Tattooed Royalty: Queer stories of a queer craze
by R.J. Stephen
What wonder, then, that tattooing is just now the popular pastime of the leisured world? For one of the best-known men in high European circles, the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, is most elaborately tattooed. And Prince and Princess Waldemar of Denmark, Queen Olga of Greece, King Oscar of Sweden, the Duke of York, the Grand Duke Constantine, Lady Randolph Churchill, with many others of royal and distinguished rank, have submitted themselves to the tickling, but painless and albeit pleasant, sensation afforded by the improved tattooing needle, which is nowadays worked on a simple plan, aided by the galvanic current, the genius of the artist supplying the rest of the operation.
The Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, like his cousin Alexis of Russia is another elaborately-tattooed man; but even his decorations, and those of other profusely-tattooed men, fall short in point of quantity when compared with those marks upon the body of that Greek gentleman who was exhibited not long ago at the Royal Aquarium, whose body was completely covered with fine tattoo work, every square inch of it.
Anyone meeting the Duke of Newcastle, or the Earl of Portarlington, or Sir Edmund Lechmere, in the street, would hardly realize the fact that these gentlemen are proud wearers of tattoo marks—very much so.
We are able to give fac-similies of the designs which have been tattooed on the Duke of York, Prince Francis of Teck, Prince George of Greece, together with other examples of the art.
Professor Riley's work is pronounced to be, by no less that a celebrated Royal Academician, who takes considerable interest in tattoo work, the finest in the world.
In order to form an idea of the kind of work that is wanted by those who give their patronage to this specific class of fine art, a close examination of these illustrations will assist you. The skill of the tattoo artist, to be realized properly and fairly, must be seen in beautiful colours on a white skin—work which is amazing. The sketches he employs are made in various coloured inks. His great skill is in the faithful reproduction of any symbol or picture desired by the sitter. These designs vary in size from a small fly, or bee, to that of an immense Chinese dragon, occupying the whole space offered by the back or chest, or a huge snake many inches in thickness coiling round the body from the knees to the shoulders.
Tattooing has its humorous side, as well as its serious. A lover whose heart was once melted away in a soft, sweet, passionate love, got the artist to imprint in indelible inks, over the region of his heart, a single heart of charming and delicate outline, coloured, as it should be, in all the blushing tints, with the name of his loved one stamped thereon. Three years afterwards he followed the artist to London, and, seeking him out, with face pallid, the light of his eye almost gone out, and looking utterly miserable and care-worn, he requested that the tattooer to imprint under that same symbol, in bold, big letters, the work "deceived."
A well known army officer had tattooed over his heart the simple name of "Mary" with a lover's knot, but six months afterwards the same gentleman had the uncanny word "traitress" tattooed underneath.
An English actress had a butterfly tattooed on her fair shoulder, the initials of her fiance, "F.V.," being placed underneath. Not long afterwards she also came back and had the "F" converted into "E" and the "V" into "W", the letters reading "E.W." She eventually married "E.W." and to this day "E.W." thinks his initials were the first tattooed on her arm.
Colonials visiting England usually return home bearing on some part of their body an emblem of some national importance. This takes the shape of a portrait of the Queen, or the Standard, the Union Jack also not being despised.
A man may admire a favourite picture and desire a reproduction of it tattooed on his back, or upon his chest. Professor Riley is at the present time engaged "etching" on a mans back Landseer's famous picture "Dignity and Impudence," and when finished it will measure 12 by 9 inches. The same artist is also outlining on the chest of a Scotch baron a copy of Constable's famous etching, "Mrs. Pelham," after Sir Joshua Reynolds, the original etching of which fetched, in June last, at Christie's, the record sum of £425.
While most people are pleased to go through the performance of being tattooed just for the fun of the thing, as it were, many, on the other hand, approach the tattooer with a serious object in view. Eschewing all fancy designs, they choose frequently their own name and address as an aid to identification in case of accident, or, as has been the case recently, a wife may induce her husband to have her name tattooed on his arm, as a guarantee of good faith.
An official connected with one of our leading railways has had tattooed round his arm, in snake fashion, a train going at full speed. The scene is laid at night. The shades of evening envelop the snorting locomotive and flying carriages, while the rays of light proceeding from the open furnace of the locomotive are effectively shown lighting up the cars. There are lights, two, issuing from the carriages, showing how the passengers inside are passing away the time. Some of them are reading, some sleeping, some talking, some sullenly looking out of the windows. A darkened portion of the train is passing the signal box, and the dim light there from faintly lights up that part of the train. The picture is a perfect ideal of the tattooer's art, and shows the great advance tattooing has made during recent years.
Professor Riley has never done anything more striking or effective, if perhaps we accept the large snake he tattooed all around the body of a certain popular member of the Royal family, which is an extremely life like reptile.
As there are over 100,000 people in London alone who bear on some part of their anatomy evidence of the tattooing needle, it is obviously an impossible task to attempt to emmunerate, with fidelity to truth, the designs most favour by patient disciples, but these are many and various.
The cost of a fiercely-bearded ferocious-looking Japanese dragon, or a pretty Jap girl draped in all the finery of the coming Oriental nation, or a snake coiling around your body, would, of course, depend on how it was done—lavishly or otherwise—and wether the artist worked from some special directions.
Some people have tougher skins than the meat of their fellow creatures, and here the artist has to make his calculations as to time—the tough-skinned gentlemen presenting difficulties not to be taken into account when reckoning up the finer-skinned man. But a sitting does not last more than two hours.
Of all the classes of people who patronize the art, the worst to operate upon, singular to say, are medical men. An artist of the brush will sit patiently and direct operations in a way by suggesting little ideas which the genuine tattooer is not slow to act upon, but the medico fidgets dreadfully, and persists in wanting to know things - such as, for instance, to what depth the needle penetrates the skin, of what the pigment used are made, and if the tattooer has had or heard of any blood poisoning resulting from the operation of being tattooed; also what effect sitting so long and bending so much has on the operators chest—interesting questions, but problematical to the tattooer. The skull and bones symbol is the favorite one among medical men.
There are about twenty tattoo artists in London, some good, some very bad, some very indifferent.
Professor Riley is among the best.
- The Harmsworth Monthly Pictorial Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 5, 1898, pages 472-475.
This is interesting stuff, but I'm sorry to say that it's lousy history. The names of tattooed royals are endlessly recycled on tattoo websites and in books on the subject - mostly without a scrap of corroboration from primary sources. These are very difficult to find; the highly formal dress of royalty didn't show much skin, but even when it does with sleeveless dresses, no such tattoos are visible in images - you'd have to postulate a media/artistic convention not to depict them. Either royal tattoos are a major piece of secret history, or a major urban myth.
In search of actual sources, I encountered just one better-substantiated pictorial example, that of Marie, Princess Waldemar of Denmark. A number of commercial print sites, such as here, have an image from The Sketch for June 1(?) 190(?) captioned "The only tattooed royal lady", showing her with an anchor tattoo on her upper left arm. The New York Times for January 3rd 1895 has a, article, Denmark Court Scandal, attributing this to being part of a general pattern of eccentricity; it reports an anecdote that she had the tattoo done after hearing that all Danish sailors' wives had anchors tattooed on their arms. The article overall reeks of propaganda, a hatchet job on someone who was too much of a political loose cannon for the establishment; there's a much more sympathetic account here at the Esoteric Curiosa blog: Inbred Eccentricities Of A d'Orléans Princesse; Rocking The Royal Boat At The Danish Court In Copenhagen!
There are some further text sources predating the Harmsworth Magazine piece. The most solidly corroborated account is that of the tattoos of the brothers Prince Albert Victor and Prince George (the latter became George V) received in Japan in their mid-teens when they served as midshipmen aboard the HMS Bacchante. The 1886 The cruise of Her Majesty's ship "Bacchante", 1879-1882, compiled by John Neale Dalton from their diaries and correspondence, records this for October 27th 1881:
Oct, 27th. — Up at 6.30 A.M. and out for a beautiful ride on horse-back with Prince Louis of Battenberg and the Grerman minister ... We came back quite hungry for breakfast, after which we were tattooed on the arms ... Back to breakfast at 9.30 and then the tattooer finished our arms. He does a large dragon in blue and red writhing all down the arm in about three hours. He first sketches the outline on the skin in Indian ink and water, and then pricks in the colours required, blue or red, with little instruments that look like camel-hair-brushes, only instead of hairs they consist of so many very minute needles. One man mixes the colours and the other tattooes, holding the instrument in the right hand and grasping your arm with the left, while he tightens the surface of the skin on which the drawing is to be made between his thumb and fore-finger. We did not find the pricking hurt at all, but this varies with different people and according to the part of the body on which the drawing is made : the best parts to have tattooed are those where the veins do not lie near the surface. The man who did most of our party was beautifully tattooed over the whole of his body, and the effect of these Japanese drawings in various colours and curves on his glistening skin was like so much embroidered silk. Like so many of their old customs tattooing has been abolished by law, but these two artists were allowed to come to us in our own room here. Two others went on board the Bacchante, where they took up their quarters for two or three days, and had their hands full with tattooing different officers and men.
This rather erudite account improved on the reality as written by George in a letter to his mother:
We have been Tatoed by the same old man that tatoed Papa & the same thing too the 5 crosses. You ask Papa to show his arm.
- The Japanese Tatto and Britain during the Meiji Period, Noboru Koyama, Cambridge University Library (and in various biographies).
The medical journal Cincinnati Lancet-Clinic has an account by "T.C.M." of upper-class tattoos:
I was surprised not long since to see the arms of a very noble lady tattooed. This was Lady X. She has skin decorated with handsome coats of arms and flags in colors. I did not dare to ask my distinguished client any leading questions, but quietly undertook an investigation, and discovered that tattooing has just been introduced into England again among the aristocracy The Duke of York, the eldest son of the Prince of Wales and the future King of England, has reinstituted this barbarous fashion. It is hard to believe, but nevertheless true, that the husband of the beautiful Princess May is tattooed as much as the worst tattooed sailor in the English navy. His principal decorations are British flags, grouped and crossed on his forearms. The epidermis of His Royal Highness was illustrated by Professor Williams, the fashionable specialist of London, who will not tattoo such personages for less than fifty pounds ($250).
The Duke of York had a precedent for this, for his uncle, the new Duke of Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha, and the brother of the latter, no one else than the Grand Duke Alexis, are also artistically tattooed in colored inks. Many members of the House of Lords have followed the fashion of their future Sovereign, and have had themselves tattooed, some with simple initials, some with arms and escutcheons. As this is English, the latest, New York and Boston will probably import Professor Williams from London to decorate the epidermises of effete Americans with coats of arms. Such decorations, to be appropriate, should be applied on the gluteal regions, as the indications of asinine American imitation of British customs. A very distinguished member of the English Parliament lately visited Professor Williams, accompanied by his wife and five children, and the mother and children as well as the nobleman himself were tattooed with their names, titles and address, "so that in case of accident," remarked milord, " they will be known immediately. We see that the revival of the tattooing art among the aristocracy will sooner or later be imitated by the masses, and what was formerly considered a degrading operation among the aristocracy, and only worthy of the slum classes, has now been elevated to a high art.
For my part I can see no objections in tattooing one's arms with name and address; it has great advantages from the point of view of establishing an identity. If the process were not so complicated it would be better than the anthropometric scale of Bertillon. One might well be proud to wear a coat of arms upon his epidermis, but many a young man has been filled with remorse that he bore tattoo marks of a vulgar or obscene character in more mature life. All will remember the anecdote of Bernadotte, who one fine day became the King of Sweden. He was once very ill, and his physicians desired to bleed him from the arm. "Never!" exclaimed the old soldier of the Republic. His physicians insisted, representing the necessity of using this powerful and at the same time effective method of treatment. The King made every person leave his room except his own physician; then he pulled up his sleeve and bared his arm, upon which was tattooed in beautiful letters, Mort aux Tyrans! (Death to tyrants!)
How many individuals carry indelible traces in a moment of enthusiasm or of passion, or from following the caprices or fashions of the hour? The new fashion of an old and debased custom, just set by the Duke of York, the future King of England, will be followed by all the snobs and dudes of England and New England—the latter sad specimens, as regards fashions, with Tory tendencies.
- Parisian Medical Chit-Chat, T.C.M., The Cincinatti Lancet-Clinic, August 10, 1895, pp 140-141.
However, the polemical-gossipy tone casts some doubt on it as a source, and the Bernadotte story is especially doubtful. Sir Dunbar Plunket Barton's 1929 The Amazing Career of Bernadotte 1763 to 1844 traces it to a satirical 1833 comedy La Camarade de Lit, that ridicules Bernadotte's swing from revolutionary to king:
The plot of the play represented an ex-grenadier of the Royal-la-Marine Regiment as going to Stockholm to see his former comrade, Ex-Sergeant Bernadotte. The quondam mess-mates meet in the Royal Park, dine together and celebrate the occasion by donning the uniform of their former regiment. Exhilarated by their repast, they indulge in reminiscences, in the course of which the ex-grenadier reminds the King that he had once tattooed his arm with gunpowder. Carried away by old associations the King pulls up his sleeve and displays the indelible imprint of a Phrygian Cap and of a revolutionary motto, which is said to have been Mort aux Rois. The disclosure of this secret tatouage is the turning-point of the piece. The King is placed in such a dilemma by this compromising discovery that, in order to save himself from the necessity of abdication, he is compelled to give his consent to the marriage of the hero and the heroine, thus bringing thus bringing the curtain down upon a happy ending to the play. Perhaps it was this play which gave colour to a legend, which afterwards obtained wide currency, that Bernadotte was tattooed with republican devices.
So - are there any reliable sources for the great majority of allegedly tattooed royals (pictures, or first-hand accounts - outside self-promoting celebrity tattooist memoirs)?