This blackened figure carved from a single piece of light wood represents the young Queen Victoria, or the ‘chieftain of the whites’. A handful of such images of Queen Victoria by 19th century Yoruba carvers are known in museums and private collections. They date to the end of the 19th century and were the product of one or a small group of Yoruba wood carvers. Stevenson & Stewart (2003, p. 94) suggest that there is one carver only whom they refer to as the ‘Master of Queen Victoria’.
The figure shows the Queen wearing a small diadem, with a long veil flowing down the back of her head. A long pearl necklace has been interpreted by the carver as a pair of straps attached to a choker necklace and to a corset thereby holding up the corset. The figure wears a flared, bell-shaped gown.
The figure is unusual for two reasons: it shows the young Victoria, and the figure has been carved with the breasts exposed. This is a departure from other known examples, some of which believed to be based on a photograph of Victoria taken in 1887 on the occasion of the Queen’s golden jubilee. Smith et al (2015, p. 188) suggests that the ample bosom given to such images accords with conventions for the representation of royal power in West Africa.
Quarcoopome (2009, p. 232) says that ‘while local Yoruba kings and queens or persons of influence may have purchased such works, most were intended for expatriate Europeans.’ But Smith et al (2015, p. 188) seem to disagree. The figures might have been intended to be satirical, emphasising the chieftains’ status as exotic outsiders, or the figures were intended to embody power and were given to local rulers so they might affirm their loyalty to the British Crown.
A related figure is illustrated in Menut (2010, p. 91). Another is in Stevenson & Stewart (2003, p. 94), another is in Quarcoopome (2009, p. 232), and another is in Smith et al (2015, p. 188).
Most surviving figures have some losses as does ours. Ours has insect damage to the lower rear, elements of the diadem are missing, and the hands are missing. Such losses befit the item’s age and are compensated for by its rarity.
Menut, N., L’Homme Blanc: Les Representations de L’Occidental dans les Arts non Europeens, Editions du Chene, 2010.
Quarcoopome, N. O., Through African Eyes: The European in African Art, 1500 to Present, Detroit Institute of Arts, 2009.
Smith, A., D. B. Brown & C. Jacobi (eds), Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, Tate Publishing, 2015.
Stevenson, M. & M. G. Stewart, The Mlungu in Africa: Art from the Colonial Period, 1840-1940, Michael Stevenson Contemporary, 2003.