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'The Secret of England's Greatness' (Queen Victoria presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor)

'The Secret of England's Greatness' (Queen Victoria presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor), by Thomas Jones Barker, circa 1862-1863 - NPG 4969 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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'The Secret of England's Greatness' (Queen Victoria presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor)

by Thomas Jones Barker
oil on canvas, circa 1862-1863
66 in. x 84 1/8 in. (1676 mm x 2138 mm)
Purchased, 1974
Primary Collection
NPG 4969

On display in Room 23 at the National Portrait Gallery

Images

Some Victorian paintings were widely exhibite…

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  • Thomas Jones Barker (1815-1882), Painter of portraits and military subjects. Artist associated with 6 portraits, Sitter in 1 portrait.

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This is a historic work of art which reflects the attitudes and viewpoints of the time in which it was made. Whilst these may differ from today's attitudes, this image is an important historical document. This image is currently being researched, further information about this image will be updated below.

This is an imagined scene, with real historical figures. Queen Victoria is shown at Windsor Castle receiving an ambassador from East Africa, to whom she is presenting a fine Bible. An open Bible, with a painted quotation, is carved onto the frame.

The scene depicted is based on a popular but unfounded anecdote current in the 1850s. This stated that, when asked by a diplomatic delegation how Britain had become powerful in the world, 'our beloved Queen sent him, not the number of her fleet, not the number of her armies, not the account of her boundless merchandise, not the details of her inexhaustible wealth … but handing him a beautifully bound copy of the Bible, she said 'Tell the Prince that this is the Secret of England's Greatness'.

In his desire to blend patriotism and piety, the artist drew on various historical events. The African envoy is probably based on Ali bin Nasr, governor of Mombasa, who attended Victoria's coronation in 1838 and returned again in 1842, together with his young interpreter Mohammed bin Khamis. Although not a portrait, his costume is that of the Omani rulers of east Africa. Both the British government and the Queen frequently invoked Christian faith in respect of foreign affairs. To the ruler of Abeokuta - the Yoruba region of Nigeria - in 1849, Victoria sent copies of the Bible in English and Arabic 'to show how much she values God's word'.

To add a contemporary aspect, the artist set his scene in 1861, as the Queen's spreading crinoline shows. She is attended by Prince Albert and two politicians - Lord John Russell and Lord Palmerston, respectively Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister.
Probably intended for exhibition in 1862, the painting could not be shown then owing to Prince Albert's untimely death in December 1861. It was first exhibited in 1863 before embarking on a national tour designed to sell the mezzotint reproduction, entitled simply 'The Bible'.
The popular anecdote was also illustrated by an as-yet unidentified artist in a coloured print that shows the African ambassador meeting Victoria amid a group of courtiers and ladies-in-waiting. Prince Albert is not present and the envoy stands to receive his diplomatic gift.

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Events of 1862back to top

Current affairs

The Lancashire cotton famine, a depression in the north-west textile industry brought about by the American civil war, reaches its climax. With large numbers of mills closing after Confederate blockades halted cotton supplies, many Lancashire families were in receipt of relief.

Art and science

Louis Pasteur and Claude Bernard carry out the first pasteurisation tests, the process of heating liquids at 55 degree Celsius or higher for short periods of time, destroying viruses and harmful organisms such as bacteria and yeast. .
Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables is published, covering the Napoleonic wars. It traces the ex-convict Jean Valjean's character against wider questions of social and political justice, duty and love.

International

Otto Eduard Leopold Bismarck becomes Minister-President of Prussia, appointed by Wilhelm I after the liberal Diet refused to authorise funding for a proposed reorganisation of the army. Bismarck, intent on maintaining royal supremacy, engineers the Unification of Germany during his time in office.
John Hanning Speke claims to have found the source of the Nile, proving that the Victoria Nile issued from the north end of lake Victoria, over Ripon Falls.

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Prof Prem raj Pushpakaran

10 February 2019, 04:30

Prof Prem raj Pushpakaran writes -- 2019 marks the 200th birth year of Victoria!!!

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