A Royal Photographer

I have mentioned before that the Swedish Queen Viktoria, wife of King Gustaf V, was a keen photographer. Fairly recently, Kungliga Husgerådskammaren (= the royal household chamber) published this book, "Resan till Egypten. Drottning Victorias fotografiska liv" (= the trip to Egypt. Queen Victoria´s photographic life), by Göran Alm and Björn Axel Johansson, about Viktoria as a photographer, focusing on her journeys to Egypt in 1890-91. And here I become very confused about the spelling of Vi(c?k?)toria´s name.

Spelling conventions have changed over the years. I´m pretty sure I have always seen Queen Viktoria spelled with a k, and the Swedish Wikipedia article has the k-spelling in brackets. The English article does not. According to the Swedish news agency, Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå, older Swedish royals are now spelled according to Swedish customs, up until Oscar I, when they are adressed the way they spell(ed) their names themselves. From this, I gather that Viktoria herself used the c, even though the German spelling is with a k (and she was German, so who would have thought?). So that´s what I will use from now on. (Check out the way Icelanders adress Prince Charles...)

Victoria´s studio
Victoria was born 1862 in Baden, married the Swedish Crown Prince Gustaf in 1881, and had three sons by the time she went to Egypt. They were, of course, Gustav, Wilhelm, and little Erik, who died young of the Spanish flu. She was very artistically talented and had her own studio at the royal palace. Photography was brand new technology - at the time of Victoria´s wedding, it was not possible to publish photographs in newspapers, and the illustration from the wedding was actually a wood cutting!

At 25, she became seriously interested in photography and always used the best, most modern equipment. To help her, there were the court photographers, but she also frequently visited photoshops in Stockholm, Vienna, Paris, Berlin, and Karlsruhe.

She brought two travel cameras with her, and this is the smaller one. I imagined that most photography in those days were done with large wooden cameras on sturdy tripods, with the photographer hunched under a black sheet, forcing the poor folk in front of it to stand absolutely still for minutes at a time. But look at this: she was into street photography! She liked to take snaps during transport and while walking.

She would have had a lot of help, of course, and it´s unlikely that she did much work in the darkroom. The Crown Prince couple travelled with a party of courtiers and friends, and the Khedive of Egypt (kind of like a viceroy in the Ottoman Empire) was a generous host. They stayed in Egypt most of the winter due to her bad health (she had lung problems) and then came to Capri in Italy, where she met and consulted dr Axel Munthe for the first time. They then returned to Sweden, where she fell ill again, and late in 1891 she returned to Egypt without her husband.

Gustaf, Victoria, and Blixen-Finecke on the Nile.
According to the Wikipedia article on Victoria it was during the first trip to Egypt that the marriage broke down in a way that never healed. There were rumours in Stockholm that she had had an affair with the Crown Prince´s adjutant Gustaf von Blixen-Finecke, but that sounds like malicious gossip to me and pretty hard to pull off. I don´t actually know what the book says about it, as I only could leaf through it very quickly due to my own lung problems (this book was poison for my air pipes!), but I´d be surprised if a book published by the Swedish court adresses that particular issue.

The party had masses of luggage, particularly clothes, as it was very important for people of their status to be properly dressed at every occasion. They never, however, tried to dress in a way that blended in culturally or was suited to the climate. Look at her waist in that tight black dress (she was in mourning clothes after a relative had died) - no wonder she had difficulty breathing!

She continued to photograph during her travels, which were extensive, and exhibited until 1906, but stopped due to eye problems. In 1907 she became Queen of Sweden. She kept taking snaps of the family, though, but these are private and have not been published.

When she returned to Egypt in November 1891, without Gustaf, she didn´t do much photography. Instead, she focused on doing watercolours, and look how talented she was! When she came home, she coloured some of her photos, as they did in those days, like the one below with the beduin on a camel in front of the pyramids, which was much published.

Before she died, Victoria arranged to have much of her private archive destroyed, like all the letters she and her husband had written to each other and all her glass plates, including those from Egypt. The janitor at Tullgarn (one of the summer palaces) dumped most of her photographic legacy in the sea, and when there was talk of salvaging them a few decades later, the one person who knew where they were refused to help, respecting her wishes.

She seems to have had a rather miserable life, poor Victoria, longing for divorce and freedom and love. Only a few letters remain, and it´s clear from them that she and Gustaf were estranged for most of their marriage, and that her closest friend (and perhaps lover) was dr Axel Munthe. However, Munthe did marry an English lady in 1907, and the First World War caused a rift between him and Victoria as he sided passionately with the English, serving as a field surgeon at the French front. He wrote a book about it (which you can still buy) after the war that was a fierce attack on the Germans (it was published anonymously at the time to save Victoria from embarassment). Munthe was a prolific writer and many of his books are still in print, both in Swedish, English, and other languages. You can even get them on Kindle. I have read "The Story of San Michele", but it was a while ago.

I want to like her, but I think - from what I have read about her before - that she wasn´t always that easy to get along with. Being unhappy probably didn´t help. But I think she looks pretty happy in the photos with her husband and her children before that journey to Egypt. Whatever happened there - and no one is likely to find out what it was - ruined her life and her happiness.

All photos are snapped from "Resan till Egypten. Drottning Victorias fotografiska liv". It´s a grand volume, with much more lovely photos in it, and much to read as well, if you are curious and read Swedish.


  1. a sad story.

    my favorite of these photos is the one of the 2 women carrying jars on their heads.

    1. I like the one where she stands in mourning dress in front of the pyramid, with a man holding an umbrella over her - though it was obviously not taken by her. It´s both sad and absurd at the same time.

    2. yes, sad and absurd. i know money and power can't make you happy, but i'd like to give it a try. i think i could do better than this ;)