‘Moving Pictures’ Show is Like Proto-Instagram for the British Monarchy

A new show at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum shows how English royalty used early photography to steer public perception and have fun with corgis.

Queen Victoria: high-minded stickler, ruler of the empire, the most British of bulldogs pre-Churchill… and pioneer of social media?

According to the new Moving Images show at Villa Terrace, the bulldog who took the throne at age 18 seized upon her later marriage to offer herself up as a domestic example for the country, something for them to pattern themselves after and forge a strong national identity to avoid such unpleasantness as the French Revolution or a more gradual withering of royal power.

Men worked out of the home, but women were now the queens of their own domestic domains. That was the idea, and she modeled it through some rather understated photographs. People had grown suspicious of rulers, but what about celebrities?

Victoria was the beginning of a campaign to keep the royal family at the center of the British psyche, one still happening today with the assistance of all kinds of media.

A postcard depicting Queen Victoria

The Villa Terrace exhibition of photographs, at first glance, seems like a bunch of old, stiff, dead people, but then cracks emerge. These were the Instagrams of their day, after all.

Victoria, for all her symbolic power, intentionally looks like a tired but dutiful grandmother in many of her photo appearances, though she remained queen until her death in 1901. Queen Mary rides a small rail car pushed by workers. Skilled “royal” photographers printed the images on cards, and royals handed them out to loyal subjects to take home and make a little shrine out of. Later, they were sold around the country.

If you’re interested in this show, you’re probably interested in the current queen, Elizabeth II, who has sat on the throne since 1952 and in pictures long before that. With her generation, the photos loosen up and become more playful and candid, always reaching for the heart of England.

The future queen and her sister, Princess Margaret (who died in 2002), look almost like Disney princesses, running around the palace and getting into trouble. One later photo of her from 1952 bearing a white fur, the royal crown and a fan looks like something out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. Could someone be both a royal and a beauty queen, the photo seems to be asking, while answering yes. (At this point, we’re only a few years from the birth of Diana, later princess of Wales.)

Queen Elizabeth in 1952

Perhaps most enjoyable are the pre-Coronation photos that include lots of corgis. As most everyone knows, the queen is a fan of these short-legged dogs, and there are at least six in the show, including a presumptive corgi standing behind the two princesses. The leading one is “Dookie,” who earned a portrait with the 12-year-old future queen and is clearly a good boy.

Princess Elizabeth (later queen) and Dookie in 1938

The above sort of non-monarchical discussion speaks to the on-demand realism that photography ushered in and how it can bring kings and queens into your home. Once they’re there, your relationship to them becomes personal and yet distant, like someone you had visited a long time ago.

Say you really had visited the palace for tea. You wouldn’t have gossiped later about the irrelevance of a constitutional monarch in the mid-20th century; you’d have talked about the sheer number of mischievous little corgis.

Go See It: Moving Images at the Villa Terrace runs through June 2, and admission is $10. A family tree is included with the program.



Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.