George IV: Art & Spectacle

John Westbrooke on a notorious king and great collector

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King George IV seems to have felt an affinity with his predecessor, Charles I. Both were men of taste who built up the royal art collection by big spending in hard times. Then again, both are generally seen as among the worst kings Britain has ever had.

At least, unlike Charles, he didn’t end on the executioner’s block: he died, full of ailments, in his bedroom early in the morning. The Times thundered: “There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow-creatures than this deceased king.”

It’s no surprise that an exhibition in the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace – a building George himself transformed 200 years ago – should take a more obliging view. It includes some of the less scurrilous cartoons that lampooned him throughout his 10-year reign, and earlier while he was acting as Prince Regent for his mad father, George III. But it also displays a wide variety of the things he collected – paintings, furniture, ceramics, watercolours, textiles – and they’re dazzling.

Like other Princes of Wales before and since, he led a constrained life. Charles I had sneaked abroad, with a false beard and the alias Jack Smith, to woo a Spanish princess. The courtship failed but he did fall in love with the Spanish king’s art collection and decide to start his own.

No such luck for George: his father banned him from visiting Europe – probably a sensible step at a time when France was in revolutionary turmoil (he left Britain only twice, to visit Ireland and to be crowned King of Hanover). Not for him the Grand Tours of earlier and later aristocrats. Nor did the king let him join the army and seek military glory.

So he stayed home, collected, dreamed and ate. Like his predecessors Edward IV and Henry VIII, his self-indulgent ways turned him from a dashing young man to an obese middle-aged one. The printmaker John Raphael Smith caught this when he produced a mezzotint from a Gainsborough portrait, but had to update it as the subject’s appearance altered. Versions from 1783 and 1783 on show here record quite a change in only six years.

(In fairness, though, a depiction of him as a child already has him chubby, so maybe artists were being kind to him for a while as he grew up.)

The Georges notoriously hated their parents and children, but this one was fond of his siblings: there’s a charming painting of his three favourite sisters by Thomas Gainsborough. There’s also a pencil drawing of his “wife”, the actress Maria Fitzherbert. They really did marry, but it was invalid because his father hadn’t consented. She’s most commonly seen through the eyes of bilious cartoonists, so it makes a change to look at her as an attractive woman. In the end, she was dumped, like all the inconstant prince’s mistresses; yet he was buried in 1830 with a miniature portrait of her.

Britain was already a constitutional monarchy, and George seems to have been the first to decide that, if his role was largely decorative, he’d put on a good show, preferably one that outshone his French neighbours over the Channel.

And he undoubtedly did have good taste, albeit on the blingy side. A nautilus cup by Nikolaus Schmidt – a sea shell elaborately decorated with Jupiter riding an eagle, all held up by Neptune astride a sea-horse – is a real treasure. There’s silver and gold, Sèvres crockery, and the Diamond Diadem still worn by the Queen on stamps and at the most recent opening of Parlliament.

His choice of paintings also looks good, among them works by Rubens, Cuyp, and a dramatic Rembrandt, “The Shipbuilder and his Wife”: she’s bringing him some sort of urgent message, he’s looking slightly huffy about being interrupted, but it was all a departure from the usual set-up of individual portraits hung side by side – these two are clearly a couple, interacting.

The most intriguing painting is by the little known Alexandre-Auguste Robineau, showing a man and a woman fencing. In fact the woman is the Chevalier d’Éon, a transvestite in a long dark dress and white bonnet (nobody was quite sure he was male until after he died). The contest was held in George’s palace, Carlton House, and you can see the prince himself standing in the background.

He also patronised Jane Austen, getting her to dedicate “Emma” to him: she disdained him, like most of her compatriots, but couldn’t say no. His copy of the three-volume book is on show here too.

George even changed the face of London, getting the architect John Nash to build villas in Regent’s Park and create Regent St as a grand route from the park to Carlton House. He later changed his mind and pulled the palace down, leaving the street with a dead end, but it’s one of the few town planning schemes in London that’s ever worked and though Regent St has been largely rebuilt it still looks handsome. The eccentric oriental Brighton Pavilion on the south coast is his most popular remaining building project, and he also created most of the Windsor Castle we know.

His grandest project, though, was himself. He loved uniforms, he loved ceremony. He devised an elaborate (and wildly expensive – £230,000!) coronation, which became the pattern for royal occasions still followed today, with fancy carriages and lords a-leaping. When foreigners marvel that Britain does pageantry so well, that’s George’s legacy.

But then as now, the public was not pleased at the sight of royalty spending money. They also took umbrage at his treatment of his wife, his first cousin Caroline of Brunswick, whom he loathed: he was drunk at the wedding and they soon parted. As well as having her locked out of the coronation (she was after all Queen Consort), he instigated an inquiry into her conduct that should have scandalised the public but only turned them against her vindictive husband.

But was he such a bad king? Indolent rulers may disgrace the monarchy but they can be good for democracy: while George was neglecting his duties, elected politicians were able to get on with running the country. Charles I went to war against his own people, leaving a trail of destruction and division; George’s Regency era is seen as a byword for style and elegance. In the end, he’d probably have settled for that.

George IV: Art & Spectacle is at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until 3 May 2020.