George IV: Art & Spectacle Back

George IV has almost universally received a very bad press to the extent, for example, of The Athenaeum giving away its full-length portrait of him by Sir Thomas Lawrence. It has now returned, on loan, to the London club and is a measure of the rehabilitation under way.

Contemporary critics may condemn his excesses, but in the words of the current Prince of Wales “The artistic legacy of this connoisseur monarch” cannot be faulted. The exhibition George IV: Art & Spectacle at The Queen’s Gallery, marks the 200th anniversary of his accession and brings together a sumptuous overview of his activity as an artistic patron and collector. The layout of the exhibition and the accompanying book, also entitled George IV: Art & Spectacle, are only loosely connected, and the over 300 works of art displayed are listed with minimal catalogue entries as an Appendix. Additional more detailed information is available from the Royal Collection Trust website, while the labelling alongside the individual works on display is exemplary. The book provides an Introduction devoted to ‘George IV: Art & Spectacle’, by Kathryn Jones and Kate Heard, and eighteen chapters analysing different aspects of George IV’s patronage and collecting provide fascinating insights and illustrations of many works not included in the displays.

Sir Thomas Lawrence, George IV (1762-1830), 1821
Credit: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

On his coming of age in 1783, as Prince of Wales, he received from his father, King George III, the run-down unfinished Carlton House on London’s Pall Mall which he proceeded to remodel with enthusiasm. Over a few years Carlton House became the focus of fashion and new developments in interior decoration and provided a series of splendid settings for both his ever-increasing collections of works of art and his extravagant entertainments, all at the same time as he was creating his exotic pleasure Pavilion in Brighton. In 1811 the Prince was appointed Regent and Parliament was obliged to provide him with additional funds. It is perhaps no coincidence that the same year saw his purchase of Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and his Wife (1633), for 5,000 guineas, the costliest painting he ever acquired.

George III died in 1820 and the Prince Regent succeeded as George IV and his financial demands increased accordingly. During the last ten years of his life he transformed the old-fashioned Buckingham House into a London Palace, while, ever nervous of the power of the mob as demonstrated by the French Revolution, he radically reconstructed and enlarged Windsor Castle to be the principal seat of the monarch, providing sumptuous settings for great state occasions and an appropriate new residence for the King. Consequently, he also created the Royal Lodge, a large country house in Windsor Park, as a more private retreat for himself in old age. The splendour to which he aspired cost huge sums of money and a continual state of indebtedness aggravated by his blatant womanising and general dissipation exhibiting characteristics so utterly different from the example set by his father. Nonetheless it comes as a surprise that the Royal Collection should choose to open the exhibition with

Robert Seymour’s satirical print The Great Joss and his Playthings (1829) which ridiculed his reign and lavish spending. He is represented as an obese man in Chinese dress seated cross-legged on a teapot, labelled Treasury Tea Pot, from which coins fly out of the spout. His debts, often funded by special Parliamentary grants, were at the time a source of great public anger when accompanying radicalism and political unrest in the country following the Napoleonic Wars.

In his role as Prince of Wales he is presented in the exhibition by Sir William Beechey’s dashing portrait (1803)   painted as a gift to his brother, Edward Duke of Kent, who was serving with the Hanoverian army. He is depicted in the uniform of the 10th Light Dragoons, the Regiment of which he had been given titular command in 1793. As heir to the throne he was excluded from a military career and this was a cause of deep personal frustration. Nonetheless throughout his life he collected relevant material and took close interest in all things military. Nearby is the elegant portrait of 1791 by George Stubbs depicting him with his dogs riding in Hyde Park and wearing a tall hat, the Star of the Garter on his blue cut-away frock coat and buff trousers. This fashionable outfit was the uniform of the Whig opposition led by Charles James Fox, a friend of the Prince. He was constantly in opposition to his father whom he ignored and in 1785 he secretly married his favourite mistress Maria Fitzherbert, a Roman Catholic, despite the provisions of the Act of Settlement of 1701 and the Royal Marriages Act of 1772.  In a delicate drawing by Richard Cosway, George’s art advisor and a painter best known for his miniatures’, she is posed seated against a tree, wearing a miniature of the Prince around her neck and holding an open book with her faithful dog gazing up at her. The marriage was not legitimate as he had failed to obtain his father’s consent and she became the target of numerous satirical prints preserved in the collection. In 1795, saddled with crippling debts and the demand for an heir, he married his cousin Caroline of Brunswick which proved to be a disastrous match from the start. Nevertheless, she produced a daughter, here represented by Cosway in a tinted drawing, standing with the two- year old Charlotte rested on a balustrade which is one of the few images of her in the Royal Collection.

George’s multitudinous interests are hinted at in the section of the exhibition entitled ‘Private Pursuits’. He not only collected grand pictures and objects which served to enhance his image, but also a huge range of relatively modest objects for his personal gratification, always of the highest quality. He assembled an enormous collection of prints, mostly for their subject matter, alongside his library where he read the Classical authors and indulged in his fascination for French history. Contemporary literature included Jane Austen’s Emma, a copy of which, dedicated to him as Prince Regent, is displayed. His interest in the theatre is demonstrated by a volume of The History of the Stage and Reynolds’s Portrait of David Garrick (1768), shown in the character of the jealous merchant Kitely from Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour (1598). A drawing entitled Opera House: the Auditorium, 1787, by Biagio Rebecca who worked at the Opera House/King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, records it being rebuilt in the 1790s following a fire. Haydn came to London and in 1791 met the Prince of Wales. They struck up a friendship and George commissioned John Hoppner to paint his portrait. It was unfinished when Haydn left London but it so pleased the Prince that he forbade Hoppner to finish it. Not permitted by his father to leave the country, George collected views of Rome and also acquired three marble models of the Roman triumphal arches. Later his model of the Arch of Constantine was to be the inspiration for a large classical arch built in front of Buckingham Palace. This was later moved to the corner of Hyde Park and now we know it as Marble Arch.

The grandest of all his architectural projects as Prince Regent was Carlton House which underwent continual refurbishments and was transformed into a Royal Palace between 1783 and 1820. It was subsequently demolished in the 1820s and the contents redistributed to Buckingham Palace and Windsor. The first of the larger exhibition galleries is devoted to Carlton House with a stunning display of paintings, furniture, sculpture and decorative arts shown against a bright green background recreating the splendour and opulence of George’s collection and the variety of his taste. The first architect to work for the Prince at Carlton House was Henry Holland who was inspired by French Neoclassicism. The interior decoration was masterminded by Dominique Daguerre who was also a dealer in magnificent French furniture made by the leading Parisian Ebenistes. George had a great fondness for Boulle furniture and acquired many fine examples such as the two splendid Medal Cabinets of the type created for Louis XIV and whose doors are decorated with figures of Socrates and Aspasia surrounded by garlands and medals in gilt bronze. Also, the Boulle Floor standing Clock (c1685) whose case is decorated with a gilt bronze mask of Apollo against a sunburst, and no doubt George believed that it had belonged to Louis XIV. Exceptional is the Cabinet (1785-90) by Adam Weisweiler with a broccatello marble top and veneered with ebony ornamented with pietre dure panels of flowers and birds. Likewise, the very fine Cabinet, (c 1783), by Martin Carlin,  which features ten Sèvres soft paste porcelain  plaques of baskets of flowers typical of the period.  George bought many pieces of Sèvres porcelain some of which were provided with sophisticated gilt bronze mounts by specialists such as François Remand and Pierre-Philippe Thomire including the pair of dark blue vases mounted as ewers with handles formed of naked girls which are purely decorative. A major acquisition was the vast Sèvres dinner service commissioned by Louis XVI and decorated with Classical scenes set against a blue background (1783-92) and delivered in batches over 23 years. On the lower floor of Carlton House was created the Chinese Drawing Room whose style was to become more exotic in The Brighton Pavilion. From this ensemble is one of a pair of console tables attributed to Adam Weisweiler which are amusingly supported by Chinese heads which dissolve into tapering legs. Here it is here framed by a pair of tall Chinese porcelain Pagodas, Jingzehen, with gilt mounts and hung with gold bells, which were delivered to the Brighton Pavilion in 1816, and represent his love of the exotic. These decorated the Music Room there and stood between the windows as illustrated in a coloured print by J.S.Agar. 

On entering the Carlton House gallery one is immediately struck by the quality of the paintings George collected which are predominantly examples of Dutch and Flemish art.  These include Rembrandt’s Portrait of Agatha Blas (164) and The Shipbuilder and his Wife (1633) which hung in the Blue Velvet Room at Carlton House as may be seen in the water-colour by Charles Wild c1818. Architectural plans and water-colours of the interiors of Carlton House and the Royal Brighton Pavilion made during the Regency Period are displayed in the small side galleries. They provide a fascinating record of how those interiors were furnished and why they were to set the fashion for the period. Rubens is represented by his large Landscape with St George and the Dragon which had belonged to Charles I. Sold during the Commonwealth it was bought in 1814 in exchange for four paintings from the Baring Collection that George had just acquired for £500. This is an example of him, always short of money and in debt, trading up because the Rubens painting had a particular significance for him. He saw himself as heir to the earlier Kings of England and the face of St George  was reputed to be a likeness Charles I. He also purchased the very handsome Portrait of a Woman by Rubens (1625-30) from the painter’s descendants as a portrait of his second wife Helena Fourment

As war with France returned in 1794, followed by the rise and threat of Napoleon, George moved away from the Neoclassicism of the 1780s and developed a growing interest in the Gothic style. He turned to Walsh Porter who inspired him with a taste for eclecticism and theatricality and who devised a new scheme for the public rooms in Carlton House such as the Crimson Drawing Room. As recorded by Charles Wild’s water-colour, it was hung with crimson Genoa velvet and embellished with gold embroidery, tassels and gimp braid with cut glass stars on the pelmets. Against this background were hung his paintings in heavy gilt frames, including the Rubens’s St George, reflected in the large mirrors between the windows hung over gilt console tables upheld by sphinxes on which were displayed bronze sculptures. One of the grandest bronzes displayed in the Exhibition is the splendid bronze Equestrian Statue of Louis XIV by Girardon (c1696) a reduction of his large monument installed in the Place Vendôme in Paris which was destroyed in 1792. It was bought in Paris, in 1817, by François Benois, the Prince’s pastry cook and agent, and was kept in the Armoury at Carlton House. It stands on an ebony veneered base with gilt bronze mounts ordered from Thomire & Cie, in 1826, for the large Dining Room at Windsor. Benois also purchased for him the outstanding  Mechanical Cylinder Bureau (c1785), attributed to David Roentgen and said to have belonged to Louis XIV.

Also acquired from the Baring Collection, is An Evening Landscape with Figures and Sheep, (1655-59), by Aelbert Cuyp, which hangs amongst a group of his Dutch and Flemish genre paintings such as The Grocer’s Shop (1672), by Gerrit Dou, and Peasants dancing outside a Tavern, (c1641) by David Teniers the Younger. George was following the fashion for collecting the small scale Dutch genre paintings much beloved by the French in the latter part of the eighteenth century and which fitted so well with the boiseries of their town houses. These paintings were in stark contrast to those bought by his father, notably the Venetian art accumulated by Consul Smith, and it appears that George acquired few if any paintings by Italian artists. He looked to British artists notably when it came to portraiture, and especially to record his family, such as The Three Eldest Princesses, Charlotte Princess Royal, Augusta and Elizabeth, (1783) by Thomas Gainsborough for the Saloon at Carlton House. Originally a full length composition it was later cut down to fill a space as an over-door. Also hanging in this gallery is Gainsborough’s only known large mythological painting of Diana bathing with her naked companions when surprised by Acteon. This appealing composition is so lightly painted that it is either unfinished or was intended to be a sketch for an otherwise unknown picture. George purchased it from the Gainsborough Dupont Sale in 1797 and put into store at Carlton House.

George’s love of grandeur and spectacle came to a climax in his coronation on 19th July 1821. This he had planned himself by collecting prints of earlier coronations of the Stuart monarchs, as well as that of Napoleon, and those taking part in the procession were expected to wear specially devised costumes which were inspired by late Tudor or Stuart festive dress.   The second large gallery is dominated by Sir Thomas Lawrence’s memorable coronation portrait. Painted over a pre-existing image of George in Garter robes dating from 1818,  he is shown with all the trappings of majesty wearing voluminous robes, with echoes of Napoleon’s costume worn in his 1804 ceremony, including a chasuble like panel in the front, and a great ermine-lined crimson velvet mantle. He wears the collars of four British and European orders and his hand rests on the Table des grands capitaines de l’antiquité originally commissioned by Napoleon but never delivered to him. Instead it became a gift to the King from Louis XVIII and on it sits the Imperial State Crown encrusted with the diamonds hired for the ceremony.  Parliament refused to allow him to keep it, and a gilt bronze copy was commissioned from Rundell, Bridge & Rundell to preserve the design. This is exhibited together with the Diamond Diadem which includes the rose, thistle and shamrock. He wore it on a large black velvet Spanish hat in the procession to Westminster Abbey and today is worn by Her Majesty the Queen when travelling to and from the State Opening of Parliament. Among the many ceremonial items on display is the surcoat depicted in Lawrence’s portrait and the dress sword he used at the coronation. Also included in the exhibition is a portrait drawing by Lawrence in chalk taken from life which he used in his subsequent depictions of George.

His love of conspicuous display is further exemplified by several pieces from the Grand Service of silver gilt plate to the designs of Paul Storr supplied by Rundell, Bridge & Rundell  over 25 years and other leading silversmiths and designers of the day,  here displayed as a buffet. They were created for show and to enhance and increase the splendour of his entertainments. No doubt he had in mind the impact of Napoleon’s great dining service known as the Grand Vermeil. Among those here are a pair of elegant three-branch candlesticks (1804-13) by Paul Storr from a set of 24 which came from two workshops contracted to Rundells, the second being Digby Scott and Benjamin Smith. Also by Paul Storr is the large flamboyant silver gilt dish (1814/15) embellished with a relief of the Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne who stand in a chariot in the centre surrounded by centaurs within a wreath of ivy. The border is chased with Bacchic masks, trophies and fruiting vines against a trellis ground perhaps all discreetly alluding to the Prince Regent’s love of wine! Further commissions from the King continued to the end of his reign with examples on display such as an ornate set of bottle coolers by John Bridge where the theme is Marine with Neptune and each surmounted by a figure of Venus in a scallop shell. In contrast is the oval rose wood wine cooler/cellaret (1827/8), attributed to A.W.N Pugin, with sides decorated with a row of gilt ogee arches above a row of quatrefoils, which were part of a group of furnishings supplied to George IV by Morel & Seddon for the Large Gothic Dining Room (now State Dining Room) at Windsor. Morel & Seddon were responsible for updating the pier table of 1814 beneath the Coronation Portrait by adding monumental gilded sculptural supports in the form of griffins and placing a plate glass mirror between them at the back.

Following the examples set by his German forbears, George also assembled a Kunstkammer which contained rare and beautiful objects, mostly ornate cups which were sold to him by Rundell, Bridge & Rundell who would sometimes also embellish them. Amongst the collection one of the most exquisite examples is the Nautilus Cup, (c1600) then thought to have been the work of Benvenuto Cellini, but which bears the marks of Niklaus Schmidt, a Nuremberg goldsmith trained in the workshop of Wenzel Jamnitzer.  The shell is embellished with intricate silver and gilt decoration and is supported by a Neptune figure riding a sea-horse) by the Hanoverian goldsmith Heinrich Sadeler, is of special significance since it was commissioned by Christian Ludwig Duke of Brunswick-Lüneberg to celebrate the family and their defence of Protestantism by means of coins relating to the history of the house inserted into the body of the tankard.  The succession to the British throne had been settled on the Protestant Sophia, granddaughter of James I and consort of Ernst August Duke of Brunswick-Lüneberg and Elector of Hannover, which had led to her son succeeding as Elector of Hannover and to the British Crown as George I.

The most striking feature of this gallery is the tremendous group of portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence, destined for the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle, displayed here against a bright red background. George originally commissioned portraits of those who had defeated Napoleon in 1814, but after the Battle of Waterloo (1815) the series was extended to include, military heroes, statesmen and rulers participating in the Congress of Vienna. Pope Pius VII, generally to be considered Lawrence’s greatest portrait, shows the small figure seated on a large dark portable throne, his crimson cape setting off his white clothes, ravishingly painted, with a furtive look. After being freed from detention imposed by Napoleon he was considered a hope for the future. Charles, Archduke of Austria, and commander-in-chief of the Austrian armies, who was painted in a pose similar to that of Hoppner’s Portrait of Admiral Nelson, cuts an imposing figure between the Pope and the seated figure of Ercole Cardinal Consalvi, (1819) the Papal representative at the Congress of Vienna. Most arresting is the Portrait of John Count Capo d’Istria, (1818-19) whose likeness Lawrence captured at the Congress of Vienna where he was the representative for Russia, (and later he became the first President) commissioned from Lawrence, shows him seated at a round library table against a dark red background. This commemorates the friendship that had developed after George, an avid reader of Scott’s novels, invited him to Carlton House in 1815 and to attend his Coronation. Scott played a key role in advising on the presentation of the Royal visit to Scotland and after that to Ireland and Hannover.

This is a fascinating exhibition, beautifully displayed, where every object and painting has an interesting story to tell about George IV. He continued to acquire art for his collection until just before he died in 1830, the latter part of his life spent in ill health and drowning in debt. In his aim to equal great monarchs and rulers of the past his legacy to the Royal Family (now the Royal Collections Trust) leaves a collection which is unsurpassed and is to be enjoyed not only on great state occasions but also by the general public.