The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, an 1833 painting by Paul Delaroche, depicts Lady Jane Grey—"nominal queen of England for just nine days in 1553, as part of an unsuccessful bid to prevent the accession of the Catholic Mary Tudor,“ according to the BBC—just before the execution that closely followed the end of that nine-day reign. (Though "reign” suggests a greater legitimacy to her title than most would grant.)
There is something quite stagy about the setting; the heavy architecture in the background feels peculiarly close to the black-cloth-draped platform, which is itself quite shallow.
The attendants’ palpable anguish, the executioner’s quiet sympathy (the National Gallery calls him “impassive,” but the tilt of his head, the looseness of his grip on the axe, and the shift of his weight slightly towards her—as though he were moments from dropping his weapon and coming to her aid—look to me more like restrained sorrow), and Sir John Brydges’ gentle guidance all have the careful composition of stage blocking, as well.
Yet Lady Jane Grey’s meek hesitancy feels strangely plausible. Paired with her shiningly white undergarments—which, though devoid of sleeve supports and crinolines, could more easily pass for modern than the detailed historical dress of those surrounding her (or even than her own outer dress, now discarded in the arms of the woman behind her)—that plausibility passes into a sort of transcendent timelessness.
She is a grand historical figure, the nine-day queen, on a stage to suit—and yet she is also just a scared sixteen year old, moments from her untimely death.
“Today is my eighteenth birthday! How old! and yet how far am I from being what I should be. I shall from this day take the firm resolution to study with renewed assiduity, to keep my attention always well fixed on whatever I am about, and to strive to become every day less trifling and more fit for what, if Heaven wills it, I’m some day to be.”
An excerpt from Queen Victoria’s journal, May 1837
Born at Kensington Palace, London, on 24 May 1819, she became the longest reigning monarch in English history. In her reign she saw the advances in industry, science, communications (the telegraph, popular press) and other forms of technology; the building of railways and the London Underground, sewers, and power distribution networks; the construction of bridges and other engineering feats; a vast number of inventions; a greatly expanded empire; unequal growth of wealth, with class differences to the fore; tremendous poverty; increase in urban populations, with the growth of great cities like Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham; increased literacy; and great civic works, often funded by industrial philanthropists.
The Queen discussed her dress design with Lord Melbourne, who suggested patronage of struggling English manufacturers rather than the Parisian designers she had been using. The elegant, simple dress designed by the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Willion Dyce of the Government Design School and probably made by Mrs. Bettans, was made of very fine, pale cream silk woven with the Huguenot weavers, such as Samuel Courtauld, of Spitalfiends. The large collar and cuffs were made by lace makers from Honiton in Devon, who had been suffering because of the recent fashion for Brussels lace. Queen Victoria continued to patronize the Honiton lace industry throughout her life.
In a break with tradition, the Queen refused to wear any tiara or coronet, nor any gold or silver woven cloth. Instead, she wore a band of artificial orange blossoms in her hair and a train covered in the same flowers hung from her waist. This was, indeed, not a magisterial outfit, but a simple, well-designet, expensive wedding dress.
Deborah Jaffé - Victoria: Her Life, Her People, Her Empire