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Lafayette L3678
Neg. Date: 11-11-1902

copyright V&A

Emperor Wilhelm II, the last German Kaiser and King of Prussia (1859-1941) photographed in November 1902 at a shooting party, organised in his honour by King Edward VII at his country residence, Sandringham House.

The son of Emperor Frederick III and Victoria, daughter of Queen Victoria, William married in 1881 Augusta Victoria, Duchess of Schleswig-Holstein (1886–1921), by whom he had seven children.

He was respectively admired at home and criticised abroad for “the perpetual transformation of his various attitudes of mind as of his costumes” and his penchant for giving “mystic and war-like rhapsodies.”

Long before World War I, the English journalist William Stead in his Character Sketches mused that “the god of his idolatry last year may be the object of intensest aversion today.”

His deformed arm (caused by a complication at birth), a strict and loveless childhood, and his love-hate relationship with England and his uncle King Edward VII which was peppered with jealousy and ill will — all contributed toward producing from the Emperor aggressive, often boorish and tactless behaviour both in his private and political life. At the centre of majestic pomp at the court of Berlin onlookers were magnetized by his theatrically-clad presence and much mention was made of “those large wonderful eyes, eyes whose colour and depth and sternness can be compared to jewelled Toledo blades, where gold and iron blend like blazing rays of the sun and cold flashes of stormy lightning.”

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 a German officer went on record as proclaiming: “He is a Jupiter, standing on the Olympus of his iron-studded might, the lightning-bolts in his grasp. At this moment he is God and master of the world.”

Daisy, Princess of Pless, who frequently saw the “mercurial mobility of the Emperor’s convictions” at the court of Berlin as well as at her husband’s residences in Pless and Fürstenstein, observed in her diaries in December 1905: “He is apt to rise to a pitch of excitement so difficult for his Ministers to control, that they do not tell him everything for fear of what he might do”. While chatting with the Emperor about the mistakes in Germany’s policy toward Britain, Daisy would confront him adroitly with a mixture of facts followed by flattery.

The Emperor’s colonial, commercial and naval ambitions irritated France and Great Britain and paved the way for the Great War. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, the Emperor plunged headlong into war by hastily declaring German support for Austria. However he increasingly became a mere figurehead for powerful German war lords. His credibility also waned through a lack of constructive decisions and his disastrous cabinet appointments. With the war lost, William abdicated on 9 November 1918 and fled the country to Holland, where he lived out his life. He married 2ndly in exile in 1922 Hermine, Princess of Reuss (1886–1947).

At the time of this photograph, in 1902, the Emperor was still happy to visit England and to be entertained by either the British royal family or distinguished members of the aristocracy, including Daisy’s sister Shelagh and her husband, the Duke of Westminster. Regattas, military parades and hunting were his pastimes. Whereas Pless in Silesia was for big game, such as deer and bison, Sandringham in Norfolk, with its light sandy soil, was an excellent breeding ground for partridges, pheasants and rabbits, and thousands would be killed in the course of a shooting party.

During this visit the Emperor “followed by four light blue Jägers with horns and loaded guns, performed some amazing one-handed shooting, seizing gun after gun and firing with startling speed, while his bag of pheasants earned the wonder of the shooting parties.” He considered his visit to Sandringham such a success that the following year, he told Queen Alexandra’s father, the King of Denmark, that in England he had felt accepted as “a member of the family."

Even though Lafayette complained that the Emperor was one of his most difficult subjects to photograph – “he simply hates being photographed – Daisy claimed that he generally “adored being photographed surrounded by the house-party… His left hand and arm would be carefully turned away from the camera, or concealed in a large sable muff.” Whenever portrayed, William would attempt a pose which would remove from view his disabled arm and give him the majesty he always strove to represent. In this photograph, in a pale blue hunting suit with Tyrolean hat and black cocks’ feathers, his coat is carefully arranged to cover his left arm. What the Emperor had not foreseen, was a servant appearing doorway behind him. However, the Lafayette studio’s skilful retoucher has removed the servant from the image, leaving behind a ghostly outline.

This photograph was reproduced in the Ladies’ Field magazine on 28 March 1903.