A Right Royal Spectacle: The Coronation of George IV Back

His Gracious Majesty George the Fourth in his Coronation Robes, 1821; Unknown maker, Hand-coloured etching with tinsel on paper, Brighton and Hove Museums.

Reviewed on 2 September 2023.

Brighton Pavilion is part of the Royal Pavilion and Museums Trust, a charity that runs a group of museums in Brighton and Hove. The Pavilion is the most extravagant of the group, reflecting the taste of George, Prince of Wales, later George IV (1762-1830), though it has not been royal since 1850. It dominates the seafront, and together with the Brighton Palace Pier opposite, offers the visitor complementary ‘bling’ in up- and down-market splendour respectively, vying for our attention in glorious outré architectural eccentricity. A walk through the Pavilion always conjures gilded superlatives as we try to reconcile the peacock colours of the prince’s fantasy seaside retreat with the more prosaic realities of his reign as king. Curator Dr. Alexandra Locke, whose research centres on colour theory, kindly guided me through the current exhibition which blends into a tour of the ground floor rooms and cleverly references their original functions. The exhibition was initially planned to coincide with the bicentenary of George IV’s accession in 1820 and coronation in 1821, as companion to the short-lived exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in London (see Criticks review https://www.bsecs.org.uk/criticks-reviews/14329/). However, Covid frustrated this and so we have waited until 2023 to view the fascinating items which bring alive the controversial coronation on 19th July 1821 in Westminster Abbey. Fortunately, a new significant connection has been provided by the coronation of Charles III on 6th May 2023 in Westminster Abbey witnessed by many across the world, when the nation focused on the regalia and ceremonial of kingship and looked back at its heritage and traditions.

There is no catalogue specifically for the exhibition, although a beautiful publication, David Beevers, The Royal Pavilion: The Official Guide to the Palace of King George IV (Jarrold Publishing: Royal Pavilion and Museum Trust, 2020) provides background images and history. The exhibition introductory panel states that George IV wanted his coronation to ‘outshine the coronations of Napoleon and the French kings’. It adds that ‘No other British monarch before or after has dared to display such extravagance’. The event was delayed for a year after his accession because he was trying to divorce and thus exclude his despised wife Caroline of Brunswick. Alongside a later copy of his 1822 seated portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and a caricature of George after Charles Williams, Adulation or a Coronation oration by the George Jack Pudding of the Nation (July 1821, publ. by S.W. Fores), flanked by tickets for different parts of the five-hour ceremony present the visitor with the main aspects covered in the exhibition; the official and unofficial King George and the elaborate arrangements for the day. As Prince of Wales, George was aware of the power of caricature and his standing order at Hannah Humphrey’s print shop from 1803 enabled him to monitor and sometimes to attempt to suppress the vitriolic prints primarily published by James Gillray. In many ways, we picture his life more through satirical prints than through formal commissioned portraits, a harbinger of the modern power of the press.

George’s love of food and convivial sociability, an integral part of his life while staying at the Pavilion, explains the original number of specialised kitchens and the current surviving grand example, unusually close to the Banqueting Room, where a chandelier hangs from the claws of a dragon below the canopy of a plantain tree.  The kitchen was fitted with the latest in culinary equipment and apparatus. For the purpose of the exhibition, it serves as a signifier of the Royal Banquet which took place in Westminster Hall, a hot and crowded affair, where 2000 candles dripped their wax on the participants at the tables and on those watching in the galleries. A rare item in the exhibition, displayed in the Pavilion kitchen, is the nine-metre-long souvenir of the coronation procession by William Sams (1822, etching and aquatint with hand colouring), donated by RSM Charles Wilmot in time for the opening of the exhibition. The panorama has been gradually unrolled throughout the run to reveal different sections of the 133 procession scenes and 700 participants shown in fine detail. Expensive copies were sold in London after the coronation as a prestigious memento to be unrolled and viewed at domestic social gatherings. The individual uniforms and regalia of court and official dignitaries have been painted with care. The figures proceed along a route framed by a canopy and numbered for identification. Many of the participants would be able to find themselves represented.

A copy of the coronation portrait by Lawrence displays the robes commissioned for an event which overall cost around £240,000 (£20 million today). George loved fashion and inspired by Tudor and Stuart court dress, designed some of the costumes for participants which required the labour of 28 tailors and their assistants to assemble. Another example of his design is the dashing regimental uniform he devised for himself when appointed colonel of the 10th Light Dragoon in 1793, based on Hungarian hussar uniforms, which is currently on show at the Queen’s Gallery in London; see Criticks review). The Pavilion display includes a delightful hand-coloured etching of the new king with tinsel additions. Tinsel-embellished prints were popular at this time, either ready-made or bought with tinsel decorations which could be added by the purchaser to give a tactile and lustrous resulting effect. Examples from the large collection at the V&A focus on theatrical subjects. Such a representation of George IV is appropriate, given his love of costume and ornament.

While the King’s robes are not themselves displayed at the Pavilion, other costumes featured in the ceremony offer a glimpse of the people involved.  The exhibition includes both some preparatory costume sketches for and a copy of the sumptuous, published volume The Coronation of His Most Sacred Majesty King George The Fourth, by Sir George Nayler (Henry George Bohn, 1837). On display adjacent to the volume is the outfit of a Baron of the Cinque Port as Canopy Bearer at the Coronation, possibly worn by Thomas Lamb. The anachronistic red and blue decorated doublet, hose and jacket are in remarkably good condition. We are so accustomed in Britain to seeing the eccentric dress uniforms that characterise our royal and official ceremonial calendar that perhaps we accept their archaic style more readily than did the wives of peers in George IV’s coronation procession, some of whom giggled at their husbands’ Tudor breeches.

The King’s Herbwoman and Her Six Maids Strewing Flowers, Miss Garth, Miss Collier, Miss Ramsbottom, Miss Hill, Miss Daniel and Miss Walker, 19 July 1821.
Coloured aquatint from George Nayler’s The Coronation of His Most Sacred Majesty King George the Fourth, 1837.
Rare Books and Special Collections, Brighton & Hove Libraries

The procession featured only seven women, the ‘Herbwomen’ who led the entourage and threw scented flowers along the path, a custom dating from at least the seventeenth-century and no doubt welcome in the summer heat. The exhibition features the dress worn by seventeen-year-old Sarah Ann Walker, though without its original Elizabethan ruff. She was the daughter of Robin Walker, an Apothecary to the Royal Household. The costume enables us to see how slender and small she was. Nayler’s illustration shows her alongside her companion, with their coronets and sashes of flowers, strewing petals from a large bloom-filled basket held between them. The exhibition text quotes Benjamin Robert Haydon’s appreciative reaction, ‘The grace of their action, their slow movement, their white dresses, were indescribably touching…’ We can also see Sarah’s admission tickets for the Abbey and Hall, and a print of the king’s friend Miss Fellowes, whom he chose to lead the group of herbwomen, a choice which snubbed the ‘official herbwoman’, Miss Rayner. She had held this office for forty-three years for a small annual salary.

Miss Rayner’s assumed resentment was of less significance than that of the Queen, Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821). She and George had instantly disliked each other from the beginning, but on his accession, she returned to claim her right as his queen. His attempt to discredit her and put her on trial for adultery had failed to annul her rights and she returned to demand admission to the coronation. The exhibition represents this episode through both a caricature Boadicea Queen of Britain Overthrowing her Enemies (John Fairburn, November 1820) and a portrait print by G. Maile, Her Most Gracious Majesty, Caroline Queen of England, June 1820. More unusual is the case containing a brass plaque engraved with the words, ‘Deposited Caroline of Brunswick the injured Queen of England Departed this life 7th August In the Year of Our Lord 1821 Aged Fifty-Three Years.’ Caroline died shortly after the coronation and the wording of the plaque to be placed on her coffin was at her request. It was removed by official order but had been preserved by the family of one of her executors, Stephen Lushington. The magnificence of George IV’s coronation is somewhat undermined by the sordid personal acrimony of his marriage, not to mention the facts about his unofficial wife, Mrs. Fitzherbert who has only a passing mention in the story. But the official narrative of all royal ceremonies always has a parallel one laced with gossip and rancour and George’s life provided more substance for censure than that of most monarchs crowned in Westminster Abbey.

The final flourish of the exhibition is found appropriately in the Music Room in five recordings of music from the ceremony. ‘Music was one of George’s great passions’ we are told. He enjoyed many entertainments with his guests in this exceptional room, built between 1817 and 1820, where his ‘private band of wind and percussion players entertained guests’ (The Royal Pavilion, 2020, p.62). Its domed ceiling, painted Chinese figures and gilded ornament is far removed from the gothic interior of Westminster Abbey, but the music unites all incongruity as we listen to the strains of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah and his ‘Zadok the Priest’, anthems still defining royal ceremonial and familiar to everyone who has witnessed such an event in person or through broadcasts. We become involved in George IV’s ‘right royal spectacle’ at the Pavilion through images, objects and music, within one of the most glorious of palaces to visit. It does not disappoint on each occasion!