Enlightened Princesses Back

‘Enlightened Princesses’ evolved from Kensington Palace’s 2014 ‘The Glorious Georges’ which marked three hundred years since George I became king. The three eighteenth-century princesses who are now the subjects of this complementary exhibition are currently receiving deserved and overdue serious attention. Caroline of Asbach (1683-1737), Augusta of Saxe-Gotha (1719-1772) and Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz (1744-1818) all married into the British Hanoverian Royal family. Their spouses were George II (1683-1760), Prince Frederick (1707-1751), and George III (1738-1820) respectively, and this established their places as consorts, matriarchs and influential cultural mediators. Though discussed as Princesses, of course Caroline and Charlotte became Queens, unlike Augusta whose husband died before he could accede. A conference at Hampton Court in 2014 and an international symposium in October this year at Kensington Palace, along with a sumptuous 572-page catalogue to accompany the exhibition all have as their focus the important and varied roles played by the princesses as both private and public figures.

The exhibition themes explore their ‘Curious Minds’ and interest in education, charity and health, the Court as a Stage, Gardens and Architecture, and the development of British colonial trade and its manufacturing opportunities along with cultural exchanges. The exhibition began at the Yale Centre for British Art, and although the London version is a much pared down offering, the thread of American interest in the subject is still prominent. For example, the delicate jigsaw map made in 1755 by royal governess Lady Charlotte Finch using designs by cartographer Jean Palairet (Cat. 23.22) represents the American Continent, and exemplifies visual aids used to teach the royal children. The final room highlights the complex issue of colonial relations in both a ‘first’ and ‘second Empire’ which followed the loss of American influence. I will return to explore the resonances of this significant room later.

The asterisks above so many catalogue entries which indicate items shown at Yale only are also signs that close attention should be paid to the representative displays which are available in London. Each object of necessity carries more weight. The rooms are small and are reached only after negotiating the established Victoria Revealed and the queues for Diana Her Fashion Story. Though smaller, the Enlightened Princesses at Kensington Palace actually has a richer and more complex context than is possible at Yale. Incorporating a walk through the other exhibitions and the King’s and Queen’s State Apartments is an advisable plan, because the princesses’ stories cannot be confined to their allotted exhibition space. Indeed, several of the exhibits included at Yale are drawn from their usual display in other rooms at the Palace and are not included in the Enlightened Princesses exhibition – for instance, the miniatures in The Queen’s Closet, a plan of which was made by George Vertue (Cat. 10.03). Many items from Caroline’s collection are permanently displayed there. Dances outlined by Raoul Augur Feuillet (1659-1719) were translated by the choreographer and teacher John Essex (1680-1744). The notation of Essex’s only surviving ball dance The Princess’s Passepied (Cat. 11.05), named after Princess Caroline, features in the exhibition in a projection accompanied by music. In the Royal Apartments, a shadow projection of a dancer demonstrates the entertainments that took place in the Palace. The large scale, overblown grandeur of the public rooms is the other side of the intimate spaces which are suggested by the exhibition, both of which defined the lives of the princesses. Arguably, the Palace itself is redolent of the stories and values of its female royal residents, from Mary II onwards.

However, I would question whether, having toured the exhibition, visitors for whom the material is unfamiliar would be any clearer about the individuality of the princesses than when they arrived. The opening room dedicates a wall to each, juxtaposing large portraits of them with more three-dimensional images of their husbands. Joseph Highmore’s portrait of Queen Caroline, c.1735 (Cat.13.02), is paired with Michael Rysbrack’s 1739 marble of George II (Cat.13.23). Allan Ramsay’s 1769 portrait of Augusta (Cat.30.07) is paired with a small wax portrait of Frederick, Prince of Wales by Isaac Gosset, (Cat.13.13), and the large Johann Zoffany 1771 portrait of Queen Charlotte (Cat.13.18) is paired with John Bacon’s 1775 bust of George III (Cat.13.27). Although this means that the princesses loom large, in colour and framed so that their faces and figures are fixed to guide us through the displays which unfold their various activities and interests, the white marble or wax representations of their husbands conceivably convey more animation through the play of shadows and their textural variety. They certainly demand attention. They are of course detached from the walls to which the princesses are confined and the two busts are exquisite examples from the hands of skilled masters. Perhaps eighteenth-century debates about which art, that of the painter or sculptor, is the superior are evoked by the comparisons.

The legitimacy of the Hanoverian succession was founded on its Protestantism. The central display case in this room contains objects which signify the importance of the princesses’ religious background in their selection as wives and consorts. Thomas Hering’s Communion Chalice of 1760-1 (Cat.10.31) and exquisite silver gilt candlesticks of 1757-58 (Cat.10.32) were commissioned by Augusta for her private oratory. The case also displays a plate from Robert Furber’s 1730 publication Twelve Months of Flowers (Cat.29.32) showing the subscriber list, a large number of whom were women. It was dedicated to Queen Caroline, Frederick, Prince of Wales, and Anne, the Princess Royal. Other plates of flower illustrations dedicated to the Princesses complete the display and point to the importance of natural history in their lives, a subject explored in the exhibition. They include Francis (Franz Andreas) Bauer’s ‘Strelitzia Reginae Banks’, design for Strelitzia Depicta, 1792-1817 [1812?] watercolour on paper (Cat.20.09).

Although the princesses are identified at the outset, the rest of the exhibition is thematically organised. The princesses merge through their cultural contacts, collections and enlightened approaches to childrearing and public welfare. We are plunged into the material culture of their royal households, and their separate contributions are hard to distinguish within the layout of the rooms. Part of the problem is that there is only subtle differentiation in the courtly fashion portrayed throughout the decades of the princesses’ lives, and the conventions of royal portraiture flatten the individuality of female subjects. A casual visitor may well struggle to separate them if he has not looked carefully at the portraits in their many manifestations. However, the exhibition is as much concerned with uniting the three German Protestant princesses within the momentum of the Enlightenment and ‘The Shaping of the Modern World’ as with portraying them as individuals. So perhaps it is wiser to concentrate on the impressive involvement they all had with the new developments in science and arts of their time.

A wall panel announces in the next room that they ‘befriended and supported some of the greatest cultural and intellectual figures of the age’. We are introduced to Isaac Newton (1643-1727), William Hunter (1718-1783) and Stephen Hales (1677-1761). Newton set up scientific demonstrations for Queen Caroline. Hales was appointed household chaplain to Augusta and she supported his scientific inquiries, and the anatomist William Hunter was appointed in 1764 as physician to Queen Charlotte. These events indicate how the princesses championed innovative developments in science and medicine. Their involvement in their children’s education, in issues of maternal care and charitable institutions, presents a picture of benevolent and intelligent engagement with their own families and their subjects, which is still an ideal model for female royalty. A poignant parallel is hard to ignore in the adjacent exhibition of Princess Diana. Although its focus is on her clothes, details of her charitable work are woven into the display.

Beautiful botanical prints and drawings feature throughout Enlightened Princesses. The inspiration and illustrations for ‘Botanising’ at Frogmore and selections from Mary Delany’s papercut collection highlight the feminine associations of this activity. Exhibited examples of her work include ‘Cactus Grandiflorus. Melon Thistle’, 1778 (Cat.21.09). She was close to Queen Charlotte and influential on the royal children’s artistic productions. Elsewhere, Charlotte’s beautiful gift to Delany, a satin needlework pocket-book containing sewing implements which she reputedly worked herself, is testament to the affection between them (1781, Cat.21.13).

Kew Gardens was at the centre of new garden design throughout the period of the princesses’ influence. From the miniature ivory pagoda with tiny attached bells, turned by the young princess Louisa, Caroline’s daughter (Cat.23.12), to the designs for Kew by William Kent and the magnificent prints by William Chambers (Cat.19.13), the iconic pagoda and other garden follies appear several times throughout the displays. Roisin Inglesby’s essay ‘The Royal Estate’ in the catalogue, pp.325-334, notes: ‘it is not helpful to make clear distinctions between the Princesses’ public roles and their domestic spheres. With the exception of Frogmore, which can more properly be understood as a retreat from the public eye, the Princesses’ homes necessarily constituted a degree of public performance.’ (p.327). An introductory wall label to the exhibition section ‘Gardens and Architecture’ points out that the gardens created by the Georgian princesses were made to be shared, ‘establishing a new relationship between monarch and subject. They served as centres for study and private retreats’. A tension between public and private and the evolving role of the monarch is identified, with the garden the arena in which this relationship was newly constructed.

The curator has not shied away from the less edifying phenomenon of Georgian print culture, that of the satirical print. Although largely confined to a corridor space between rooms, we are shown prints satirising each of the princesses. The Festival of the Golden Rump (anon., 1737; Cat.14.04) crudely satirises Queen Caroline’s influence over George II. Augusta is depicted leading her blindfolded son, George III, while beckoning to her supposed lover, the third Earl of Bute, You have got him Ma’am, in the right Kew (anon.,1768; Cat.14.07). These were however very tame when compared with the sophisticated satires targeting Charlotte made by James Gillray (1757-1815). His Anti-Saccharrites – or John Bull and his family leaving off the use of Sugar, 1792 (Cat.15.09) is a relatively mild rebuke of Charlotte’s reputed meanness. Her grumpy daughters are shown being forced to drink their tea without sugar to save money but ostensibly to lessen the burden on slaves in sugar plantations.

Following this, we reach the final room, ‘First Empire’. A wall panel informs us:

By the mid eighteenth-century Britain had thirteen colonies established in America as well as trading interests in the Caribbean. These had been founded with many motives, including for the employment of the poor, the rehabilitation of criminals and to yield new natural resources. Many of these ambitions aligned with those of Caroline and Augusta, and they took a keen interest in their development. They championed American products at court and in the royal gardens. Although the princesses supported and promoted transatlantic growth and exploration they became implicated in the exploitation of slaves and the disenfranchised.

This introduction prepares us for a change in tone and an unavoidable interrogation of the imperial enterprise. Its brief summary of the reasons for founding the colonies is expanded upon in the catalogue essay by Ben Marsh, ‘Visitor from South Carolina: Mrs. Eliza Pinckney’, pp.515-525. He notes that the founding of Georgia in the 1730s, ‘designed to shore up the southern frontier against Spanish threats from Florida’, was justified by its Trustees ‘because of its capacity to take in the worthy London poor and persecuted German Protestants and to yield new resources that would furnish materials for British manufacturers and merchants’ (p.516). The new resources and manufacturing opportunities in Britain are exemplified in this exhibition room. For all their enlightened patronage, intellectual engagement and compassionate concern for welfare, the princesses were as deeply compromised by their acceptance of slavery as other beneficiaries of the wealth it brought to Britain. Any exhibition which features aspects of Empire and slavery has to make its stance clear. The central motif of this room personalises the encounter between plantation wealth in the shape of Mrs. Eliza Pinckney from South Carolina and Princess Augusta and thus to an extent diffuses and complicates an impulse towards immediate judgement.

We learn a little about Mrs. Pinckney. Her experimental and successful planting of the indigo crop in South Carolina with the help of her African slaves, along with demands for dye from the expanding textile market led to great wealth. Her visit to London with her family and audience with Augusta in 1753 are represented in the exhibition by stuffed birds from the Natural History Museum, of the type Eliza brought as gifts and which for Marsh had symbolic relevance: ‘Augusta and Eliza inhabited gendered cages, like all eighteenth-century women’ (p.517). Her letter describing her visit has a cabinet of its own and a transcript is provided for visitors (Cat.30.10). At Yale, Pinckney’s sack back dress was on show, a beautiful gold silk damask (Cat.30.06). However, this did not travel to London so an alternative exhibit was planned and the result offers many possible readings, resonances and interpretations.

The artist Yinka Shonibare uses Dutch wax-printed cloth in his work, often mistakenly taken as African in origin but in fact originally made in Holland for export to Indonesia and later to Africa. His work includes The Swing (After Fragonard), 2001, now in London’s Tate Modern, and Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, 2010, made for the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square and now at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. For Enlightened Princesses, he made an eighteenth-century sack back dress from bright wax-printed cloth, and displayed it on a manikin model of Mrs. Pinckney, although it has dark ‘skin’ suggesting her slaves’ rather than her presence. This model precariously balances on top of a large globe depicting the eighteenth-century world. It has no head, in common with other figures by Shonibare. Instead, it has a bird cage on its shoulders, with its door open from which brightly coloured birds are escaping. The birds stand for Mrs. Pinckney’s gift, for her slaves, for her, for the colonial enterprise, for the vogue for stuffed birds which was popular throughout the nineteenth-century period of Imperial expansion to come, and as Marsh suggested, for all eighteenth-century women.

Kensington Palace is full of headless manikins dressed in more traditional eighteenth-century costumes. Throughout the State Apartments, Mantua gowns with wide side paniers made in white fabric represent courtiers, and tourists often stand behind them to provide the missing head for a photograph. In display cases, original gowns, heavy with tarnished silver thread which would once have glistened by candlelight can be examined. The unknown courtiers are interchangeable and pinned into the formal constructions examined in studies of dress history. In the Diana Her Fashion Story exhibition, the more familiar Princess of recent times is represented by her dresses on headless manikins, to trace the brief story of her life. In her case, each dress offers an alternative snapshot of her alone, and we effortlessly complete the picture through imagination and memory.

The Enlightened Princesses exhibition as it is shown in London allows quite different connections to be made from those suggested at Yale. Shonibare’s contribution provides a metaphor for an Empire which was beginning to shape Britain’s view of its own role and importance in the world. The material wealth from expanding colonial trade was often channelled and expressed through real or imagined female acquisitiveness, in the form of fabrics, feathers and all the accoutrements of the tea-table, all of which are represented in the last room. Shonibare’s figure reminds us of the exotic goods which were gleefully accepted as gifts or obtained by guile throughout Britain’s Imperial history, and how the Empire dressed itself in its ‘new clothes’. We are also reminded of the perilous and delicate balancing act required to maintain its domination and of the fundamental risks when such an act inevitably led to a fall. Though compact, this exhibition is rich, thought-provoking, and not to be missed.

Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World is at Kensington Palace from 22nd June to 12th November 2017. It was previously at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven from 2nd February to 30th April 2017.