert’s births, the work celebrates the royal pair’s enduring love story. “There’s something terribly poignant and beautiful about the story,” Talbot says. “And I was really interested in the way this coronet, this piece of cold metal and stones, is a beautiful thing in itself but so much more beautiful when you realise the story behind it; that it carries this very lovely and ultimately rather sad narrative of Victoria’s love and grief in its history”. 

The resulting work, A Sheen of Dew on Flowers is structured round the settings of a selection of poems by women from all over the world across different centuries.

“My initial idea was to try and tell a story, and I wanted to do this by setting love poems that Victoria and Albert might have known”. Talbot describes vanishing down a wormhole of reading lots of Tennyson, Yeats and Shakespeare, and even looking at some of the Lieder texts that Prince Albert himself set to music, before discovering a short and very beautiful poem by 11th-century Japanese poet, Murasaki Shikibu, which totally changed the direction of the piece.

“When I contacted the translator of the Shikibu poem, American poet Jane Hirshfield, she asked if I had seen her collection Women in Praise of the Sacred, Talbot tells us. “I got it from the library and it was a goldmine. I threw out everything I had except my five lines of Shikibu and ended up setting intimate love poems by Shikibu and other female poets, from medieval poems to writing attributed to The Queen of Sheba”. 

The resulting work’s title, A Sheen of Dew on Flowers, is taken from the original Shikibu text Talbot found and the selection of poetry gives the piece an intimacy and directness that other works written for royal occasions don’t always necessarily have. “I wanted to write something that was beautiful and heartfelt with a narrative so we go on a journey with these characters,” explains Talbot. That meant avoiding pomp and circumstance and instead scoring something for orchestra, choir and two protagonist soloists. “Through poetry by women we’re really hearing Victoria’s voice; the voice of Victoria the woman foremost (and monarch second). Some of the poetry I’ve chosen is 3000 years old, but it’s somehow much more immediate and modern than anything from the Victorian era”.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor and baritone Tobias Greenhalgh will perform with the Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia voices in the premiere, with Natalie Murray Beale conducting. 

“I admire the Britten Sinfonia and their affiliate choir so very much and am very excited to be at the helm for this concert,” Beale tells us. “It is doubly special to have a new work to unveil, particularly as I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Joby from the very seed of an idea for this work.” 

When we ask what kind of score we can expect, she says, “It’s a very lyrical work, from the just two interweaving vocal lines, to the rich texture of full chorus, soloists and orchestra. Joby has chosen a wide variety of percussion instruments, gongs, Chinese cymbals, Indian bells, to name a few, and they add an exotic colour”. 

A Sheen of Dew on Flowers will be premiered at 7.30pm on Thursday April 11 at The Barbican.

Visit: barbican.org.uk

 

3. Watch Northern Ballet’s production of Victoria at venues around the UK and in cinemas near you

Two hundred years after Victoria and Albert’s births, Northern Ballet retells the story of their love and the world’s most powerful monarch’s paralysing grief after Albert’s death in a dance biopic based on Victoria’s own diaries. 

Dramatised by Uzma Hameed, the force behind The Royal Ballet’s Woolf Works, and scored by Philip Feeney, the production has been described by The Guardian as “a feast of brilliance”. The choreography is by Cathy Marston who previously worked with Northern Ballet for Jane Eyre to great acclaim.

Performances have already started at venues around the UK and will continue throughout April, May and June, including as screenings at cinemas all over the country. 

Visit: sadlerswells.com

 

4. Discover Victoria and Albert’s treasured watercolour paintings at venues around the UK

If visual art’s more your thing, the Victoria and Albert bicentenary has unveiled treasures in that sphere too. Victoria and Albert collected their most prized paintings in special scrapbooks they bound and cherished throughout their lifetimes, and watercolours from these will go on display in exhibitions around the UK (many for the first time). 

Paintings of Victoria and Albert’s children, their favourite places and pivotal moments in Victoria’s reign are among those preserved in nine albums (now unbound) from 1840 to 1861. Considered by curators to be a “visual record” of Victoria and Albert’s marriage, they also include scenes from overseas tours, births, marriages, Christenings, birthdays and big Victorian achievements like the Great Exhibition of 1851. 

“It's a particularly personal type of collection,” explains curator Dr Carly Collier. “We know Victoria and Albert formed a large collection of works on paper and they were very engaged with it. They are really lively, really colourful, really fresh, and we know they were incredibly important to Victoria.”

The paintings will go on display in Royal Collection Trust’s touring exhibition Victoria & Albert: Our Lives in Watercolour, which visits Newcastle, Poole and Wolverhampton between June 2019 and May 2020.

Visit: rct.uk

 

5. Pop into Queen Victoria’s birthplace, Kensington Palace

Another great place to immerse yourself in the Victoria and Albert bicentenary is Victoria’s birthplace and home during her formative years, Kensington Palace. At the end of May, the palace is opening a major new exhibition featuring fascinating displays of the objects Victoria would have been surrounded by in her early years, and reimagined scenes of Victoria’s family life at the palace. 

Visitors can learn about Victoria’s education, family life and friendships as well as her private passions of doll making, story-telling and drawing. There will be a real sense of discovering Victoria, the woman as opposed to Victoria, the public monarch. 

Kensington Palace’s new visitor route incorporating the major bicentenary Victoria exhibition will open on Friday May 24.

Visit: hrp.org.uk/kensington-palace