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Review: George IV: Art and Spectacle

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DSC03967_250It’s striking how two of our monarchs with less that pristine reputations, nonetheless shared the highest standards of connoisseurship. Charles I, whose collection featured in a fabulous show at the Royal Academy early last year, employed the likes of Van Dyk and Rubens and acquired the best possible European art. And then, almost two centuries later, George IV, both as king and Prince of Wales showed similar predilections, although even more munificent and financially ruinous. It is interesting that George had a special fascination with the Stuarts and his tragic predecessor in particular to the extent of actually having Charles’s body exhumed to obtain a lock of hair which he then had placed in a bejewelled locket. That very piece features in this new show at the Queen’s Gallery which opened today.

George IV, as King, Regent and Prince of Wales, spent enormous quantities on buildings, art, gold, silver, jewellery, furniture, cutlery, plate, wallpaper, decorations, crockery, clothes, armour, fancy weapons, books, charts. Usually the best, usually the most expensive. He had no idea of the value of a pound, he was almost childlike in his needs and demands. He didn’t always get his way – Parliament refused, for example, to pay for a crown which had comprised hundreds of borrowed diamonds – but a lot of the time he did. Even by the early 1790s he was already over £400,000 in debt (£31 million today), much of which on kitting out Carlton House, which he famously abandoned. When he died, largely unloved, in 1830, The Times wrote “there never was an individual less regretted by his fellow low-creatures than this deceased King”. But here we are, almost 200 years later, and we cannot deny that he was a great collector and a great patron of the arts.

Most of the types of things that floated his boat are here represented.

There are half a dozen or so large paintings by Sir Thomas Lawrence, the greatest portrait artist of his age (or any, in my opinion). Included here are two of his best: Pope Pius VII and, of course, the King himself, the natural choice for the main representation of this show.

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For the historian, there is lots of portrait work in the form of paintings, drawings, engravings and mezzotints of the important people in George IV’s life: family, friends, acquaintances. This includes a very recent acquisition: a drawing by Richard Cosway of Maria Fitzherbert, George’s best-known mistress whom he referred to as ‘the wife of my heart and soul’.

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Maria Fitzherbert by Richard Conway, 1789.

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George IV’s only child and heir, Princess Charlotte.

 

Elsewhere we have a pair of magnificent Rembrandts, one of which – The Shipbuilder and His Wife cost a record 5000 guineas! To be fair, it’s gorgeous. There are also here featured a few dozen other lovely Netherlandish paintings (Cuyp, Steen, Teniers, and others) which include charming depictions of village scenes etc. There is an quite exquisite portrait of the Prince of Wales on horseback by Stubbs (I’m not a fan of the horse dauber, but this is excellent). These in addition to other horsey paintings of the highest quality. There are some good bits of satire by Rowlandson (Her Majesty has a huge Rowlandson collection)  and others. The milder ones were purchased by the king himself, but others have been acquired after his death but are shown here to give you an idea of how he was perceived at large.

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Rembrandt van Rijn. The Shipbuilder and His Wife, 1633.

As with the paintings, the sculpture is right up there. There are marble busts including an excellent one of Wellington and a rather fetching scaled down equestrian bronze of Louis XIV of France. George ignored advice not to buy it and then commissioned a sumptuous plinth for it.

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Beyond painting, drawing and sculpture, I have to say I struggle a bit. But even I enjoyed the visual feast represented by, in particular, the furniture, the silver plate (Rundell), dinner service (Sèvres).

The most important event in George IV’s life was, of course, his own Coronation over which he was director, producer, choreographer, set designer and all the rest of it. It was a massively indulgent festival, the most lavish and expensive Coronation before or since, a massive lapse of judgement as only he knew how. The exhibition includes a few items to give us but a tiny taste of it: the robe, the cope and the diamond diadem.
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George IV was the curator of  his own life, his own wardrobe, his palaces and every room within them. The choices he made were good ones, made by the leading connoisseur of the age. They have stood the test of time: this exhibition proves it.

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George IV: Art and Spectacle runs at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 3 May 2020. Adult ticket is £13.50. Other rates apply.

All items Royal Collection Trust and Her Majesty the Queen. Some images are by the author. 

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George III was very interested in maps, collecting them in huge numbers, along with views, architectural drawings and miscellaneous printed ephemera.  George IV, by contrast, was not. He dearly wished to convert his father’s library at Buck House into a ball room and very quickly began to dispose of the collection. Fortunately they were taken up by the British Museum and in 1973 ended up in their logical home: the British Library. The total collection amounts to over 60,000 item of which around 1,200 are directly London-related. While the British Library possesses 4.5 million maps in total, this is a very shiny jewel indeed. 

The collection includes all the great maps of London in the original and because they were acquired through royal patronage and acquisition, they are best quality and in a very many cases, unique. Gems include original drawings by Robert Adam of the Adelphi and all the London churches by Hawksmoor. These represent the tip of an iceberg of drawings and plans from the leading architects of Georgian London.  There are other etchings, engravings and views. Being famously miserly, George would encourage his buyers to pick up unsold items at auction. The result is that the collection also contains a large amount of ephemera, unloved in their day by connoisseurs but of massive value to the modern historian.

British Library Maps Collection

Wenceslaus Hollar’s famous survey of the destruction from the Great Fire, executed in 1667. Collection of the British Library.

Led by BL’s Head of Map Collections, Peter Barber, the department recently embarked on a project to digitise King George III’s Topographical Collection (K Top for short) in its entirely. With only their own staff to call upon and the work being too technical for volunteers, Unlock London Maps is expected to take at least four years but will be released online as it goes. Some, like those in this post, are already available. As a lover of maps, the prospect of further releases is a delicious one.

But the project needs to raise funds. The £100,000 overall target is a vital yet realistic number in this day and age and we encourage you to make a donation, large or small. Please do so via the Unlock London Maps Page.

We’ve organised a behind the scenes visit of BL’s Maps Collection on 12 June to view some of this treasure. It will be led by Peter himself. All of the £15 ticket money will go towards the fund. Members only, I’m afraid. If that’s you, make your booking here.

Here are a few more lovely examples from K Top.

British Library Maps Collection

Thamesis Descriptio by Robert Adams, the Queen’s architect, in anticipation of Spanish Invasion, 1588. Note South-North orientation. Collection of the British Library.

British Library Maps Collection

Gorgeous pocket map of London published in 1738 by Elizabeth Foster, after her late husband, George Foster. Collection of the British Library.

British Library Maps Collection

Hand-coloured map of the parish of St. Pancras, by J Tompson, 1804. Collection of the British Library.

British Library Maps Collection

T Horner’s plan and view of Kington upon Thames, 1813. Collection of the British Library.

 

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The Regency has come across my radar in a big way the past week. Despite being deeply interested in this period, I believe my knowledge of it is by my own lights pitiful, and – excluding the obese prince himself – kind of boils down to: Waterloo; uppity cartoonists; John Nash. Although I’m sure there’s lots of stuff I don’t know I know, if you see what I mean.

So I welcome the chance to share with you some items that will help us all be better acquainted with Regency Matters.

Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency
lucy worsley regencyLucy Worsley’s new television series on BBC Four: Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency. The first episode, which logically focused on the prince himself, was screened last night. In a word: lavish. The programme stuck strictly to the “short Regency” – that is to say, correct dates – of 1811 – 1820. Such was the Prince of Wales’ profligacy on art, building and clothing, the problem for the producers, I suppose, was what to leave out rather than what to put in. For all his faults, George at least had impeccable taste. So we were treated to his collection, mainly the paintings, and mainly – I’m delighted to say from a personal standpoint – the works of Sir Thomas Lawrence, surely our greatest and most underrated portrait painter. Nobody could craft a silk purse from a sow’s ear quite like him. Dr Worsley gave us a quick tour of Lawrence at the National Portrait Gallery exhibition earlier this year and also the Queen’s Collection. Magnificent. We also learned that the prince purchased a Rembrandt for 5,000 guineas. And discovered the founding story of the Dulwich Picture Gallery (another personal favourite), which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. I was interested to discover how Britain’s isolation during the Napoleonic wars gave rise to the picturesque in art and we had a detailed examination of a single Turner landscape.

We were treated to the fascinating story of Beau Brummel and his complete fall from grace after he inadvisedly and publicly insulted the Regent. And we got a good dose of Waterloo. Architecture, literature, society and politics were touched in passing and one presumes these will be developed in the coming programmes – I can’t wait.
If you missed the programme last night and prefer to avoid iPlayer, it is repeated this Thursday at 8:00pm.


Regency Walks
walks through regency london louise allenA London Historians member kindly sent me a book recently called Walks Through Regency London by Louise Allen. The author has written over 30 Regency novels and is a keen explorer and collector of all things Regency. This illustrated guide features 10 walks in central London of between 1.5 and 2.5 miles each. St James’s, Mayfair, Piccadilly, Soho, the City, Southwark and more. It has a pleasing combination of plenty of detail and brevity, and while descriptive, it includes much contextual historical background. Walks Through Regency London is 48pages, A5 format, perfect for taking on your walk. I shall be road-testing it myself very soon. It costs £8.50 including postage to UK addresses. To obtain a copy, in the first instance send an email to louiseallenregency@tiscali.co.uk.

RNA Regency Readers’ Day
Those of you interested in the literature of and about the Regency will not want to miss this forthcoming all-day event, organised by the Romantic Novelists’ Association.  It’s a celebration of Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and the books they have influenced. It coincides with the launch of a new biography of Georgette Heyer, written by Dr Jennifer Kloester, and 2011 also happens to be the bi-centenary of the publication of Jane Austen’s “Sense & Sensibility”. The programme will comprise talks, panel discussions, workshops and a Regency walk of St. James’s. Refreshments and sandwich lunch are included, and there will be prizes.
Saturday 8 October 2011  9.00 Am – 6.00 PM
Royal Overseas League, Park Place, off St James’s Street, London SW1A 1LR
Tickets: £55. £7 discount for London Historians members (Quote London Historian and membership number on the application form).
More information here.

Update 6/9/11: Forgot to mention, there are quite a few Regency era-related talks at Dulwich Picture Gallery until the end of November, 2011 being their bi-centenary, a fact mentioned in Episode 1 of Lucy’s series. Summary on our Events page, here (scroll a bit).

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