Royal Portraits – The Parliament Collection Victoria

December 7, 2019

Victoria’s Parliament House is home to a
unique collection of classic and contemporary art, featuring past premiers and notable figures
in our state’s political history. The oldest and most significant of these works
take pride of place, here, in Queen’s Hall. These large and imposing portraits of our
State’s namesake, Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, have kept watch over
the comings and goings at Parliament House for more than a century. Despite their age and their ornate appearance,
many visitors are surprised to learn that both of these paintings are, in fact, copies
based on originals by German-born painter Franz Winterhalter. Winterhatler worked throughout Europe and
became famous as the leading court portrait painter of his time. Our copy of his original Queen Victoria portrait
was a gift to the Victorian Parliament from the British Government in 1860. In these paintings of the royal couple, Queen
Victoria is pictured with the crown and sceptre on her right and the throne on her left. These are traditional symbols of royal power. Prince Albert’s portrait, on the other hand,
would have presented a number of challenges for Winterhalter. There wasn’t a great deal of iconography
or symbolism that he could draw on because, as a German prince, Albert didn’t hold much
status amongst the British aristocracy. Winterhalter has painted the Prince wearing
the robes of Order of the Garter, which is one of the few honours that Queen Victoria
was able to grant her husband. Although we can’t be exactly sure who painted
our copy of Queen Victoria’s portrait, it was most likely done by another royal portrait
painter called William Corden. However we do know that the portrait of Prince
Albert was painted by artist called Gordon Coutts in 1897. Coutts was a Scottish artist who studied at
the National Gallery School here in Melbourne. Of course, more than a century of exposure
to dust and grime, and the occasional leaking roof, had started to take its toll on Parliament’s
prized portraits. So in 2013, planning for a major restoration
project commenced, in partnership with The University of Melbourne. Removing the works from Queen’s Hall was
a huge undertaking. The paintings measure four metres high and
had to be removed carefully from their frames before being lowered over the minstrel gallery
and into the main hall. Conservators then removed a century of accumulated
grime and discoloured varnish. Tthey retouched surface imperfections ….and undertook work
to stabilise the canvases. The magnificent frames were also carefully
treated, to restore their ornate gilding. While the two paintings may appear very similar
in composition and format, there are quite dramatic differences in the materials from
which they’re made. Queen Victoria is painted on a high quality linen canvas, whereas Prince
Albert is on a much lesser quality – what might be called a cotton ticking. Beneath the bronze paint we found a layer
of gold leaf. So the focus of the removal of the bronze paint was to restore the original
surface characteristics of the frame. Because these pictures are so large, we had to put
them on their sides for varnishing – working in a tag team with two of us, and one person
as a spotter. After more than 400 hours of careful planning,
consultation and restoration, both paintings were finally returned to the balcony overlooking
Queens Hall These painting are just two examples of the
many artifacts from our State’s history that you’ll see if you come and visit us
here at the Parliament of Victoria.

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