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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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