Queen Victoria shot by Roger Fenton, 1854.Photograph courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and Royal Collection Trust/ Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013.
Queen Victoria shot by Roger Fenton, 1854.Photograph courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and Royal Collection Trust/ Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013.

The dour image of the widowed Queen Victoria—portly, fussy, clothed all in black—is the one people know best. But the monarch’s life in pictures was, in fact, a predominantly happy one. The medium of photography was invented not long after the young queen took the throne in 1837, and she and her husband, Albert, embraced it eagerly, documenting their children, castles, and staff. Not only did the queen actively commission works on topics such as war and nature by photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron and Gustave Le Gray, but Albert also helped propel the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London’s Crystal Palace, which showcased the nation’s breakthrough technology, notably British cameras and photos. Together, the couple started the Royal Photograph Collection, which has amassed 450,000 images. Beginning February 4 (through June 8), the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles celebrates Her Majesty’s surprisingly cutting-edge avocation in “A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography.” Perhaps her chief contribution to the medium was her stardom—after all, snaps of her proliferated at a time when the sun never set on the British empire. The first monarch to have her life so thoroughly documented, Victoria was also one of the world’s first celebrities.