‘Astonishing’ video footage of smiling ‘famine queen’ Victoria’s Dublin visit found

Film archivists are amazed at the quality of film showing Victoria’s 1900 visit

In 1939, the Museum of Modern Art acquired thirty-six reels of nitrate prints and negatives made in cinema’s first years. They have recently been restored, and includes rare footage of Queen Victoria's last visit in Ireland in 1900. Credit: MOMA

 

Rediscovered footage of Queen Victoria’s last visit to Ireland in 1900 has been described as of “astonishing” clarity .

The minute and a half worth of film was found in an archive held by the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) earlier this year.

News reel footage of the time, shown on projectors in cinemas only, began in 1895 and Queen Victoria, then the most famous person in the world, was also the most filmed.

It shows a young girl presenting a bouquet of flowers to Britain’s queen. The young girl was Victoria Arnott, named after the monarch, and who was the daughter of then owner and managing director of The Irish Times Sir John Arnott.

It dates from April 7th, 1900 during the “children’s day” celebrations in the Phoenix Park where 52,000 Irish schoolchildren, according to The Irish Times, turned up to greet the queen.

There is extant footage of Victoria’s visit to Ireland, her last before her death in January 1901 at the age of 81, but it is from much further back and of lower quality.

The latest footage was found by Bryony Dixon, the curator of the British Film Institute’s collection of silent film.

MoMA’s ‘How to See’ Video

She went to New York to review the footage that the company had with a view to including it in a curated film season at BFI Southbank to mark the bicentenary of Victoria’s birth.

She says it was shot on a 68mms camera of a type used by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company which was the high definition of its time and it is so good that it can still be shown on an IMAX screen.

“It hit me like a hammer blow when I saw it. It was astonishing and an incredibly good piece of film. The fact that we can see her face is extraordinary. The quality is fantastic even for now,” she said.

Ms Dixon said it was also significant in that it showed Queen Victoria up front, smiling and wear sunglasses - she was notoriously difficult to film as she always carried a parasol around with her.

The film gives an interesting insight into the Ireland at the time. Though derided by nationalists as the “famine queen”, there were plenty of people in Ireland who saw themselves as royalists particularly in Dublin. As Todd Andrews, who was born in 1901, wrote of the city at the time of his birth: “Dublin was a British city and saw itself as one”.

This was true too of The Irish Times which was a unionist and Protestant paper in the years before Irish independance, reflecting the politics of the Arnott family which bought the paper in 1873 and retained majority control of it until 1954.

The paper’s coverage of the children’s day was suitably unctious: “It is quite probably that her greeting by the children of Ireland in the Phoenix Park last Saturday gave much more pleasure to the venerable lady whom the majestic laureate of the Victorian era has crystalised for all time as the ideal mother, wife and queen.

“Her review of the children of the Emerald Isle, the rising generation of Irishmen and Irishwomen - was a spectacle which has no counterpart in this generation.”

Victoria Arnott’s grandson Michael Johnson said he had heard the footage existed but was surprised at the quality of the imagery.

Victoria Arnott married one of the French family from Frenchpark, Co Roscommon and went by the rather grand title of Baroness de Freyne of Coolavin.

Mr Johnson said: “She was very much a person of her era. She was the most terrific snob. She used to refer to people as being “in trade” though she came from trade herself.

“My grandmother never talked about this! There’s a touch of irony here as my grandmother presented the flowers and not her identical twin, Mary. My theory being that was because Mary had a deformed hand which in those days was kept out of sight, but bear in mind that Queen Victoria’s grandson (Kaiser Bill) also had a withered hand.

More videos are available to watch on the BFI Player Victorian Film collection website.