Weary-eyed but defiant, a marble bust of Queen Victoria has been saved for the nation for just over £1 million.
The sculpture, carved by Sir Alfred Gilbert between 1887-89, was commissioned by The Army and Navy Club in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. It also marked the end of her period of mourning following the death of Prince Albert.
When the portrait bust sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London to a New York museum it was export-stopped by the UK government. The sombre depiction of the ageing ‘Widow of Windsor’ was held to fulfil all three Waverley criteria:
1. It was deemed closely connected with British history and national life;
2. Of outstanding aesthetic importance; and
3. Of outstanding significance for the study of art.
With the export stop in place, the frantic search for a UK buyer to rescue the virtuoso carving began. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge answered the call. Using a recent bequest together with a National Heritage Memorial Fund grant of over £260,000, it met the £1,077,607 asking price.
Gilbert, who is best known for the statute of Eros in London’s Piccadilly Circus, is said to have used his own mother as model for the bust. While Queen Victoria’s face was carved from photographs, Gilbert’s mother posed with drapery around her head and neck to allow the artist to sculpt the Queen’s lace shawl with remarkable realism.
The bust has been on display at the Fitzwilliam since 20 June 2018, the 181st anniversary of the day Queen Victoria inherited the throne. A member of the government’s reviewing committee on the export of works of art, Lowell Libson, said the work was “not only an important icon made at the apogee of British power but a complex and hugely sympathetic image”.