The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

William Herschel (1738-1822) is remembered for the discovery of the planet Uranus. He discovered infrared radiation and became the first President of the Royal Astronomical Society. He is also the older brother of Caroline Herschel, the first female scientist to receive a salary, the first woman in England to hold a government position, and the discoverer of several comets. Yet, despite these achievements, Caroline is rarely mentioned in history books. Her brother was the more important of the siblings because he was a man. So, let’s rediscover this lost heroine of astronomy.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel was the eighth of ten children born on 16th March 1750 in Hanover, Germany, to oboist Issak Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. Not all the children survived infancy, and those that did received a basic education at home. Issak made more effort to teach his sons than his two surviving daughters, who learned little more than reading and writing. Her father never thought Caroline would amount to much, particularly after she caught typhus at the age of ten. The illness stunted her growth, never growing taller than 4 feet 3 inches, and affected her eyesight.

Typhus put an end to Caroline’s regular education, and her mother did not expect her to find a husband. She insisted Caroline train as a house servant, although Issak continued to teach his daughter in secret. Following her father’s death in 1771, Caroline’s older brothers William and Alexander invited her to move with them to Bath in England, where they worked as musicians. They thought Caroline could work with them as a singer and perform in churches. It took some time to persuade their mother to let Caroline travel to England, but she eventually joined her brothers in August 1772.

As well as singing, Caroline looked after William’s household at 19 New King Street, Bath, which is now the location of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. Caroline found it difficult to mix in society but soon gained the opportunity to continue her education. Caroline’s brothers taught her arithmetic and to play the harpsichord, as well as regular singing lessons. She became the lead singer at William’s oratorio concerts, although only agreed to perform if her brother conducted. She gained a reputation for her voice after singing a solo in Handel’s Messiah in 1778, but her reluctance to work with other conductors led to a decline in her singing career.

Alongside infrequent public performances, Caroline focused her attentions on looking after her brother’s home. William left his music career behind, choosing to focus on his passion for astronomy. Whilst William studied, Caroline did “what a well-trained puppy dog would have done, that is to say, […] what he commanded…” As time went on, Caroline grew interested in her brother’s work and shared his excitement for the stars. During the 1770s, William built several telescopes, grinding the lenses by himself rather than purchasing inferior ones. It was with one of these that William discovered the planet Uranus on 13th March 1781.

In 1782, Caroline and William agreed to a final musical performance, after which William accepted the position of court astronomer to King George III (1738-1820). They moved to a shabby cottage in the village of Datchet, from where William could be on hand for the king at Windsor Castle. Her brother wished Caroline to be his assistant, which involved spending hours polishing mirrors, positioning telescopes and recording William’s astronomical observations. Initially, Caroline hated this work but soon grew to enjoy it after William asked her to “mind the heavens” with a telescope for interesting objects.

Caroline started keeping a record book in which she noted all her observations. These she compared with the Messier catalogue, a list of 110 nebulae and faint star clusters compiled by French astronomer Charles Messier (1730-1817). On 26th February 1783, Caroline spotted a nebula that did not appear in the catalogue. After more observation, she discovered a dwarf elliptical galaxy, now known as Messier 110, orbiting the Andromeda Galaxy. Although the discovery was recorded in Caroline’s name, William did not want to miss out on future discoveries and took over the searching, relegating his sister to note and measurements taker.

Noting his sister’s disappointment, William constructed a telescope for Caroline to use, although he still required her to take notes. Every night, William shouted out his sightings, which required Caroline to quickly look them up in either the Messier catalogue or the Catalogus Britannicus. The latter was a 3,000-star catalogue compiled by the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed (1646-1719). Unfortunately, neither list suited the Herschel sibling’s work, so Caroline created her own catalogue.

On 1st August 1786, while her brother was away, Caroline borrowed William’s telescope to sweep the sky, where she spotted an unknown comet. Over the next eleven years, she discovered eight new comets, although only five appeared in the Royal Society’s journal Philosophical Transactions under her name. Caroline also observed a comet that the French astronomer Pierre Méchain (1744-1804) had spotted a decade before, yet the Society named it after the third person to detect it, Johann Franz Encke (1791-1865). Unlike Caroline and Méchain, the German astronomer calculated that the comet orbits the Earth once every 3.3 years. Thus, the comet is known as Encke’s Comet.

After Caroline spotted her first comet, William presented her to the royal family at Windsor Castle. For some time, Caroline was known as the first woman to discover a comet, although later evidence proves this incorrect. Maria Kirch (1670-1720) is officially the first woman to spot a comet, but this knowledge remained hidden for many years because her husband, Gottfried Kirch (1639-1710), claimed it under his name. Nonetheless, Caroline’s reputation grew, and she reported her second find directly to the Astronomer Royal, the Reverend Doctor Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811).

Caroline became familiar with several well-known members of the Royal Society, including its president, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who rose to fame after accompanying Captain James Cook (1728-79) to Australia. Caroline announced the rest of her comet discoveries directly to Banks, including her eighth and final comet, which she observed on 6th August 1797 without the aid of a telescope. During this time, Caroline received an annual salary of £50 (equivalent to £6,400 in 2021) from the king, making her the first woman in England with an official government position. She was also the first paid woman in the field of astronomy.

Both Caroline and William continued to struggle to cross-reference their findings with Flamsteed’s catalogue, frequently resorting to Caroline’s previous notes instead. Other astronomers also faced similar difficulties, so William recommended his sister write a cross-index for all to use. The project, which took Caroline 20 months to complete, resulted in Catalogue of Stars, Taken from Mr. Flamsteed’s Observations Contained in the Second Volume of the Historia Coelestis, and Not Inserted in the British Catalogue, published by the Royal Society in 1798. This new catalogue included all the stars listed by Flamsteed and 560 new findings. Unfortunately, rules forbade women from writing scientific documents, so the catalogue appeared under William’s name.

The payment for the new catalogue supplemented Caroline’s income, affording her more independence. Her brother’s marriage in 1788 to a widow named Mary forced Caroline to move into external lodgings, but she still returned to the main house to work with her brother. Unfortunately, William denied her a copy of the key to his observatory and workroom, meaning she could never work alone. Caroline destroyed her journals from this period, so her true feelings are unknown, but biographers suggest Caroline felt bitter and jealous of William’s wife, the usurper of her position in the household. On the other hand, French geologist Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond (1741-1819), who befriended the siblings, claimed they worked well together. Caroline also looked after the house and observatory whenever William was away. Letters sent to and from Mary in later life also indicate a loving relationship, often writing fondly about her nephew John (1791-1871).

Although Caroline had restricted access to her brother’s observatory, she continued to make independent discoveries and contributed to many astronomical projects. In August 1799, Caroline received an invitation to spend a week in Greenwich as a guest of the Royal Family, which she readily accepted. Despite being a woman, Caroline’s fame grew, and many respected her as the true author of the Catalogue of Stars and discoverer of comets.

When William passed away in 1822 after a long illness, his grief-stricken sister returned to Hanover, Germany. Caroline later admitted she regretted leaving England, but she continued her astronomical studies from her new home. Using her brother’s notes, Caroline verified William’s work and produced another nebulae catalogue to aid her nephew John in his aspirations to follow in his father’s footsteps. Due to this work and the determination to write her memoirs, Caroline made no further original discoveries in the night sky. Nonetheless, she continued to attend events with other scientific luminaries and remained a respected astronomer.

In 1828, Caroline received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for her “recent reduction, to January, 1800, of the [2,500] Nebulæ discovered by her illustrious brother, which may be considered as the completion of a series of exertions probably unparalleled either in magnitude or importance in the annals of astronomical labour.” She was the first woman to receive such an honour and remained the only person of her sex until 1996 when Vera Rubin (1928-2016) received the medal for her work on galaxy rotation rates.

In 1835, the Royal Astronomical Society elected Caroline an Honorary Member. She shared the honour of the first female member with the Scottish scientist Mary Somerville (1780-1872). Three years later, Caroline achieved the same status at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. At the age of 96, Caroline also received recognition from Frederick William IV of Prussia (1795-1861). “In recognition of the valuable services rendered to Astronomy by you, as the fellow-worker of your immortal brother, Sir William Herschel, by discoveries, observations, and laborious calculations,” Caroline accepted another Gold Medal for Science.

“The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens.” This is the inscription on Caroline Herschel’s gravestone in the cemetery of the Gartengemeinde, where she was buried after passing away peacefully on 9th January 1848, at the age of 97. Forty years later, the Austrian astronomer Johann Palisa (1848-1925) named a comet after Caroline’s middle name Lucretia, proving her reputation lived on after her death. Two of her independent discoveries also share her name, Caroline’s Cluster and Caroline’s Rose, as well as a crater on the moon. Yet after this, Caroline Herschel’s fame faded away until the second half of the 20th century.

Caroline Herschel reappeared in 1968 when feminist poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) penned Planetarium, subtitled, “Thinking of Caroline Herschel … astronomer, sister of William; and others.” One verse of the poem refers to “a woman ‘in the snow among the Clocks and instruments or measuring the ground with poles’ in her 98 years to discover 8 comets”, which presumably refers to Caroline’s work, although she passed away just short of her 98th birthday. Yet, Rich’s work is only loosely inspired by Caroline Herschel and does not highlight her achievements or reveal anything about her life.

During the 1970s, feminist artist Judy Chicago (b.1939) honoured Caroline with a table setting in The Dinner Party. This installation artwork, which is on display in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, symbolises the work of 39 women throughout history. The artwork consists of tables in a triangle formation, each side representing a period of time. Caroline Herschel sits between Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and the Native American woman Sacagawea (1788-1812) on the American to the Women’s Revolution side of the table. Another side represents women from prehistory to the Roman Empire, for instance, Boadicea and the Hindu goddess Kali. The third side seats women from the beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation, including Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) and Elizabeth I (1533-1603).

Each place setting in The Dinner Party features an embroidered cloth featuring the sitter’s name and images to represent their accomplishments. Upon this sits a napkin, cutlery, a goblet, and a decorated plate. Chicago painted an eye in the centre of Caroline Herschel’s plate to represent the astronomer looking through a telescope. The tablecloth features stars, clouds, sun and eight comets.

Whilst Judy Chicago recognised the talents and achievements of 39 women, including Caroline Herschel, the artwork does little more than introduce their names and hint at their career. To fully appreciate these forgotten women, people need to read, learn and talk about them to keep them alive. In Ancient Egypt, a soul never died whilst someone remained alive to speak its name. Although this belief is not a part of modern religions, the premise is the same. Without educating others about historical figures, they will metaphorically die, just like Herschel almost did before poets and artists like Rich and Chicago resurrected her. Fortunately, several books concerning Caroline Herschel have appeared during the 21st century, so her memory continues to live.

Last year, Argentina released several satellites named after women of science, including Caroline Herschel, and in 2016, Google remembered her 266th birthday with a “Google Doodle”. Other than this, little else has helped return Caroline to her former glory. Famous during her lifetime, Caroline’s achievements have since gone unnoticed. This is largely due to society’s attitudes towards women in the 18th and 19th century. Unable to publish her work under her own name, Caroline’s brother took the credit. Whilst this was not a problem at the time, because friends and acquaintances knew it was Caroline’s work, the people of the future wrongly assumed William Herschel made the discoveries. In the 21st century, it is time for women of the past to reclaim their achievements and receive the same respect as male figures.


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George IV: Art and Spectacle

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George IV Sir Frances Chantrey

Known as “the first gentleman of England” due to his charm and culture, George IV formed the most magnificent collection of art of all the British Monarchs, much of which is still a part of the Royal Collection today. With a selection of paintings, textiles, furniture and ceramics, the Royal Collection Trust has curated an exhibition that presents the life of this extravagant king. George IV: Art and Spectacle allows visitors to imagine George IV’s art-enriched life whilst also revealing the truth behind the façade.

George Augustus Frederick was born on 12th August 1762 at St James’s Palace in London as the first child of King George III (1738-1820) and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818), in the second year of his father’s reign. As the eldest son of a king, George immediately became both Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay and was created Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester a few days after his birth.

Little is said about George’s childhood except that he was a talented student and learnt to speak French, German and Italian. George had six sisters and eight brothers, although Prince Octavius (1779-83) and Prince Alfred (1780-82) died in childhood. George was twenty-one years older than his youngest sibling Princess Amelia (1783-1810), which suggests the Royal home or nursery would have been rather crowded. Many of his siblings went on to marry notable people, although very few had (legitimate) children. Of those who did have children, the most notable are Prince Edward (1767-1820), whose only child became Queen Victoria (1819-1901), and Prince Adolphus (1774-1850), whose granddaughter Mary of Teck (1867-1953) married King George V (1865-1936).

Unlike his father who was a calm, scandal-free man, George was a rather wild character. At 18 years old, George became a heavy drinker and had numerous mistresses. At 21, he was granted £60,000 from Parliament and an annual income of £50,000 from his father, which he used to purchase extravagant decorations for his home, Carlton House on the south side of Pall Mall, London. His spendthrift nature led to animosity between father and son since George was not behaving as an heir apparent should.

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Maria Fitzherbert – Richard Conway

To complicate matters further, George fell in love with the twice-widowed commoner Maria Fitzherbert (1756-1837). George was determined to marry her, however, since she was Roman Catholic, he would have lost his place in the line of succession. Also, the prince was not allowed to marry without the king’s consent. Nonetheless, George and Maria went behind the king’s back and married at her house in Mayfair on 15th December 1785. The union was, however, void according to the law of the State, therefore, only the young couple considered themself married.

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The Fencing-Match between the Chevalier de Saint-Georges and the Chevalier d’Éon – Alexandre-Auguste Robineau

Meanwhile, George continued to purchase expensive furnishings and artwork for Carlton House and held lavish parties, such as the one depicted in a painting by Alexandre-Auguste Robineau (1747-1828). Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Chevalier d’Éon were invited to entertain the guests at Carlton House on 9th April 1787. Both were famed for their fencing skills and conducted a match in the middle of the hall, surrounded by George’s eclectic court, however, that was only half the entertainment.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) was a classical composer and violinist as well as a fencer, who was supposedly acquainted with Mozart (1756-1791). In fact, Saint-Georges was nicknamed the Black Mozart, since he was the son of an African slave in the French colony of Guadeloupe. He was brought up and educated by his father, George Bologne de Saint-Georges (a white, wealthy Frenchman) in France, where he became a champion fencer and the first known classical composer of African ancestry. Saint-Georges fled to England during the French Revolution, which is where he attended a party at Carlton House.

Chevalier d’Éon (1728-1810), on the other hand, was a bit of an enigma at the time. Dressed in women’s clothing, d’Éon partook in the fencing match against Saint-Georges, as shown in the painting, which made the event all the more exciting. Was it a woman with the skills of a champion fencer or was it a man in drag? It was finally confirmed after d’Éon’s death that he had “male organs in every respect perfectly formed”.

Real name Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, d’Éon was a French diplomat and spy who was living in political exile in London. For 49 years of his life, d’Éon identified as a man, although he once dressed as a woman to infiltrate the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia (1709-61). From 1777, however, d’Éon began identifying as female and many people believed s/he had been born that way. No longer under the protection of the French monarchy, d’Éon began to suffer financially, resorting to selling his possessions and entering fencing tournaments, such as the one against Saint-Georges in front of the Prince of Wales. Unfortunately, d’Éon suffered a serious fencing wound in 1796 and was in debtors prison by 1804. By his death in 1810, d’Éon, or Mrs Cole as he insisted on being called, had been bedridden for four years in total poverty.

Not long after this fencing party, George found himself in debt and unable to afford to continue living at Carlton House. As a result, he ended up staying with his “wife” Maria Fitzherbert. This, of course, was likely to cause a scandal if word got out to the public, so Parliament intervened, granting the prince £161,000 to cover his debts and £60,000 to improve the state of Carlton House.

Despite the grant from Parliament, George’s debts continued to climb but any further help was refused unless he agreed to marry his cousin Princess Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821). Caroline was the daughter of Princess Augusta of Great Britain, George III’s older sister, and Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (1735-1806). George and Caroline married on 8th April 1795 in St James’s Palace, however, the pair were so unsuited to each other that they barely spent any time together. After the birth of their only child Princess Charlotte in 1796, the couple went their separate ways, although they never divorced – not for lack of trying on George’s part!

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1796-1817) lived with her father after he won custody in 1804. Yet “lived with” is a rather loose term since she was mostly brought up by governesses and, by the age of eight, was living more or less by herself in Montague House, adjacent to Carlton House. Despite his lack of affection, George tried to control Charlotte’s life, going as far as to demand she marry the future king of the Netherlands Prince William of Orange (1792-1849). Whilst she accepted the proposal, Charlotte broke off the relationship before the wedding. Eventually, her father allowed her to marry the future king of the Belgians Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1790-1865). The marriage was a happy one, albeit for a year and a half, until Charlotte passed away shortly after giving birth to a still-born son in 1817 at the age of 21.

Having a young daughter to look after did not stop George’s lavish spending. By 1795, his debts were as high as £630,000, which is equivalent to £63,934,000 today. Once again, Parliament granted the prince some money to cover these debts, however, he continued to spend. He also had a whole host of mistresses to shower money over, including the actress Mary Robinson (1757-1800), Frances Villiers, Countess of Jersey (1753-1821), Isabella, Marchioness of Hertford (1759-1834) and Elizabeth, Marchioness of Conyngham (1769-1861). It is rumoured George fathered several children with his mistresses, however, as they were illegitimate children, they had no right to the British throne.

A large part of George’s spending was on artwork from the continent, which he was unable to experience himself due to never being able to go on a traditional Grand Tour. His collection allowed him to experience the freedom he never enjoyed in real life, for example, he saw cities through paintings and famous buildings through drawings and models. George was particularly fascinated by French culture, which is reflected in his impressive collection.

Had he been able to experience a Grand Tour, George would have visited the city of Rome. Nevertheless, he purchased souvenirs from the city, such as marble and gilt bronze statues of the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Arch of Constantine made by Giovacchino (1756-1822) and Pietro Belli (1780-1828). In the partially excavated Campo Vaccino, visitors were shown the remains of three triumphal arches built by the Emperors Titus, Septimus Severus and Constantine. Models of the arches in their former glory were available for tourists and George ordered one of each in 1816, although the Arch of Titus is not exhibited in the exhibition. The Arch of Constantine was George’s inspiration for the triumphal arch to celebrate the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo. Designed by John Nash (1752-1835), it was originally erected in front of Buckingham Palace, however, it is now known as Marble Arch and can be found on the edge of Hyde Park.

The Battle of Waterloo was the final armed conflict in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). Although his father forbade him to participate, George eagerly followed the military campaigns, collecting news and artworks so that he could be kept up to date. It is said he formed the allied powers at a conference in 1814 that finally defeated Napoleon on 18th June 1815.

George could often be found studying maps of Europe and discussing with guests the possible outcomes of the engagement. On display is a map George purchased showing the various stages of the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, which saw a French victory.

After the war, George commissioned the leading portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) to paint a series of twenty-eight portraits of people who helped to defeat Napoleon. Military heroes included Charles, Archduke of Austria (1771-1847); the Austrian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Prince Metternich (1773-1859); and a representative of Russia, John, Count Capo d’Istria (1776-1831). George also commissioned portraits of Pope Pius VII (1742-1823), who had been imprisoned by Napoleon for five years, and Cardinal Ercole Consalvi (1757-1824), who was the papal representative at the Congress of Vienna after the defeat of the Emperor.

Despite being his enemy, George was intrigued by Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). The most expensive print the Prince commissioned was of Napoleon’s coronation as emperor in 1804, costing him £63. The print took four years to complete and George finally received it in 1811, the same year he became Prince Regent.

The death of George’s youngest sister Princess Amelia in 1810 pushed his already fragile father over the edge into mental relapse. George III had already suffered severe mental health problems in 1788 but had recovered. This time, it seemed unlikely the king would recover, so on 5th February 1811, the Prince of Wales was given the title Prince Regent, which allowed him to take on some of the roles of his father. Parliament, under the guidance of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval (1762-1812), dealt with government affairs, whilst George was given other responsibilities. After Perceval’s assassination in 1812, George failed on two counts to appoint a new leader before eventually electing Lord Liverpool (1770-1828) to continue Perceval’s administration as Prime Minister.

George was more concerned about matters of style and taste and thus the Regency Style was born. The style applied to classical buildings, interiors, furniture, and clothing, blending old Gothic styles with Greek, Indian and Georgian. Buildings were usually decorated with white stucco and had black front doors framed by two columns. Brighton Pavillion, built by John Nash, was commissioned by the Prince Regent as a seaside home. The exterior replicates an Indian style, however, the interior was designed to appear Chinese. John Nash also designed the terrace houses that surround Regent’s Park and Regent Street, so named after the Prince. John Soane (1753-1837) was also a leading architect at the time (Dulwich Picture Gallery, Bank of England). Other notable constructions in the Regency style are Vauxhall Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, Southwark Bridge and Burlington Arcade.

George III passed away in 1820 and the Prince Regent ascended the throne. Despite attempts to divorce Caroline, she was still his wife and by rights queen consort. George, however, refused to have Caroline as his queen and excluded her from his coronation. Whether caused by this or purely coincidental, Caroline fell ill on the day of the ceremony and died a couple of weeks later. Reports state that Caroline believed she had been poisoned.

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Sir Walter Scott – St Thomas Lawrence

Naturally, George’s coronation was an expensive affair, costing £243,000, which is equivalent to £21 million today. It proved to be a popular event and the next year George IV was invited to visit Ireland, the first monarch to do so since Richard II (1367-1400). Then, in 1821, George visited Edinburgh, making him the first English monarch to set foot in Scotland since Charles II (1630-85). The visit was arranged by the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott (1777-1832), of whom George commissioned a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Sir Thomas Lawrence was a child prodigy who went on to become the fourth president of the Royal Academy. By the age of ten, Lawrence was supporting his family through the sale of his portraits and by the age of 21 received his first royal commission: a portrait of Queen Charlotte. In 1810, he acquired the patronage of the Prince Regent, who commissioned him to produce the Waterloo Portraits. He was also the painter of George IV’s official Coronation Portrait, however, the result was not one of his best.

Most likely as a way of saving money, George asked Lawrence to paint over an earlier portrait of himself dressed in dark blue Garter Robes. Not only did George look a bit younger then but he had been depicted a lot thinner than he truly was. Rather than appearing like a 57-year-old overweight king, the portrait appeared to be of a prince in his thirties.

Although Lawrence was a skilled painter, painting over an old portrait proved to be difficult. Firstly, painting a lighter colour (red) on top of a darker colour (dark blue) is not easy. Whilst Lawrence managed to change the dark blue Garter Robes into red Coronation Robes, closer inspection reveals a dark blue outline along the edge of the robe. Also, the inside of the Garter Robe was made from silk, whereas the Coronation Robe was made from ermine. Lawrence attempted to change the appearance of the material, however, failed to complete the robe between the king’s legs. Around the head, the king appears to have a halo of brighter red where the artist decided to update the hairstyle.

As well as these issues in the Coronation Portrait, there were a few inaccuracies in the former painting. As mentioned, George IV was an overweight man, weighing around 18 stone when he became king. His waist is recorded as being 50 inches and he was suffering from gout, thickening of the arteries, and fluid retention, causing him to spend whole days in bed. The man in the portrait looked nothing like him, nor did it look like the Prince Regent when it was originally painted. George was also a very short man of around 5 ft, however, the portrait makes him appear much taller. This is probably due to the torso being painted disproportionately long in comparison to the legs. The high collar also helps the king appear taller.

Ironically, it is the satirical caricatures that were produced during George IV’s lifetime that paint a more accurate image of his appearance. They tended to depict him as a fat, overweight man with expensive tastes and traits inappropriate for royalty. Although they were intended to ridicule the king, George IV collected many of the prints, finding them oddly amusing and, on occasion, flattering.

George spent the majority of his reign at Windsor Castle from which he often tried to intervene in politics. Parliament was trying to work towards Catholic Emancipation, which would reduce the restrictions put on Roman Catholics during the Tudor period, including allowing them to sit in parliament. George, as a protestant king, was against any pro-Catholic ideas and adamantly refused to give his assent to any form of emancipation until, under intense political pressure, he eventually signed the Catholic Relief Act in 1829.

By this time, George IV was almost completely blind from cataracts and taking up to 100 drops of laudanum a day to combat the pain of gout, which had virtually paralysed his right arm. Rather than signing documents, he had to stamp his signature in the presence of witnesses.

In 1830 at the age of 67, George’s weight was recorded at 20 stone and his health was rapidly deteriorating. He did not help matters by insisting on a breakfast of “a Pidgeon and Beef Steak Pye…Three parts of a bottle of Mozelle, a Glass of Dry Champagne, two Glasses of Port [and] a Glass of Brandy”, followed by a large dose of laudanum. By 26th June 1830, the king was dead. Since George IV’s only heir predeceased him, his brother William succeeded him as king.

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George IV left behind an enormous collection of art, much of which is on display in the George IV: Art and Spectacle exhibition. Visitors can view artworks by Sir Joshua Reynolds, William Hogarth, George Stubbs and Sir David Wilkie, as well as many items of furniture that could once be found in Carlton House. A few examples from George’s armoury, which once filled five rooms of his house, are also on display alongside ceremonial objects, including the Diamond Diadem that Her Majesty the Queen still wears to and from the State Opening of Parliament.

Essentially an art exhibition, George IV: Art and Spectacle provides an insight into the history of the British monarchy and the life of a magnificent king. Whether visitors are there for the art or the history, there is more than enough to satisfy everyone. With the opportunity to listen to a free audio guide, the Royal Collection Trust unearthed more information than can be found in the majority of history books and internet sources. A free talk held at 12 pm and 3 pm reveals even more information about King George IV and ensures visitors get their monies worth.

George IV: Art and Spectacle is being exhibited at The Queens Gallery, Buckingham Palace until Sunday 3rd May 2020. Tickets are £13.50 or £12.20 for over 60s and £6.70 for under 17s. The exhibition will move to the Palace of Holyroodhouse on Friday 16th October 2020 and remain there until 5th April 2021.


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