… is the subtitle of the current exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery on the art collections of George IV, of whom I wrote, some time ago and in another place: ‘But the mystery of the Prince’s character – childish, petulant, egocentric, dissolute spendthrift, versus generous, intellectual, aesthetically aware patron of the arts and frustrated king-in-waiting – remains.’ (I’ve just read a review of Stella Tillyard‘s new(ish) book on the king, subtitled ‘King in Waiting’, which sounds good, assuming you can get past the startlingly hideous cover.)
I have always been inclined to believe that George’s bad qualities far outweighed the good – think of his grotesque personal expenditure at a time of global famine (on which, see here, but, much better, look out for Guinevere Glasfurd’s excellent new novel, The Year without Summer, published in February). Then there’s the way he treated his Catholic ‘wife’, Maria Fitzherbert, and his Protestant wife and cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, over many years. That he was a great patron of the arts, and appreciated the work of Jane Austen, doesn’t, I believe, quite tip the balance in the other direction.
One of the blogs-in-progress that I am unable to finish at the moment is about a jug which commemorates – almost in code, so subtle is the reference – the failed attempt by George to divorce Caroline. So I arrived at ‘George IV: Art and Spectacle’ (after an interesting but eye-wateringly expensive taxi ride necessitated by the temporary closure of the Victoria Line and my ignorance of other options) looking forward not only to the curatorial talk (and the glass of wine) but also to useful illustrative matter on the notorious failed marriage.
I was a little disappointed, in fact, at the lack of Caroline-related material, apart from this gruesome caricature:
But, after all, the emphasis in the show was George’s own patronage and enthusiasms, so it is hardly surprising that images of his wife were not in abundance. There are a great many portraits of his brothers and sisters, and both pictures and memorabilia of Charles I and II, in whom he was greatly interested (the former presumably as much for his own collection of paintings as for his unfortunate end).
In my opinion the stand-out items acquired by George were Rembrandt’s radiant portrait of Agatha Bas (separated, alas, from her husband Nicolaes van Bambeeck, who is in the Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
and ‘The Shipbuilder and his Wife’ (Jan Rijcksen and his wife, Griet Jans), for which he paid 5,000 guineas in 1811. (His third Rembrandt purchase was ‘Christ and St Mary Magdalene at the Tomb’.)
There is lots of other Stuff, from the pearl and diamond diadem which the Queen often wears, but which George used as a sort of hatband, to a feathered cape from the Sandwich Islands, via furniture, porcelain, prints and architectural drawings of his various expensive projects.
The overall star artist, though, has to be Sir Thomas Lawrence, whose superb technical skills and mastery of the art of pictorial flattery eventually made him George’s favourite painter – though this took some time, as the Regent saw him for many years as a partisan of Queen Caroline, whose portrait with her daughter Charlotte he had painted in 1800–1, and who was even a subject of the so-called ‘Delicate Investigation’ instigated by George, who hoped to find influence of his wife’s adultery so that he could divorce her.
There are several of Lawrence’s paintings from the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle, intended by George (frustrated as Prince of Wales in both his military ambition and in his longing to travel abroad) to show his key role in the alliance which delivered the final victory against Napoleon.
George had intended to commission some portraits commemorative of the long conflict to decorate Carlton House, and indeed had originally thought in terms of two group portraits, but it was eventually decided that Lawrence should seek sittings from all the military commanders and heads of state individually, some of whom came to his London studio (to the great excitement of the press), but others to paint whom he had to travel across Europe. Napoleon’s escape from Elba and its consequences inevitably slowed things down a bit, and in fact the Waterloo Chamber was not finalised until after George’s death, though William IV carried through his brother’s plans.
The Chamber itself was one of a suite of large reception rooms, designed by Sir Jeffry Wyatville (1766–1840), which replaced a seventeenth-century sequence which included the Queen’s Drawing Room, Ballroom, Audience Chamber, Presence Chamber, Guard Chamber, and the King’s Presence Chamber, King’s Audience Room, King’s Drawing Chamber and King’s Dining Chamber. (Without a resident queen, did George feel he could do without a lot of this?)
The portraits brought from Windsor for display in the current exhibition depict the Austrian Archduke Charles (Karl Ludwig Johann Josef Lorenz), son of Leopold II, and reforming commander-in-chief of the Austrian army;
the Austrian diplomat Metternich (properly Klemens Nepomuk Lothar Wenzel, Fürst von Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein);
Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first head of the independent Greek state, whose route from physician in Corfu to this role and his assassination in 1831 included a stint as Russian foreign minister, and of whom Metternich, suspicious of his liberal ideas, once said ‘honestly speaking, he is a complete and thorough fool’;
Ercole Consalvi, deacon, cardinal and Secretary of State to the Papal States;
and Pope Pius VII (Barnaba Niccolò Maria Luigi Chiaramonti). His predecessor Pius VI had died in 1799 in France as a prisoner of Napoleon, and there was a six-month vacancy before Chiaramonti was elected. After an uneasy concordat with France (during which the Pope took part in Buonaparte’s self-coronation), Napoleon reinvaded the Papal States in 1804, and in 1809, Pius VII, in his turn, was carried off to France. Happily, unlike his predecessor, he survived the experience and returned to Rome in triumph in 1814. (He is currently undergoing the process of being canonised.)
Further portraits by Lawrence include Sir Walter Scott, George’s sister Princess Sophia,
and of course the enormous and celebrated image of George himself in his coronation robes.
This gorgeous and flattering image reminded me that the last exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery that I had seen with a similar theme was ‘Charles II: Art and Power’ – and the gap between power and spectacle is one of things that I have found myself pondering since leaving this spectacular show.