George IV: Art and Spectacle

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George Augustus Frederick was born at St. James’s Palace, London in 1762. His parents were King George III and Queen Charlotte. He was their first born child and it was his right to become Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay at birth. A few days later he was made Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester. King George III suffered mental illness and after much discussion in Parliament, the Prince of Wales was created Regent.

He performed this duty for the last nine years of his father’s life. Mary Hamilton was one of the Prince of Wales’ teachers in his early life at court. Digitised letters, recently published online, have revealed that he eulogised her and had deep feelings for her. Other such letters refer to the consequences of his father’s illness. On the death of his father, the Prince of Wales became King George IV of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. He was also King of Hanover. He reigned from 1820 to his own death in 1830. King George met Maria Fitzherbert in 1784 and secretly married her in 1785. She was older, twice widowed and Roman Catholic. His father was not even consulted to give permission for the marriage. He would have refused. The Act of Settlement barred a Roman Catholic spouse from succeeding to the throne. The Royal Marriages Act of 1772 prohibited marriage without the Monarch’s permission. The marriage, made at Maria’s home in Park Street, Mayfair, was, therefore, null and void. However, the lady considered herself to be the king’s lawful wife, believing that the Law of the Church was superior to the Law of the State; a complicated issue.

The couple are reputed to have had several illegitimate children. He called her ‘wife of heart and soul’. The future king married Caroline of Brunswick later, a disastrous, strategic marriage, which would help solve the problems of his debts which were displeasing to his father and Parliament. They had one child, a daughter, Charlotte, who died giving birth to a stillborn son. Her father was devastated. After the death of Charlotte her parents separated. Divorce was attempted, but failed. Caroline was barred from the Coronation. Much has been written about King George IV’s weak character and sadly, historical evidence proves most of this to be correct. His lifestyle, without doubt, was dissolute and he was enthusiastically extravagant. His exuberance for fine wines, womanising and decadence knew no bounds. His behaviour was not popular with the taxpayers; after all, they footed the bills. His allowances were never enough and the debts mounted. He did not add to the prestige of the Monarchy. It was a hard time for the country at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. King George was obsessive and theatrical about fashion: a dandy of all dandies who had an idealised image of himself. The well cut clothes did not help! In reality he was an obese glutton… Yet, indisputably, this Regent and King redeemed himself and his shortcomings by forming a collection of glorious treasures and creating ambitious architecture which is a legacy for all of us to enjoy today. The Royal Collection was formed from his collecting of so many wonderful works of art.

He had an innate sense of aesthetics and impressive good taste. He purchased paintings, metal work, textiles, furniture and ceramics. He also collected weaponry, Japanese armour and ancient Persian swords. He did not overlook Dutch and Flemish masterpieces or Sevres porcelain. He loved elegant books and drawings. He bought a magnificent gilt silver service and superb portraits. Architecture fascinated him; he remodelled Buckingham House, creating Buckingham Palace. He commissioned Paul Nash to create the Royal Pavilion at Brighton in a style loosely inspired by the Taj Mahal. They furnished it with rich, exotic Chinese and Indian interiors. It is amazing, neither of them had travelled to the far East. Paul Nash also created the sweeping Nash Terraces overlooking Regent’s Park and Regent Street itself. Windsor Castle was refurbished by Sir Geoffrey Wyatville. Two exhibitions are bravely revealing these better aspects of the King’s personality. This is commendable. Palace House, Newmarket is exhibiting George IV: Royalty, Racing and Reputation, and George IV: Art and Spectacle is being exhibited at the Queen’s Gallery in London.

The Exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery shows the King’s liking for French styles and is set against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. It presents his life through the art of his world and it dispels all thoughts that this King only ate and drank. He was certainly learned and had splendid taste. The exhibits collected by him speak for themselves and convince the viewer that this King was one of the best collectors of his time. The paintings are magnificent, e.g. George mounted on a fine chestnut horse by George Stubbs, painted in Hyde Park in 1791. Philip Rundell’s Shield of Achilles is exhibited; a magnificent work revealing Apollo in a quadriga surrounded by stars with female figures representing the constellations. Crafted by John Flaxman, this piece was at the Coronation and was the first of a series of silver gilt and bronze works. Rembrandt’s The Ship Builder and His Wife is there. Note the interaction between the figures and the lighting effect. Regarding detailed work of costume, Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of the King with a cloak is a fine example, with the crown carefully placed on a nearby table. George liked symbols of rank. There is a huge variety of exhibits, among them diplomatic gifts from far and wide. Do not miss the colouring of the red, yellow and black feathers of the cape from the Sandwich Islands (Now Hawaii). Thomas Gainsborough’s Diana and Actaeon is on view and Aelbert Cuyp’s The Passage Boat. Aesthetics and understanding of great works of art combined with the desire to collect them, visibly triumphs over weaknesses of the flesh. Marian Maitland Queen’s Gallery

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