Window Shopping with Queen Victoria

[Image via Sothebys]

If you didn’t already know, I’m quite the fan of dressing up as a Victorian widow and wandering around church halls with a projector and props in hand. When I do my talks on Victorian mourning practises and history, I’m happily wrapped in layers of old lace and jet in a nightmarish, if madly happy, cocoon. The world of Victorian mourning isn’t just an academic interest, but somewhat of an obsession; from jewellery to memorial cards and veils, having tangible pieces of the pomp and circumstance of grief fascinates me endlessly. My collections are like many others; much like Pokémon cards, your nan’s best china, ceramic poodles or football stickers, they’re groups of trinkets that make you happy through the cultivation of a weird little nest.

[Mourning Talks of Yesteryear]

Now, I love my jewellery as much as the next magpie-minded person, and have a happy little hoard of mourning items that I often creep towards and stare at throughout the day like an overdressed Gollum. However, for all my collecting and investments, nothing I could ever own would match up to the jewellery that Queen Victoria commissioned and wore in her lifetime of grief and mourning. I’m no stranger to auctions, but I was certainly unfamiliar with Sotheby’s catalogues, at least until this week.

Some of Queen Victoria’s mourning jewellery is going up for Auction on March 24th 2021 and if you can’t treat the catalogue as the ultimate window-shopping history lesson, then you’re missing a trick.

The items up for auction aren’t from Queen Elizabeth II’s cupboards, but formed part of the family collection of Patricia Edwina Victoria Mountbatten. She was the 2nd Countess Mountbatten of Burma, who was the great-great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. She was also great niece to Russia’s last Tsarina, first cousin to Prince Philip and the daughter of Britain’s last Viceroy of India. Of course, I could absolutely list my own royal family connections, but I don’t want to seem too crass. 

So what’s up for sale?

Banded Agate and Diamond Pendant, 1861

Subtle, classic, simplistic… locket? We’re listening. 

Death Factor: 8/10

Estimate: 1,000 – 1,500 GBP

Lower Estimate Translates To: A 2003 Citroen C3 with 76,000 miles on the clock (£990) and a Star Wars heat-sensitive lightsabre mug (£10).

This locket is a fancy little thing, set with banded agate (common in mourning) with a central cushion shaped diamond with star border. Inside, the locket opens to reveal a tiny portrait of the Duchess of Kent and a simple coiled piece of hair, tied with black string.

The back is engraved:

Dear Mama b. Aug 17, 1786

From Albert in remembrance of March 16, 1861

Du warst uns Freud und Glück

(You were our joy and happiness)

This jazzy little piece was commissioned by Prince Albert for his wife Queen Victoria on the death of her mother Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1786-1861). Victoria and her mother famously didn’t get along, and as soon as she became Queen, Victoria immediately moved her mother out into separate housing, so as to keep her as far away as possible. So, such sweet mourning pleasantries read nicely enough, but aren’t especially truthful.

Hardstone, Enamel and Diamond Pendant, Robert Phillips, circa 1878


Phwoar, now we’re talking. This is mourning indulgence turned up to 11. 

Death Factor: 10/10

Estimate: 2,000-3,000

Lower Estimate Translates To: A used 1977 Atari Video Computer system (£400), 6 year old cob pony (£1,500), antique mounted red deer antlers (£100).

This piece was probably commissioned by Victoria to commemorate the death of her daughter, Princess Alice. She was the first of the queen’s children to die, passing away from diphtheria aged only 35. 

The pendant is a sleek little cross with the arms applied with black (black = grief and mourning) and white (often representing youth or innocence) enamel. At the very ends, there are trefoil motifs with more banded agate and cushion set diamonds. The central heart is onyx set with ‘Alice’ and a coronet (essentially bigger than a tiara, but not a full crown) set with even more diamonds.

The back of the pendant has another heart shaped panel, behind which is a simple curl of hair (which is quite surprising, considering how many beautiful hairwork methods were readily used at the time) is sealed. The back inscription reads ‘Dear Alice 14th December 1878.’

This is so extravagant, if I had a few kidneys to sell, I’d be splurging on this as a real showpiece. From the different black materials (agate, enamel, onyx) to the tiny diamond crown, this is what you expect to see in a queen’s mourning wardrobe.

Banded Agate and Pearl Pendant, circa 1878

Classy on the front, crassy on the back.

Death Factor: 6/10

Estimate: 1,000 – 1,500 GBP

Lower Estimate Translates To: Singer Tradition 2273 Sewing Machine (£300) Whole fresh salmon (£25) KISS beer pong table (£275) Argos Home 6 Seater Wooden Corner Sofa Set (£400)

This pendant was commissioned by Victoria on the death of her daughter Alice, but also to memorialise the death of her granddaughter Marie, who died of diphtheria along with her mother that same year. (Keep it light!)

The design is rather simple with our old friend banded agate acting as the main section, set with a single collet-set pearl. Pearls, particularly tiny seed pearls, have been used in mourning jewellery for centuries as a visual shorthand for tears. Like the other pieces, there’s a panel at the back for the storage of hair. However, this lovely little glazed compartment hasn’t been sealed away from the elements. The condition report cites ‘residue’ within the compartment, which is both a hideously emotive word – residue– but accurate. Here be gunk.

The gold surround is engraved with the words, ‘16th Nov & 14th Dec 1878 From Grandmama VR.’

Pearls aside, I want to see the forbidden residue.

Onyx and Seed Pearl Button, circa 1879

Simple, effective, classy. Like me. Wait…

Death Factor: 7/10 

Estimate: 1,000 – 1,500 GBP

Lower Estimate Translates To: John Lewis Grey Velvet Pleat Curtains (£130) PureGym off-peak basic membership (£120) 50L Medical grade oxygen cylinder (£140) Murano Venetian 24 Carat Gold Glass Vase (£610)

Last on our mourning window shopping mission is a deceptively fancy button, also memorialising the death of Princess Alice. Deceptively simple, this little button is a punchy, beautiful and with timeless mourning design. To the front, we have an ‘A’ set with seed pearls (tears, remember) – being tiny pearls, less than 2mm in diameter – upon an onyx cabochon (being representative of the blackness of grief). The button opens to reveal a miniature portrait of the princess, with the back inscribed with the phrase ‘From Mama VRI 7th April 1879’

Unless we all decide to club together for a bit of onyx or commit to a Purge-style raid on banks, I doubt we’ll be seeing each other at Sotheby’s. However, if any of you have previous heist experience, drop me a message. I have an idea. 


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Images via Sotheby’s Catalogue:

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