lessons from queen victoria’s sketchbooks

by | May 6, 2021 | Artistic Endeavors, sketches, Watercolors | 24 comments

A few weeks ago, I was searching around for something short and inspiring to watch.  Maybe a documentary on an artist?  Or a short art lesson?  My curiosity was piqued when I spotted The Royal Paintbox on my Masterpiece Subscription.  I mean, anything about paintboxes these days is interesting to me!  So, I started the documentary.  In it, HRH Prince Charles shares his own artwork as well as art from various royals, kings, and queens, who showed varying levels of proficiency.  The work I was most interested in, though, was the sketchbooks of Queen Victoria.

I figured she painted since I have seen that portrayed in movies and series on Victoria, but I never imagined she sketched and painted extensively using different mediums.  As I watched Prince Charles slowly flip through some of her sketchbooks, I had to pause the documentary to see if they had ever been published.  And yes!  Some of them were published in a 1979 book by Marina Warner called Queen Victoria’s Sketchbook.  I found a copy on Thriftbooks for $13 and ordered it before I even finished the documentary.

Queen Victoria's Sketchbook | Miss Mustard Seed

Let me insert here that I love little surprises you find in used books sometimes.  I almost always buy books used if they are available and the price difference is significant enough for it to make sense.  This copy of Queen Victoria’s Sketchbook has a sweet inscription inside the front cover.

Christmas 1981

I hope you enjoy this book about Queen Victoria’s interest in painting and sketching.  With lots of love, Cary & Howard

I would’ve been three years old when this book was gifted and, even though this inscription wasn’t written to me, I’m allowing the sentiment expressed by Cary & Howard to trickle down to me.  Yes, I think I will enjoy it.

Queen Victoria's Sketchbook | Miss Mustard Seed

The book itself is delightful.  With most art books, I browse through them first and mark pages I want to revisit.  I didn’t do that in the case of this book.  I found I was thoroughly interested in reading it and really digging into how Victoria saw the world, most relatably as a woman, wife, mother, and artist, and, historically, as a Queen.

Queen Victoria's Sketchbook | Miss Mustard Seed

The biggest takeaway from the book for me is that Victoria wasn’t a great artist.  The author points out that if art had been her desired profession, she most likely wouldn’t have been successful.  There is definitely talent displayed in her work, but not the kind of talent that would compare with celebrated artists of that period.  And Victoria was apparently aware of that, but it didn’t deter her from drawing and painting throughout all but the very early and very late years of her life.  She sketched and painted for over 60 years, filling over 50 albums!  Isn’t that so inspiring?

It’s so easy to think we’re not called to do something simply because we’re not at the level of “the best” of our contemporaries.  But there is so much beauty in persistence and doing something because you love it. And, in Victoria’s case, because you want to record your memories.  Photography is so common to us these days that it’s easy to take it for granted and forget that Victoria couldn’t just pull out her phone and snap a picture of fleeting moments.  Photography at that time was more cumbersome and formal, although that changed towards the end of her reign.  So, the best way to capture a moment was to draw it, paint it, and write about it.  She did all three.  I haven’t studied her enough to know if it was out of love for creating or because she knew history was told by those who record it.  Maybe she understood that, even from an early age when she started sketching and keeping a diary.  Or maybe she would’ve done that even if she wasn’t going to be the Queen of England.  Maybe that was just in her.

I did make a note that while she did sketch a scene from her coronation and drew people of note, most of her drawings were of daily life…her family, her dogs, a scenic view.  With social media being prominent in today’s culture, it feels like we should only record the big stuff.  But, this book was so much more interesting for all of the little everyday sketches of life.  The everyday, the average, and the normal are worth recording.

Queen Victoria's Sketchbook | Miss Mustard Seed

While I agree her work isn’t as accomplished as the other artists who have books on my shelf – Monet, Renoir, Degas, Seago, Pissarro, Sisley, Sargent, Turner, Whistler, Manet to name a few, I find her work to be charming.  There is a sweetness and honesty to it.  In the works that are represented in Queen Victoria’s Sketchbook, which are just a fraction of all of her sketches and paintings, I can see growth as well as exploration of different styles.  In some ways, I see pieces of my own artistic journey and feel a kinship with her.

It also made me think about the importance of creativity.  As a queen and a mother of a lot of children, I imagine her life was busy and structured, and she would’ve had to recognize the importance of it to make time to sketch and paint.  Not only did she make time to do it, but she studied under several art teachers over the years to learn and grow.  I admire that.

Queen Victoria's Sketchbook | Miss Mustard Seed

I am looking forward to making studies of some of her sketches and I hope that one day more of her works are published.

The books is available on Thriftbooks for $10-14 and I would encourage you to get a copy.  (The book is sold out on Thriftbooks now, but there are still some affordable used copies for under $20 on Amazon HERE.)  It has inspired me to write more, sketch more, paint more, just to record my everyday life; to share how I see the world, and to share my own story and it may have the same effect on you.

PS – Did you know Victorian-era boys wore dresses until the age of seven or so?  Not just kilts or robes, but dresses with ruffles and bows.  It’s hard to tell the girls from the boys in Victoria’s sketches and the author explained this cultural tidbit.  So interesting!  As a mom of boys, I can see the practicality when it comes to diapers and potty training!

This is a picture of Franklin D Roosevelt in 1884.  White dresses were considered gender neutral.

Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1884, at the age of 2.

photo via

24 Comments

  1. alda ellis

    I too, love used books . The sentimental note of love does trickle down and I am thrilled someone who loves the book appreciates it. Something about the pages of a used book melt my heart! And this one is a darling one!

    Reply
  2. Linda Latt

    I have an old photo of my father and his sister and they are both wearing dresses. I love it. So special and I am so happy to have it.

    Reply
  3. Lesley Brown

    I’ve been to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, which is where QV and her family went for holidays by the sea. There is an alcove on the beach where, it is said, she sat to paint and draw. There are many of her sketches and paintings on show, they are, as you say, not professional standard but quite charming and depict her children playing on the beach etc, beautiful.

    Reply
  4. monique Odman

    Interesting!
    With practice and more time, Queen Victoria would have progressed well with her art work, but being the head of an immense empire and producing 9 children, losing a still young beloved husband. Painting was a small side entertainment. Never the less her water colors and sketches are her own , fresh and charming.
    As for boys in dresses, it is true. Oscar Wilde’s mother had hoped for her second child to be a girl, she dressed poor Oscar in girly dresses for several years!

    Reply
  5. Cynthia Johnson

    I love her style~
    Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  6. Wendy

    I discovered this book last year and also ordered it used-it is such a charming find, isn’t it?! I was also struck by the fact that she wasn’t a great artist but kept at it for so many years, and now we enjoy her art all these years later! It is encouraging to think this way and keep on creating, despite the fact that our work may not be “master worthy”. I’m also fascinated by her journaling-and how she did both regularly while birthing 9 children, ruling a monarchy and dealing with her life’s duties -amazing!

    Reply
  7. Dana C

    Thank you for sharing.
    Social History is fascinating. I’ve watched a few documentaries on Queen Victoria and never knew this. It gives her character a level of softness and reality.
    Hope that I can find the book in Australia.

    Reply
  8. Debra

    I love art books and being curious, I looked on Amazon for new ones. To my great surprise, it is listed for the whopping price of $71.10 !! They did offer some used ones in various states of condition ranging from $6.99 & up. Near perfect was $18.99. You got a great deal Marian.

    Reply
  9. Diane Amick

    I think her drawings and paintings you shared are so charming. I draw and paint on needlepoint canvas, and then work my “drawings” into wool pillows, Christmas stockings, or framed art. Been needlepointing my own designed canvases for almost 50 years, and I still love it.

    Reply
  10. Sue Cantrell

    We have a large photograph of my grandfather in a dress as a little boy. He was born in 1892 or 1893. I too love good art books!

    Reply
  11. Shelley Humpal

    Hi Marian: During the late 18th Century Primitive Painters would use props to differentiate between boy or girl. Boys would be shown with a dog and girls would often be shown with cats and other props as well.

    Reply
  12. Julie | Home On The Hill

    Yes, I knew they dressed boys in dresses as toddlers which as you say we can relate to for it’s practicality – but did you know the Victorians were also into Memento Mori or post mortem photography?

    They would prop up the deceased in life like poses to be photographed. The death of a loved one often triggered a family portrait including the deceased, photographers had special stands to keep them upright, edited the photos by painting on eyes in some cases etc. Fascinating but very strange by today’s standards.

    Reply
    • Marian Parsons

      Yes, I did know that. There was an antique store I went to that had an entire displayed collection of Victorian-era photos of the dead, coffins, hair wreaths, and all sorts of things. It was creepy, but very interesting, too.

      Reply
  13. Donna Doble-Brown

    Marian, I couldn’t help but think about your artistic journey and how someday your boys may find some comfort in having your sketch pads to look through. Thanks for sharing this … I’m going to look for this book💚

    Reply
  14. Sheila Anderson

    I’ve had that book for years, but haven’t looked at it in a while. I’ll have to get it back out. Thanks for reminding me.

    Reply
  15. Kim

    The boys-in-dresses was in operation in the USA into the early 1900s based on my own family’s photographic history. Also, if Queen Victoria is a not-so-great amateur, then I would be positively hopeless at the art.

    Reply
    • Marian Parsons

      Oh no, she was a great amateur artist and I love her work. According to the author, though, she was not considered a “great artist” and would not have had the skill to be a professional artist at the time. It made me think of how much Instagram and the internet have opened up the world to artists. At that time, you would’ve had to sell through a gallery, meaning there was a strict gatekeeper, which prevented a lot of artists from being able to have their work seen and purchased by potential collectors.

      If the only way I could sell paintings was through a gallery, I don’t think I would be able to sell my paintings. Selling directly to people who like my work opens a lot of possibilities! I imagine that she could be a children’s book illustrator if she was posting on Instagram today, based on her style.

      Reply
  16. Jeanne

    Thank you for always expanding my world with your ideas and curious nature. You inspire me.

    Reply
  17. Marian Zimmerman

    the amish in PA still dress there baby boys in dresses

    Reply
  18. B Folk

    “The everyday, the average, and the normal are worth recording.” Marian, you are so right! Instagram and all the other social media can be taken down in an instant (and has been), but written records are harder to expunge. I feel that journals/diaries, “snail-mail” letters, and printed photographs are interesting, and important to keep the record of history preserved. They take up physical space, but I personally don’t want to live in a tiny home anyway, so I keep physical records. (And, if other people feel differently, that’s fine.) Thanks for sharing these lovely pieces of history.

    Reply
  19. Debbie Perkins

    Hello! I realize the book is charming and there’s nothing like holding something in your hands but in case you can’t find a copy, you can view several of Queen Victoria’s sketchbooks online at The Royal Collection Trust website: https://www.rct.uk/ . Also, I personally love the section entitled “Queen Victoria as a Watercolourist”

    Reply
  20. Linda Yates

    My husband and I just watched Victoria the series and they show her sketching. Then I saw the book in your stack in your studio. I immediately got on Amazon and found one for about $7. I cannot wait to read it. I haven’t sketches in years but I enjoy seeing yours. I need to get off social media and draw and paint! Thanks for the motivation!

    Reply
  21. Bonnie Kilgore

    During Victorian time, painting and sketching were acceptable hobbies for ladies of the leisure class who led somewhat constricted lives. I wonder if it started with her?

    Reply
  22. Sandi Graham

    I just love Queen Victoria’s sketches. They are so sweet and remind me of some of Beatrice Potter’s drawings.

    Reply

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Marian Parsons - Miss Mustard Seed

I’m Marian, aka Miss Mustard Seed, a wife, mother, paint enthusiast, lover of all things home and an entrepreneur, author, artist, designer, freelance writer & photographer.  READ MORE to learn more about me, my blog and my business…

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