Victoria's gifts to servant up for auction

REGAL gifts to a loyal retainer or tangible evidence of a relationship that crossed the line into love?

Presents from Queen Victoria to her faithful servant and rumoured lover John Brown go on sale in Edinburgh this August, along with other mementoes of her affection.

Eight items bought by a Scottish collector in the 1960s from Brown's descendants go up for auction at Bonham's auctioneers Scottish sale this August. They include a teapot engraved "from Victoria R/Christmas 1876" and monogrammed "JB" and a claret jug engraved "VR to JB" in 1872.

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The objects on sale include a painted porcelain plaque of one her favourite dogs, Fern, presented to Brown, and Brown's own toilet service. Most mysteriously, there is a locket dated the day of his death, with a portrait of Brown and what is said to be a lock of his hair, inscribed "Dear John/27 March 1883" and on the reverse "From VRI".

Expected prices range from about 1,500 for one of the gold memorial stickpins that Queen Victoria designed for her servants to wear on the anniversary of his death, to up to 7,000 for the teapot.

The items were unsold when they were first put up for sale after the release of the 1997 film Mrs Brown, starring Billy Connolly and Dame Judi Dench, with estimates at up to ten times those at this year's auction.

"The Royal Family did give out a lot of gifts, but the inscriptions tended to be a little bit more formal. These are very simple, just from her to him. These are quite informal and very personal," said Clare Blatherwick, head of jewellery and silver for Bonhams Scotland.

"When you are handling these objects you feel like you are literally holding a piece of history. Did she stand there at Christmas and give that to him, and did he open it in front of her?

"Ultimately, there's lots of unanswered questions. It's the fact that it's unanswered that keeps the imagination going."

From about 1865, four years after Prince Albert's death at the young age of 42, Brown's role in Victoria's life moved from simply leading her pony to becoming a confidante and close companion.

His role, at first encouraged by courtiers to bring the Queen out of prolonged mourning, soon became the subject of scandal, with rumours that "Mrs Brown" had even borne his child.

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Brown's death in 1883 left Victoria so grief-stricken she could scarcely walk. According to Palace gossip, Prince Albert's favourite ghillie had become a surrogate husband. In a letter to one of her ministers that only recently resurfaced, Victoria wrote of her "present, unbounded grief for the loss of the best, most devoted of servants and truest and dearest of friends".

Victoria declared her intention to write Brown's biography, but her closest aides, and later her family, did everything they could to expunge "Mama's lover" from the written record, and with it any clear evidence of whether the two crossed the bounds of Victorian morality into an affair.

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