Alexandra – Britain’s Queen of Hearts, a 70-minute documentary broadcast this week in the UK on Channel 5, was a veritable feast for photohistorians.
The programme featured photo after photo of the woman who was Princess of Wales from 1863 to 1901 and then Queen Consort to her husband as King Edward VII during his 9-year reign.
Various eminent royal historians made a persuasive case for Alexandra, now a largely forgotten figure, creating the template for the royal women who followed in her footsteps.
They included subsequent Princesses of Wales such as Diana and Kate as well as Sophie, Countess of Wessex.
As the documentary’s photographic riches revealed, photographers clearly adored Alexandra as a subject and the camera loved her in return.
But given its role in both her story and that of photographic history, it is surprising that one photograph in particular did not feature.
In September 1868, the firm of W. & D. Downey of Newcastle-on-Tyne photographed Alexandra carrying her baby daughter, Princess Louise, on her back.
According to Frances Dimond’s Developing the Picture: Queen Alexandra and the Art of Photography (Royal Collection Publications, 2004), the informal pose was unusual, especially for a member of the royal family.
Dimond argues it was designed to show that the then Princess of Wales had made a good recovery from a long illness caused by a severe attack of rheumatic fever.
When made available to the public, the ‘mother and baby’ photo proved a popular seller, clocking up reported sales of around 300,000 making it among the best-selling carte-de-visite of the era.
Given its widespread circulation, the card features occasionally on Ebay.
Recently, I was able to purchase one for just a few pounds (rather than the tens or hundreds as is sometimes requested by sellers around the world).
This was largely because the seller had described the item as ‘woman with baby on her back.’
It was a transaction that rather underlined the fact that Alexandra, once one of the most famous women in the world thanks to photography, is less recognised in the 21st century.
Documentaries such as Channel 5’s may help rectify that situation.
It’s curious though that the ‘screen grab’ advertising the programme on the channel’s My5 site features what appears to be a shot of Princess Alexandra of Kent, a cousin of the late Queen Elizabeth II.
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