Saving the King: George III and Queen Charlotte at the Queen’s Gallery

Archive: 6 April, 2004

ART: Saving the King
George III & Queen Charlotte at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

Let’s cut straight to the point. George III & Queen Charlotte: Patronage, Collecting and Court Taste, currently showing at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, is that rare thing — an excellent concept brought to fruition with intelligence, visual aplomb, conviction and exemplary attention to detail — and for all those reasons, it deserves the large audience it will doubtless attract.

We’ve been waiting a long time for this one. Bizarrely enough, although his 60-year reign (1760-1820) was one of the longest in British history, encompassing a giddying degree of change and some of this country’s finest hours, there has never before been an exhibition devoted solely to George III and his queen. Yet had any other institution happened first upon this happy idea, one doubts it could have matched the sheer firepower of art and artefacts, the appropriateness of exhibition space or the rightness of content, taste and tone achieved here by the Royal Collection. Or to put it another way, streams of aimless tourists may well flock to George III & Queen Charlotte — but so should anyone with an interest in history, Britain’s royal family, European fine and decorative arts, architecture, the study of patronage or the cultural life of the West in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. And if that doesn’t mean ‘everyone’, this is hardly the fault of the exhibition or its planners. Few, I imagine, will emerge from George III & Queen Charlotte without a radically revised view of this perennially under-appreciated monarch — or without acquiring a heightened understanding of what it takes to rule successfully in strange, troubled, complicated times.

Everything else aside, though, perhaps the most praiseworthy aspect of George III & Queen Charlotte is its polemical thrust, no less resolute for being delivered in civilised, even gentle tones. The thesis of the exhibition is simple enough: that while George III is remembered today either as a pathetic madman or as the stubborn and ill-advised fool who lost Britain her North American colonies, he ought to be remembered instead as someone very different — as a modest, intelligent, hard-working monarch whose art-collecting and building works need to be seen in the context of his heartfelt and unceasing efforts to improve the lives of his people. All of which leads to a consequent point, all the more powerful for the curatorial refusal to spell it out: in the words of a public address distributed at the time of the Golden Jubilee in 1809, the king was

the father of his people who had preserved his country from the dreadful evils prevailing on the continent where we have seen kings hurled from their throne, and constituted authorities (venerated and admired for ages) trampled underfoot.

Or to put it another way, George III needs to be seen against a background of what didn’t happen during his reign, as much as he ought to be congratulated on much of what did. And if there is a third point, insofar as it is articulated at all, it comes neither from the curators or even the objects themselves, but rather emerges organically from the whole idea of a domesticated, hard-working, resilient royal family, negotiating changing times and shifting mores — complete with a Prince of Wales who draws, who cares about architecture, who worries about a sustainable future for British agriculture and who, despite some teasing, is almost invariably proved both correct and prescient in his concerns. People who like the idea of continuity will find George III & Queen Charlotte deeply satisfying in a way that few exhibitions could really hope to match. All of which means that, unsurprisingly, ERO liked this exhibition very much indeed.

Making an entrance
Those who have not yet visited architect John Simpson’s additions to the Queen’s Gallery will, of course, enjoy the added pleasure of seeing how very well these new rooms function in practice. The robust, confident little portico lends a sense of occasion to the whole business of entering the new gallery space. Best of all is the double staircase — tall yet fine in its proportions, with all the vigour that makes classicism effective without the bombast that can render it boring — leading the visitor upwards, enforcing a rotating glance around the double-height entry hall before delivering him at the doors of the pleasantly-proportioned, well-lit first gallery. The magic here is, I suppose, nothing that would have surprised the ancient civilisations, with their firm grasp of how to make something memorable and even numinous out of the approach to sacred sites or seats of power — nor even the sturdy figures who commissioned the creation of the Manchester Art Gallery — but how many London museum or gallery entrances suggest even the slightest interest in the mechanics of how the visitor first encounters what he has come to see? Add to that the fact that the staff of the Queen’s Gallery seem remarkably efficient, friendly and genuinely helpful — again, not the invariable way of London public attractions — and one gets a definite sense that this is something more than just an exercise in selling tickets or achieving visitor targets. Trivial points? Not really. A visit to an exhibition is, for some of us anyway, more than just the sum of the objects on show and the curatorial interpretation of them. If there’s a sense of richness, real significance, even institutional self-confidence that permeates George III & Queen Charlotte, it takes hold even before the first exhibit slips into view.

As for the exhibits themselves — well, it is hard to know where to start. George III & Queen Charlotte sets out to give an account of the ways in which these two royal patrons created, displayed and enjoyed their various collections — including prints and drawings, portraits, Old Master paintings, fine furniture, china, silver and gold table settings, objects de virtu and so on — while also encouraging achievement in architecture, horticulture, manufacturing, astronomy, horology, agriculture and more or less every other obvious form of worthy endeavour. Everything shown is, apparently, sourced from the Royal Collection. The result is dazzling, delightful — all but overwhelming.

Again, the exhibition spaces work brilliantly. Two long galleries display paintings and furniture, decorative items and interesting mementoes; two smaller cabinets are filled with miniatures and ornaments; there are a couple of long, low galleries showing off drawings and watercolours; finally, the passage between the two main galleries is filled with china, plate and two magnificent old lamps, and provides a tantalising glimpse outside, to the gardens of Buckingham Palace. So there are tall rooms and low rooms, light rooms and darker rooms, splendour and scholarly reserve — an ideal combination. But every single space is filled with something that is, in its own way, fascinating and evocative — complete with labels that inform without patronising — shaped by the curators into a satisfying, coherent, persuasive-looking whole.

Whoever hung this exhibition has both a first-class eye for the visceral impacts of long vistas, and a nice sense of visual drama. Larger paintings, for instance, are awarded long lines of sight — but then surrounded with amiable groups of smaller pictures and flanked with furniture and decorative objects — not left floundering in acres of naked wall-space. Sensitive hanging means a lot for a work like Annibale Carracci’s The Madonna and sleeping Child with the Infant St John the Baptist — its intimate composition and skilful chiaroscuro gaining absolutely everything from the spotless grandeur of its surroundings — while Sebastiano Ricci’s enormous Adoration of the Magi looks strong, festive and surprisingly at home in its wholly secular setting. Meanwhile, the decision to place side-by-side three sets of fine china — each, in its own way, a masterpiece, but as radically different in terms of style as can possibly be imagined — provides an unforgettable lesson in the scope of late eighteenth century court taste, from the most frivolous rococo to the most austere and scholarly classicism. In the same room, dinner services were displayed in a way I had never seen before — laid out in front of the viewer, as if he were sitting down to dine in the royal presence. Again, it’s a decision that works as surely at the level of visual interest as it does at the level of didactic impact.

But then it is also heartening to learn, for instance, that Alan Ramsay’s great portrait of George III (highly familiar to me, as it happens, from childhood afternoons spent copying a copy of it in, of all places, the North Carolina Museum of Art) has been borrowed from its usual place in the State Dining Room of Buckingham Palace for the purposes of the exhibition — heartening to learn that it is still doing, most of the time, exactly what it was originally meant to do. And for those of us with strong reservations about the whole atmosphere of ritualised pointlessness which surrounds most museum objects, this is yet another reason to admire George III & Queen Charlotte.

A modest model monarch
What, then, does this bewilderingly lavish display of art and artefacts tell us about George III and his consort? Quite a lot, actually.

irst and foremost, it completely refutes the notion that the king’s taste was insular and unsophisticated. Being English meant a lot to George III (1738-1820). His father, Frederick, Prince of Wales — having seen both the extent to which George II had neglected his island realm in favour of Hanover, and the baleful impact of this on public opinion — instructed his young son in no uncertain terms: ‘Convince this nation that you are not only an Englishman born and bred, but that you are also this by inclination’. It was a message that George III took very much to heart, famously ‘glorying in the name of Briton’. Yet at the same time, he was also a Continental ruler — Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg (1760-1820), elector of Hanover (1760-1815) and following the decision of the Congress of Vienna, King of Hanover (1815-20). Both his marriage to Charlotte, daughter of the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and his own Continental family connections helped to ensure that his world always stretched a great deal further than the shores of the British Isles. On one hand, this probably meant that events like the Seven Years War, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic campaigns mattered more immediately to him than they might have done to other Britons; it undoubtedly gave a particular nuance to his robust protestantism. Yet on a rather lighter note, it also ensured that no matter how much he enjoyed playing the simple family man and gentleman farmer, his taste was educated, outward-looking and sophisticated — taking on board a great deal of the Enlightenment aesthetic more familiarly associated with flashier, more distant, more widely-admired monarchs.

Making images
It is in this sense that George III and his queen found their perfect portrait painter in the intelligent, cosmopolitan, politically alert, mostly German-speaking and invariably underrated artist Johann Zoffany — one of the bright stars of the present exhibition. Born in 1733, Zoffany grew up in Regensburg, Barvaria, where his father was court cabinet-making and architect to the Prince von Thurn und Taxis. Here he received a thorough grounding in German Rococo before undertaking further training, and hugely widening his previously rather provincial horizons, during several years in Rome. In 1760 he moved to London. David Garrick, the actor and theatrical entrepreneur, was his first important English patron, for whom he painted theatre scenes and conversation pieces. By 1764 Zoffany had been introduced to Queen Charlotte, possibly by that hugely influential figure in the early life of George III, Lord Bute. Zoffany spent the next ten years painting portraits of the royal family. Many of these portraits are on show at the Queen’s Gallery.

As a group, the works are sympathetic, inventive, full of crisp detail and narrative interest — and often astonishingly informal by the standards of the day. Particularly remarkable is the 1771 portrait of George III. Horace Walpole, probably Britain’s most influential arbiter of smart taste at the time, pronounced the picture ‘very like, but most disagreeable’. His reaction was, perhaps understandable. In Rome, Zoffany had picked up not only a very fine, smooth way of handling paint — a world removed from the Baroque models so valued by Reynolds and others — but also something approaching a neo-classical idiom, which married strangely yet powerfully with an English taste for down-to-earth informality. Thus the thirty-something king is presented seated, slightly off-centre, looking away, rather flushed, his tunic undone, one hand planted artlessly on his knee, the upholstered chair and gilt table and dark featureless sea of background lending the work a frontality that is startling even today — and that only gains from comparison with the pendant portrait of Queen Charlotte, surrounded as she is by banks of flowers and flounces and festoons. The king, one feels, must have been amazingly self-confident to sit for such a portrait — confident he did not need acres of ermine or a very large column somewhere behind him to proclaim his legitimacy. This, then, is part of the picture that we first begin to form of George III — an issue of style that comments meaningfully on substance, since George III appears to have been both very confident and, by regal standards anyway, not particularly grand in his habits.

The picture broadens out as the exhibition unfolds. The king was open to advice — not least, that of Lord Bute — when it came to buying pictures and drawings, and some of his greatest successes came from his decisions to purchase existing collections, such as that of Joseph Smith, the consul at Venice, and Cardinal Alessandro Albani’s treasure-trove of Old Master drawings. Both are richly represented here, not least in the wealth of drawings by Guercino and the perfectly delightful little Longhis. But there are other paintings where the king’s own taste may perhaps shine through. One great surprise is a portrait of John Cuff, a master lens-grinder and maker of scientific instruments from whom the king had purchased items and with whom he may possibly even have consulted. Executed by Zoffany, it is almost hyper-real in the lucidity of its detail. This startling work celebrates skilled labour in an almost Hogarthian vein while stopping short of the humour Hogarth would have injected. Here, surrounded by gilt and furniture polished like glass, its plainness is downright triumphant. If George III commissioned this work, as he may well have done, it surely tells us something about his attitude towards technical skill and scientific achievement. It could also hardly differ more from the other stand-out Zoffany work on show, that great monument to the Grand Tour, The Tribuna of the Uffizi. Zoffany was sent to Florence in 1772 to create this work and hoped that it would be the culmination of his success. Alas, the painting’s strange mixture of literalism and parody had as unsettling an effect on contemporary audiences as it has on subsequent generations. When it appeared at the Royal Academy (another George III creation, incidentally) the abuse heaped on it was enough to propel Zoffany off on another journey — this time, to India, where he lived and painted from 1783-89, before returning to Britain to die, his artistic career never quite recovering from that final setback.

The Tribuna of the Uffizi is not only a very famous painting, but one whose detail very much benefits from examination in good light, hung at a sensible height from the floor. By the same token, Benjamin West’s The Departure of Regulus is fascinating up close — not, in this case, because it is a particularly famous painting, but conversely, because it is such a stunning example of a type of British art that has all but dropped out of public memory.

Can we adduce from his choice of pictures that George III liked his art to have a fair amount of intellectual, discursive content? Possibly we can. We also know that the king not only purchased Van Dyck’s magnificent The Five Eldest Children of Charles I (it had twice escaped from the Royal Collection before he repatriated it) but hung it in his personal apartments in Buckingham Palace — although in later years he let an equally splendid equestrian portrait of Charles I get away. (The latter painting now reposes in the Louvre, where at least one has the chance to compare it with Rubens’ Medici Cycle nearby.) And perhaps, given his architectural interests, he genuinely enjoyed the two pairs of excellent Canalettos here — the sort that remind one exactly how good this painter could be when he was really concentrating on the task at hand.

These are the grander works on show, and it is a delight to have the chance to see them. Every bit as impressive, however, are some of the smaller, topographical paintings, which were presumably admired as much for their practical, information-conveying value as for their skill in execution. These include a group of absolutely beautiful Sandby watercolours depicting royal residences or architectural fantasies. And indeed, one could also go on about the furniture, or the silver, or the porcelain. Each picture, each object, both reflects the king’s tastes and priorities, but also seems — perhaps deceptively — to offer us access to both. In this way, the picture in our minds continues to form. George III grows more complicated, more engaging by the moment.

At home with Farmer George
The wealth of items in this exhibition also conveys something of George III’s domestic life. Although his marriage to Queen Charlotte was entirely one of political expediency, the couple got on companionably enough and eventually produced fifteen children. The king and queen were affectionate parents. Yet there was plenty of sorrow in the lives of the family. Two children died young and were much mourned. Of those who lived to maturity, virtually all of the royal princes drifted aimlessly, spending money, drinking too much, contracting unsatisfactory liasons and failing to take to heart the lessons of selfless service set to them by their parents. Of these, ‘Prinny’ was perhaps not the worst, but was certainly the one with the greatest scope to cause woeful damage — scope he exploited to the full. The princesses, for their part, were largely locked away from society in an attempt to keep them pure — a scheme that succeeded, albeit at the cost of turning them into a pack of lonesome, unhappy spinsters.

Yet there was also a great deal that bound the family together, including a shared enthusiasm for art and music. And while we cannot be sure what George III’s harpsichord-playing sounded like, of the great surprises of the present exhibition is the skill that the king brought to his architectural drawings — matched by Princess Charlotte’s practiced and versatile draughtsmanship. (Queen Charlotte apparently also enjoyed drawing, but little of her work has survived.) The king was a good amateur ivory-turner. The queen was a formidable seamstress who not only sewed a great deal herself but who bankrolled a number of English embroidery enterprises. So this becomes another part of the aggregate picture: the endless projects — botanical compositions, the creation of a snuff-box, an architectural fantasy, a series of silhouettes, a decorated table, experiments with early chemistry sets or model machines, — that filled the royal days, which were ultimately as much focused on encouraging desirable trades and industries as they were about passing time and driving off boredom. Poor Marie Antoinette and the fantasy world of Le Hameu de la Reine seem very far away indeed.

Out of the picture
Also far away from this exhibition are the various troubles that afflicted George III’s reign. The famous ‘madness’ best known from Alan Bennett’s in some ways surprisingly subtle play — not dementia or mental illness, really, but rather the destructive effects of an inherited metabolic condition called porphyria that left this kindly, gentle, strong-minded man unable to function for twelve years of his time on the throne — is only alluded to indirectly, as in a particularly charming set of china commissioned to celebrate his recovery from one bout of the illness.

Politics, too, are kept at a long arm’s length, except where they relate to commissions. And while other parts of the empire sometimes slip into view — as in the case of a marvellously gaudy, jewel-studded bird of paradise ‘acquired’ by Marquess Wellesley for the directors of the East India Company from Tipu Sultan’s citadel at Seringapatam and presented to the king soon thereafter, or two lovely ivory armchairs from Murshidabad given by Warren Hastings to Queen Charlotte, or a strange and rather frightening Maori amulet brought back from his first voyage to the South Seas by Captain Cook — those notorious American Colonies don’t appear at all — probably, one imagines, because America did not contain anything sufficiently strange, rare or magnificent to warrant presentation to the royal couple.

And when the realities of geopolitics surface, it is generally, once again, in the context of their impact on the Royal Collection. Alas, by the time of the French Revolution, the royal palaces had run out of wall-space (watercolours in this exhibition by Charles Wilde, James Stephanoff and others convey an amazingly vivid impression of the interiors of these rooms) and the king had stopped collecting pictures, so the accident whereby so many important French paintings still remain, today, in Britain has had less impact here than, say, in Dulwich. Still, when Napoleon was rampaging round Europe it became important for the king to recall some of his prized Continental pieces of art and furniture to the safety of Britain. This is European history, in other words, seen through the collectors’ spy-glass, and not the plastic arts seen through the eyes of the hindsight-gifted historian.

Yet the decision to concentrate on the main point of the exhibition — patronage, collecting and court taste — is surely the right one. Not least, it avoids drowning these many marvellous objects in the tepid and damaging sea of our own preoccupations. Hence there are no apologies for imperialism, and despite the king’s friendly patronage of Josiah Wedgewood, no sighing over the horrors of the slave trade. George III designed model cottages for labourers; he and his queen gave generously to every good cause going. Nor did he stop with good causes. Regrettably, it turns out that the king gave a pension to Jean Jacques Rousseau — all very trendy at the time, and doubtless well-intentioned — but in retrospect, other than by bank-rolling the even more appalling Voltaire, he’d have been hard pressed to have spent his money more foolishly.

Yet aside from a select coterie of high-profile artists, craftsmen and inventors, the British people are also kept at some distance from this exhibition. They don’t have much to do with collecting or patronage, so they don’t really figure. It takes an effort of will to remember the extraordinary level of civil disorder in Britain’s cities (making the events of the 1970s and early 80s look trivial by comparison), the Gordon Riots, the regular assaults on the king’s ministers and, at least once, on the monarch himself, the violence done to a statue of George II within moments of erecting it, the fear of invasion, the paranoia regarding foreign spies in our midst, agrarian unrest, that filthy demagogue Wilkes, the sense of crisis that emerges from the letters of Wellington and others during the last years of the king’s reign — the black premonition of impending disaster that haunted intelligent men through so much of the early nineteenth century.

So, then — why bother to remember any of this? For one reason only. The curators of George III & Queen Charlotte were right not to make a fuss about this issue, but for me at least, it forms perhaps the most important leitmotiv of a fascinating, perceptive, occasionally moving exhibition. The point is this. Britain was almost unique amongst proper Western nations in not having some sort of revolution or other serious disruption, either during the time that George III sat on the throne or in the years that followed shortly thereafter. (However bad the Reform Act may have been, it could have been an awful lot worse.) And the plastic arts are the quiet, long-suffering witnesses to all of this. Versailles, for example, is one of the most handsome man-made things on earth, but for me at least, it is impossible to spend any time there without a bitter recognition of how incompletely all that rebuilding, all that re-gilding and replanting, all that De Gaulle era restoration could begin to cover up the stains of the violence, the pointless destruction, the inhuman and ungodly acts that have taken place there. The same is true, I suspect, of the San Souci or the Hermitage. I can’t imagine I’m the only person to be struck by this, either, although it became even more real to me when, in early 1990, I was showing a Romanian visitor around the National Portrait Gallery and had to confront her highly emotional reaction at seeing all the royal portraits — ‘you are so lucky in Britain to have all your past!’ Well, we are lucky, not because furniture and pictures matter much, but because they are outward and visible signs of something that matters enormously. Here in London, now, we can admire the riches of the Royal Collection, get to know its treasures and smile over its occasional eccentricities — all of this, in a royal palace that still belongs to the descendent of the man who collected so many of these things and which, although it is not the most pleasing piece of architecture in the world, at least has the signal merit of never having known the indignities either of popular insurrection, or of the tyrannies that invariably follow in popular insurrection’s wake.

All of which might sound like rather tangential — but which in fact leads us right back to George III and to the puzzle at the heart of this exhibition. The more one thinks about it, the odder it seems that a reign full of so much achievement — full of successes both at home and abroad, paving the way for Britain’s zenith as a world power — ought to be remembered these days, if at all, for its perceived failures and inadequacies. Often, indeed, these failures are blamed on the king’s personality. He is, for instance, frequently criticised for ‘intransigence’ and ‘harshness’ in his support for Lord North’s policies in the American colonies. This line of criticism only works, however, if one really believes that the shoddy tax revolt and subsequent even shoddier coup d’etat which launched the country of my birth was not only entirely reasonable but also somehow inevitable, in a way that made standing against it as foolish as trying to reverse the incoming tide — ‘intransigence’ indeed. Whereas, in contrast, if one believes neither of these things, then the king’s position looks entirely reasonable. All of which is, I guess, if not a tangential point, then at least an argument for another day. Yet it does seem to me that America’s escape from the imperial fold had very little if anything to do with some sort of failure on the part of George III, and much more to do with something much less fashionable in present-day history, whether of the post-Marxist or the liberal variety — boring military practicalities, interleaved here and there with a bit of political contingency. Or to put it another way, if there was a problem with George III and Lord North’s colonial policy, it was perhaps simply that they were not allowed to pursue it long enough and hard enough.

It should also be said that, despite all the caricatures and the effusions of coffee-house republicanism, George III ended his reign genuinely loved by the vast majority of his people. As with his recoveries from illness, his 1809 Golden Jubilee saw outpourings of popular rejoicing every bit as real as those we saw in 2002 — and, to some observers, every bit as surprising. Amid his turbulent and troublesome offspring, he remained dutiful, perhaps a little dull, his modest ways perhaps a little easy to mock — yet in the end, his selfless commitment to the work that his birth had entrusted to him won the sort of quiet respect and bemused affection that most Continental monarchs, with all their anxious ceremonial and sporadic unseatings, could only watch with envy. He wasn’t a romantic figure, nor was he — despite his illness — really a tragic one. His virtues were mostly the understated sort that do not lodge themselves readily in historical narratives. So it is greatly to the credit of George III & Queen Charlotte that the exhibition manages to enrich and revise our understanding of this complicated, interesting, decent man, reminding us that he was, inter alia, a greater patron of the arts than his spendthrift son and indeed a highly influential figure in the history of our country. And if, from time to time, it sends our thoughts skimming over the surface of our own age as well — well, where’s the harm in that?

George III & Queen Charlotte: Patronage, Collecting and Court Taste is showing at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until 9 January 2005. Tickets cost £7.50; concessions apply. The large, fully-illustrated and informative catalogue costs only £19.95 and is, like every other aspect of this exhibition, very highly recommended.

Bunny Smedley, April 6, 2004 12:56 PM

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