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

1 portrait on display in Room 23 at the National Portrait Gallery

'The Secret of England's Greatness' (Queen Victoria presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor), by Thomas Jones Barker, circa 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 1863
66 in. x 84 1/8 in. (1676 mm x 2138 mm)
Purchased, 1974
Primary Collection
NPG 4969


Some Victorian paintings were widely exhibite…

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Artistback to top

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

This portraitback to top

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 Whilst these may differ from today's attitudes, this image is an important historical document.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 1863back to top

Current affairs

The opening of the world's first underground railway, with the Metropolitan Railway running trains between Bishop's Street, Padington and Farringdon. Work had begun in 1860, using the 'cut-and-cover' method of construction. The Metropolitan line inspired the construction of other underground railways - the Parisian 'Metro' took its name from the line.
The Football Association is founded.

Art and science

Julia Margaret Cameron takes up photography, taking portraits of some of the most celebrated figures of the day, with her romantic style capturing the sense of nostalgia and longing that characterised the age.
Kingsley's Water Babies; A Fairy Tale for Children is published, the hugely popular tale of drowned chimney sweep Tom's moral education in the river world of the water babies. It inspired the 1978 film starring James Mason.


At an international conference, the Geneva Public Welfare Society calls on the sixteen nations present to form voluntary units to help the wartime wounded. The society, comprised of five Swiss citizens and led by Henri Dunant, who had been deeply affected by the casualties he had witnessed at the Battle of Solferino, became the National Red Cross Societies, adopting the emblem of a red cross on white background.

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