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Princess Louise (1848–1939), by unknown photographerPrincess Louise (1848–1939), by unknown photographer
Louise, Princess, duchess of Argyll (1848–1939), was born Louise Caroline Alberta at Buckingham Palace, London, on 18 March 1848, the sixth of nine children. Although she was the queen's most beautiful daughter, Louise suffered from occupying a middle position in a large family. Queen Victoria underrated Louise's intelligence and her artistic talents were only belatedly recognized. After being taught modelling by Mary Thornycroft, the princess enrolled at the National Art Training School, Kensington, in 1868 but her duties as the queen's social secretary prevented regular attendance. Much of her subsequent artistic progress came through her association with the portrait sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm.

Princess Louise's reaction against Queen Victoria's morbid widowhood took the form of moodiness, alternating with sporadic artistic and political enthusiasm. Alone of royalty she supported the women's movement, writing to Josephine Butler to praise her International Women's Review and privately visiting the woman doctor, Elizabeth Garrett. Her position within the royal family meant that such activities were severely circumscribed. However, Louise served as foundation president of the Women's Educational Union in 1871 and the following year she helped launch the . Her support for non-denominational education as a means of advancing women's individuality as well as lessening class distinctions contrasted with the court's conservatism.

Queen Victoria reacted with some annoyance and alarm towards her daughter's feminism and liberalism. When these sympathies were coupled with rumours of romantic liaisons, she resolved upon an appropriate marriage for her daughter. Princess Louise married , on 21 March 1871. The queen claimed that the marriage was ‘the most popular act of my reign’ (Fulford, 305) and the press generally hailed it for striking a ‘democratic’ note, Louise being the first daughter of a sovereign since 1515 to marry a commoner. Although the marriage was initially happy, the couple's childlessness, the constraints on their activities imposed by the queen, and Lorne's failure to fulfil his early promise all affected Louise. Of Lorne's alleged, unprovable homosexuality, Elizabeth Longford concludes that he was ‘indeed mildly ambivalent’ (54).

From 1878 to 1883 Princess Louise was Lorne's consort as governor-general of Canada but after sustaining injuries in a sleigh accident in February 1880 she spent protracted spells in Britain. Homesickness, marital tensions, and her dislike of Ottawa society explained the situation, which resulted in her loss of popularity in Canada. Her main, enduring contribution to Canadian culture was her support for the foundation of the Royal Canadian Academy in 1880. Her decorative paintings at Rideau Hall, Ottawa, have affinities with the aesthetic movement and her portrait of Henrietta Montalba (1880; National Gallery of Canada, Montreal) is a convincing essay in realism.

The later 1870s and 1880s witnessed the princess's extensive involvement with the art world. She exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Society of Painters in Watercolour, and the Grosvenor Gallery. Her avant-garde tastes were evident in her admiration of James Whistler and her commission of Edward Godwin to design her studio at Kensington Palace. Louise's presence in Boehm's studio at the time of his sudden death in December 1890 provoked press gossip and subsequent, unsubstantiated speculation upon their possible sexual relationship. Boehm and Alfred Gilbert had assisted Louise with her best-known sculpture, the seated marble statue of Queen Victoria (1890–93; Kensington Gardens, London), a conscientious if vapid work. Another portrait statue of Queen Victoria is at McGill University, Montreal (1890). More innovative are two near-identical memorials reflecting Louise's admiration of Gilbert: Prince Henry of Battenberg (1897; Whippingham church, Isle of Wight) and the South African War ‘colonial soldiers’ memorial (1904; St Paul's Cathedral, London).

Politically, Princess Louise was similarly progressive: she disagreed with Lorne's opposition to Irish home rule; she supported the creation of life peers; she advocated conciliation in India; and she urged Queen Victoria to co-operate with the Liberal ministry of 1892–5. In later years, however, she apparently shared the reactionary opinions of her brother . By the 1890s, her relations with Queen Victoria had improved, although Louise's beauty, flirtatiousness, unconventionality, and wit aroused sisterly jealousy and court gossip. Her marriage survived thanks to long periods of separation; however, Argyll's deteriorating health from 1911 brought them closer together. His death in May 1914 led to Louise's nervous breakdown and ‘terrible’ loneliness. The outbreak of the First World War provided an outlet for her grief and the opportunity to perform ‘good works’.

Among Princess Louise's presidencies were the Soldiers' and Sailors' Family Association, the Ladies' Work Society, and the National Trust. Never a figurehead, she was appointed DBE in 1918 for her war work, which included visits to hospitals, canteens, and servicemen's clubs. She housed wounded officers at Kensington Palace and at her Scottish residence, Rosneath Castle. The president of twenty-five hospitals, Louise's closest links were with the Princess Louise Hospital for Children, Kensington, founded in 1924. After taking an energetic interest in its building, the elderly princess often paid unscheduled visits to patients and staff. Such activities typified her resolve to be considered a private individual, detached from the stereotypical role of a member of the court, yet never compromising her dignity or style. Princess Louise, duchess of Argyll, died on 3 December 1939 at Kensington Palace, London. Her obituary in The Times considered her ‘the least bound by convention and etiquette of any of the Royal Family’.

Mark Stocker

Sources  

J. Wake, Princess Louise: Queen Victoria's unconventional daughter (1988) · D. Duff, The life story of H. R. H. Princess Louise, duchess of Argyll (1940); repr. (1971) · S. Gwyn, The private capital: ambition and love in the age of Macdonald and Laurier (1984) · J. Roberts, Royal artists: from Mary queen of Scots to the present day (1987) · R. M. Stamp, Royal rebels: Princess Louise & the Marquis of Lorne (1988) · E. Longford, ed., Darling Loosy: letters to Princess Louise, 1856–1939 (1991) · Your dear letter: private correspondence of Queen Victoria and the crown princess of Prussia, 1865–1871, ed. R. Fulford (1971), 303–10 · The Times (4 Dec 1939) · The Times (8 Dec 1939)

Archives  

Royal Arch. |  BL, Flower MSS · BL, Holland MSS · BL, Knightley MSS · BL, Paget MSS · Hove Central Library, Sussex, Wolseley MSS · NA Canada, Lorne MSS · NL Scot., Campbell MSS · priv. coll., Inveraray MSS · priv. coll., Bevills MSS · priv. coll., Probert MSS · PRONI, Dufferin MSS


Likenesses  

F. X. Winterhalter, portrait, 1865, Royal Collection · M. Thornycroft, bust, 1870, Royal Collection · P. F. Connelly, bust, 1874, Inveraray Castle, Argyll · P. F. Connelly, bust, 1879, Royal Collection · H. von Angeli, portrait, 1892, Royal Collection · P. A. de Laszlo, portrait, after 1914, HRH Prince and Princess Michael of Kent Collection · L. Béroud, pencil drawing, Scot. NPG · attrib. C. Louise, self-portrait, bust, NPG · M. Thornycroft, statuette, Royal Collection · photograph, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£239,260 18s. 6d.—save and except settled land: probate, 7 Feb 1940, CGPLA Eng. & Wales