Modelling childhood in the 19th century

Decorative Art and Sculpture
May 16, 2023

A young girl with blue eyes and light brown hair stands alone in a gilded frame. Wearing a pale pink embroidered nightdress and red slippers, she grips a pitcher of milk that is perilously close to spilling on the floral rug. She turns her head to the side with an expression – expectant, almost defiant – that is shared by the tabby cat cradled against her hip. Have these two conspired to sneak downstairs after bedtime and share a night-time treat?

Caroline Gordon at the Age of Three, wax relief, by Jacob Hagbolt, 1829, England.
Museum no. A.21-1939. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The sitter in this incredibly charming and lifelike wax portrait is Caroline Gordon (1826 – 1891), who was the eldest daughter of Sir Robert Gordon, 16th Laird of Abergeldie Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Originally acquired by the Gordon clan in 1482, Abergeldie Castle served as the family home until 1848, when Caroline’s uncle leased it to Prince Albert (husband of Queen Victoria), who desired the estate for its proximity to the new royal residence of Balmoral.

Abergeldie Castle, south view, Highland residence of H.R.H Duchess of Kent, photograph by G.W. Wilson, about 1859. Museum no. E.1263-1992. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Caroline’s portrait was sculpted by the German wax modeller Jacob Hermann Hagbolt (1775 – 1849) during his extended residence in England.  Hagbolt trained under the celebrated German artist Caspar Bernhard Hardy (1726 – 1819), who was renowned for his large-scale wax busts of noteworthy figures like Napoleon III and the German poet Johann Wolfgang van Goethe. Hardy excelled at modelling everyday figures with naturalistic poses and sentimental expressions, as can be seen in his depictions of The Mother and Child and The Poor Man Prays.

The Mother and Child, wax relief, by Caspar Bernhard Hardy, late 18th century, Germany. Museum no. A.1-1993. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Poor Man Prays, wax relief, by Caspar Bernhard Hardy, late 18th century, Germany. Museum no. A.2-1993. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Hagbolt clearly inherited Hardy’s taste for vivid character studies, as can be seen in his depiction of Caroline Gordon. Staring off into the distance, she appears independent while her youthful dress and petite stature convey her inherent vulnerability. At the age of three, Caroline is already a caretaker (for her cat) and capable of independent action (holding the milk pitcher). Moreover, Hagbolt’s sophisticated modelling techniques and use of pigmented wax make Caroline appear truly lifelike. A closer look reveals that Hagbolt went so far as to use individual strands of human hair for Caroline’s eyelashes. Taking a wider view, Hagbolt’s portrait of Caroline illustrates certain aspects of the complex notion of ‘childhood’ that was taking shape in a rapidly industrialising and urbanising nation. The wellbeing of children became the focus of a series of reforms aimed at establishing and protecting children’s rights at work, school and in the home, which were passed into law at around the time Caroline’s portrait was completed.

Caroline Gordon at the Age of Three (detail)

Hagbolt likely produced Caroline’s portrait at his studio in London (43 Berwick Street), and his signature appears at the bottom right corner along with the date ‘1829’. The gilded frame is possibly a later addition, as the back bears the trademark stamp of the British retail company William Whiteley Limited, which was only founded in 1863. While in London, Hagbolt also produced several wax medallion portraits of adult men and women, a few of which he exhibited at the Royal Academy. By the time Hagbolt completed his portrait of Caroline Gordon, he was already regarded as a talented and sought-after sculptor in both wax and marble. His marble bust of the English geographer, historian and oceanographer James Rennell is still on display in Westminster Abbey. Although other examples of child portraits produced by Hagbolt can be found in Amsterdam (where he set up a workshop in 1809), it has so far proven difficult to uncover similar works from his time in London, making Caroline’s portrait even more captivating.

An Unknown Man, wax relief, by Jacob Hagbolt, 1826 – 33, England. Museum no. A.28-1970. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Unknown Lady, wax relief, by Jacob Hagbolt, 19th century, England. Museum no. A.95-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Caroline’s portrait remained with the Gordon family until 1939, when it was donated to the V&A by the sitter’s granddaughter, Miss G Gordon St Aubyn. In addition to her portrait, Caroline’s childhood at Abergeldie can be glimpsed through another V&A object: Caroline Cottage. This doll’s house was made for Caroline’s sixth birthday, possibly by the estate carpenter. The house may appear surprisingly plain for the daughter of a nobleman, but it is precisely the lack of decoration which made it better suited for animated child’s play, as opposed to more ornate doll’s houses, which were designed solely for collection and display. With roughly one-third of the population under the age of 15 in 19th-century Britain, children formed a vital part of society, which is reflected in the tremendous expansion of children’s books, games and toys observed during this period. Objects like Caroline’s Cottage showcase how, over the course of the 19th century, childhood became viewed as an experience that should be both protected and enjoyed. After Caroline grew up, her doll’s house was subsequently enjoyed by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s children during their frequent visits to Abergeldie between 1848 and 1855 while work was completed on the newly expanded Balmoral Castle.  

Caroline Cottage, doll’s house, by unknown maker, 1831, Scotland. Museum no. MISC.216-1923. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Together, Caroline’s portrait and doll’s house not only provide a compelling image of her youth at Abergeldie but also illustrate the new ways of thinking that helped shape how childhood was regarded in the 19th century.


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