Exhibit of the Week: Royal couple mingle with the great and good of town

The magnificent scene painted in the 1870s is entirely fictional.
The magnificent scene painted in the 1870s is entirely fictional.

It’s a magnificent scene and one which is still broadly recognisable today, nearly 150 years after it was painted.

The castle, the spectacular sweep of the South Bay, and the familiar V-shaped Grand Hotel are largely unchanged. The Spa hasn’t altered too much either, although sadly it no longer boasts picturesque bandstands and elaborately curlicued lampposts.

But for all its geographical veracity, this Scarborough scene, painted in the early 1870s, is entirely fictional. See that dapper gentleman in a Homburg hat leaning against the lamppost in the foreground on the left of the picture, an elegant lady in a dove grey dress on his arm?

That’s Albert Edward, eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, at this point in his life the Prince of Wales, but 30 years later King Edward VII. The lady is Princess, later Queen, Alexandra.

But the couple never promenaded so publicly at the Spa, mingling with the great and the good of Scarborough as depicted here.

This painting, by Thomas Jones Barker, was the product of an extremely smart bit of entrepreneurship by local photographer Oliver Sarony.

Sarony, who had lavish studios on South Cliff next to St Martin’s Church, was a go-getting businessman – regular readers of this column may recall that a few weeks ago we featured another Barker portrait of the Prince based on a ‘carte de visite’ card of Sarony’s, taken on one of several visits by the Prince to the Earl of Londesborough’s summer home, Londesborough Lodge, on the The Crescent.

But this enterprise was on an altogether grander scale. In 1870, Sarony advertised that he was putting on display at his studio a portrait of the Prince at a shooting party by the now largely forgotten Victorian artist William Keighley Briggs.

His notice in the local press included the statement that ‘Mr Sarony will himself attend daily at the Photo Gallery from 10am to 4pm and post all who may honour him with sittings’.

It didn’t take long for the jungle drums to let the wealthier sections of Scarborough society know that this was code for the fact that these images would be passed to Barker for inclusion in a grand royal portrait – for, of course, a fee.

And that fee increased the closer to the royal couple one stood – it’s believed that those in the group immediately around them may have paid at least 100 guineas, the equivalent today of just over £11,000. Quite the moneyspinner for Sarony.

He knew how to maintain the public’s interest, too – an early version of the painting appeared at his gallery in 1874 and it was still possible to buy your way into the picture at that point.

The Scarborough Gazette reported that “those who would like their portraits introduced into the subject should lose no time in giving their orders as we understand the positions in the picture are rapidly being appropriated.”

The same newspaper, again openly, if rather obtusely, acknowledges the fictitious nature of the picture when the final version was realised: “Of course, the composition both as to choice of subjects and the grouping is arbitrary and herein lies at once very much indeed of the artistic character of the work and its particular occasion such an assemblage of notables as were perhaps never under other circumstances so happily brought together.” Pick your way through that one…

The final painting is enormous – it measures around 11 ft wide by 6.5 ft deep – and currently hangs on public display in the Town Hall on St Nicholas Street. What it lacks in artistic merit, it perhaps makes up for in social history – a key alongside it in the town hall names many of those who were willing to stump up substantial sums of money for the privilege of appearing to move in the same circles as the royals.

The painting is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust.

For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.