For many, the persistent image of Queen Victoria is that of a monarch in mourning, the stern and private face of her black dress and white helmet after the death of her beloved husband, Albert.
Very few images capture the dynamic young woman she had been – when she ascended the throne in 1837, at the age of 18, photography had hardly been invented. But such images exist and, to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth this Friday, the Museum of London unveiled exclusively for the Observer two rare photographs never before seen by the public.
"It's a younger, fresher and more fashionable queen," says Francis Marshall, chief curator. "You would not think it's Victoria." Locked up in the museum's photography department for decades, they are "as special as a painting," says Marshall, in part because they were rare examples of stereoscopic daguerreotype images. As a result, they are unique and impossible to reproduce.
Taken in 1854 by the French photographer Antoine Claudet, using two cameras side by side, the photos were mounted on steel and slipped like slides in a visualization device, unlike today's virtual reality glasses. hui.
"You would put the glasses in front of your face and you will see the images blending together – which created an illusion of three-dimensionality," says Marshall.
The images are among the most important engravings in the museum's 150,000-copy collection, he says, because they are not just Victoria's two oldest images as 34-year-old Queen, but they also reflect his fascination with photography. At the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Queen and Prince Albert were captivated by the photographs presented, he says. "They even learned to make their own impressions."
The royals privately commissioned Claudet – one of the stars of the Great Exhibition – to take stereographic daguerreotypes – and even awarded him a royal title: ordinary photographer. "It would be as if the queen was nominating today a virtual reality winner," Marshall said.
The photos have never been intended for public consumption – that's one of the reasons they have never been seen – and will not be on display at the museum. Instead, they would have been early examples of personal photographic memories in leather-bound presentation cases. It is thought that one of the cases, bearing the royal coat of arms, could even have been intended for Prince Albert.
The current royal photographer Hugo Burnand – who was on duty at the wedding of Lady Gabriella Windsor and Thomas Kingston this weekend – explains that the daguerreotypes of this era are sometimes even more "sharp" in pictures than the current digital photographs. "It's the aesthetics and emotion of the photographs that make them so durable," he said.