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

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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 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery


Some Victorian paintings were widely exhibite…

Sittersback to top

Artistback to top

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

This portraitback to top

This is a historical 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 Whilst these may differ from today's attitudes, this image is an important historical document.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 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. His attire 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. In 1849 Queen Victoria sent the ruler of Abeokuta (the Yoruba region of Nigeria) 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 different 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.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 74
  • Victorian Portraits Resource Pack, p. 16
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Cannadine, Sir David (Introduction); Cooper, Tarnya; Stewart, Louise; MacGibbon, Rab; Cox, Paul; Peltz, Lucy; Moorhouse, Paul; Broadley, Rosie; Jascot-Gill, Sabina, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, 2018 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA, 7 October 2018 -3 February 2019. Bendigo Art Gallery, Australia, 16 March - 14 July 2019.), p. 181 Read entry

    In this imagined scene, Queen Victoria, attended by Prince Albert, who had died in 1861, and government ministers, is depicted presenting a Bible to an East African envoy, probably based on Ali bin Nasr, Governor of Mombasa, who attended Victoria's coronation in 1838 and returned again in 1842. From 1863, the painting was sent on a tour of Britain to promote the mezzotint reproduction.

  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 39 Read entry

    Other identifiable figures are: Prince Albert in red; on the right, the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, and the shorter Lord John Russell, the Foreign Secretary.

  • Funnell, Peter, Victorian Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 16
  • Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 53 Read entry

    This group epitomises the Victorian concept of the British Empire, which was seen as conferring the benefits of European civilisation, and Christianity in particular, on the peoples over whom it ruled. Prince Albert (1819-61) stands to the left of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), while on the left in the background is the Duchess of Wellington and on the right are the statesmen Lord Palmerston (1784-1865) and Lord John Russell (1792-1878). In the foreground Victoria presents a Bible to an African envoy. Although the portraits of the British sitters are accurate, as is the setting of the audience chamber at Windsor, including Benjamin West’s large painting of The Institution of the Order of the Garter, carefully indicated in the background, no actual occasion for the picture’s subject has been identified. It was engraved under the title The Bible: The Secret of England’s Greatness in 1864, indicating that it was conceived to convey the key role of Christian belief in the Empire.

  • Ribeiro, Aileen, The Gallery of Fashion, 2000, p. 178
  • Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 179
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 722
  • Simon, Jacob, The Art of the Picture Frame: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain, 1997 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November 1996 - 9 February 1997), p. 71, 172 Read entry

    Gilt compo on pine, mitred with corner blocks, much of the surface covered in bronze paint. 9 1⁄ 2 inches wide. With the label: CRISWICK & DOLMAN,/Glass & Picture Frame Manufacturers,/AND/DECORATORS,/6, New Compton Street, Soho./THE TRADE SUPPLIED IN EVERY DEPARTMENT./PICTURES REMOVED, PACKED, CLEANED, RESTORED AND WAREHOUSED./Established 1818.

    This scene of Queen Victoria presenting a Bible to a man wearing African dress was framed by Criswick & Dolman, who entered into partnership in 1862. The picture was exhibited to acclaim in Belfast in 1864, presumably as part of a wider tour, and engraved the same year as The Bible: The Secret of England's Greatness.

    The broad sloping cushion of the frame, with a diaper pattern of gothic quatrefoils, contrasts with the inner frieze of intricate foliage and acorns, the former device a mid-nineteenth century style pioneered by J. R. Herbert, Pugin's protégé, for his medieval and biblical subjects, the latter Regency in origin, and exemplified in Thomas Lawrence's frames of the period.

  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 148 Read entry

    This is an imagined scene, with real historical figures. Queen Victoria (1819–1901) is shown at Windsor Castle receiving an ambassador from East Africa, to whom she is presenting a fine copy of the Bible. She is attended by Prince Albert (1819–61) and two politicians, Lord John Russell (1792–1878) and Lord Palmerston (1784–1865), respectively Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister. The painting, by Thomas Jones Barker (1815–82), is based upon a popular, but unfounded, anecdote current in the 1850s. This stated that Queen Victoria, when asked by a foreign delegation how Britain had become so powerful in the world, replied that it was not because of its military or economic might. Handing him a copy of the Bible, she said, ‘Tell the Prince that this is the Secret of England’s Greatness’. The painting therefore evokes the evangelical underpinnings of the British Empire rather than showing an actual event. But recent research has suggested that the envoy depicted 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, the envoy’s costume is based on that of the Omani rulers of East Africa. Paintings such as this toured widely in Victorian Britain in order to promote sales of the engraving made from it.

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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.


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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19 February 2021, 09:37

Hi there
the throne to the may be a representation of the Throne of Travancore, which was presented to Queen Victoria at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and is now part of the royal collection.
Steve Wiltshire

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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