There are many paintings that represent the British Empire, but The Secret of England’s Greatness (1863) by Thomas Jones Barker is one of the most powerful. It depicts Queen Victoria presenting a bible to a kneeling African chief in the Audience Chamber at Windsor. In the background are her husband, Albert, and members of the government. The painting was reproduced in engravings and was very popular at the time. Despite the frequent depiction of empire as a masculine world, the queen was the symbolic figurehead of the British Empire, especially after she was crowned Empress of India in 1876. As you look at the painting, try to imagine what it might suggest to someone living in Victorian Britain about the British Empire. Do you think it possible for a Victorian to imagine switching the position of the two central figures—in other words, Queen Victoria kneeling to an African chief?

Source: Barker, Thomas Jones. The Secret of England's Greatness. 1863.

painting: the Secret of England's Greatness