Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace

Of the 8000 paintings in the Royal Collection, 65 of the best have been selected for the latest exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Many of these masterpieces have hung in the palace since George III (1738-1820) acquired the building in 1762. When George IV (1762-1830) came to the throne, he commissioned leading architect John Nash (1752-1835) to build a Picture Gallery, one of the state rooms in the palace, where these paintings have hung ever since. Unfortunately, they are displayed in two rows where it is difficult to see them all. Whilst the Picture Gallery is undergoing essential work, the public have the opportunity to view each of the chosen paintings at eye-level, where they can be examined and appreciated in detail.

The exhibition is divided into three sections, which look at paintings from different countries, such as the Netherlands, Flanders and Italy. Many were acquired by George IV, who had a good eye for art, but others have been in the collection since the reigns of Charles I (1600-49) and Charles II (1630-85). The paintings in the first gallery were all created in the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) between 1630 and 1680. This was the heydey of the Dutch Golden Age, during which the Dutch Republic controlled much of the area now belonging to the present Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age are modest in scale and tend to depict scenes of everyday life. Artists usually worked alone in a studio, painting from memory rather than on-site or en plein air. The colours are vibrant, which is one of several identifying features of the style. With delicate, almost invisible brushstrokes, Dutch artists produced true-to-life paintings that often contained a comic element. George IV appreciated the artworks for the latter quality and purchased all but two on display for his London residence at Carlton House while he was still the Prince of Wales.

A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman (c1660) is one of two paintings in this section of the exhibition not purchased by George IV. Instead, his father, George III, bought it in 1762 to hang in the King’s Closet at Windsor Castle. Nicknamed The Music Lesson, it was painted by Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) in the early 1660s, although the King believed it was by Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635-81) due to a misreading of the signature. The true identity of the artist did not come to light until 1866.

Only 34 paintings by Vermeer survive, and they are difficult to date, although some art historians estimate he produced A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman between 1662 and 1664. Vermeer paints in a grid-like manner, full of vertical and horizontal lines, which draw the eye to the back of the room where the scene takes place. A young woman stands at a virginal with her back to the viewer while her music teacher stands to the side with his right arm resting atop the instrument.

Vermeer has cropped many of the elements in the painting, suggesting the room is much larger than what is visible. In the mirror on the back wall, which reflects the lady’s face, Vermeer has also included a glimpse of an artist’s easel, suggesting he is in the same room. Yet, it is more likely that Vermeer produced the artwork in his studio.

On the lid of the virginal, an inscription reads MUSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S / MEDICINA DOLOR[IS], meaning “Music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow.” Art historians debate the meaning of this phrase, suggesting it relates to the two figures in the painting. Perhaps there is forbidden love between the two characters, breaching the teacher-student relationship. Yet, another element in the scene questions the type of love hinted at by the inscription. The framed painting hanging on the wall behind the tutor is an impression of Roman Charity (Cimon and Pero) by Dirck Van Baburen (1595-1624). The scene depicts the story of the imprisoned Cimon, who was breastfed by his daughter Pero to keep him alive. Whilst this is meant to symbolise the ideal of Christian charity, it also hints at a complicated relationship.

Most likely purchased for its comedic value, The Listening Housewife by Nicolaes Maes (1634-93) entered the Royal Collection in 1811. During the 1650s, Maes produced several paintings of domestic scenes with moralising themes, of which this is one. The young housewife, identified by the keys in her hand, engages with the viewer with a direct gaze and a conspiratorial finger to her lips. This gesture draws attention to the scene at the foot of the staircase, on which the housewife is eavesdropping. Two lovers are kissing, having abandoned their chores, but will soon be caught by a man approaching with a lantern. The playful smile on the housewife’s lips indicates she is not upset by the scene, but the older man may react quite differently when he discovers the couple.

Paintings of indoor domestic scenes tended to be quite dark due to the nature of Dutch buildings. Windows let in very little light, and the wooden interiors and furnishings created many shadows. Maes’ paintings are an example of this, as are works by Gerrit Dou (1613-75), a former pupil of Rembrandt. In The Grocer’s Shop (1672), Dou contrasts the darkness of the interior with the daylight outside, coming through an arched window. This creates the illusion that the viewer is observing the scene outside the building. Yet, the window is likely an element of Dou’s imagination.

The scene in the room is typical of a general store selling eggs, dairy products, bread and meat products. The style of dress is slightly different from the early paintings by Dou, suggesting the fashions from France had begun to influence the Dutch Republic. This is also evident in the sculpted relief of children playing with a goat on the window sill, which resembles the work of French artists.

Not all paintings from the Dutch Golden Age depicted interior, everyday life scenes. Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (1638) by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) is an interpretation of a traditional religious scene recorded in the Gospel of St John (20:11-18). The Bible passage records the moment Mary Magdalen visits the tomb of the crucified Christ, only to find it empty. A man, who she mistakes for a gardener, asks her why she is crying, and she appeals to him for information about the missing body. This is the scene Rembrandt depicts, shortly before the moment Mary realises the gardener is her Lord, Jesus Christ.

Similar to other artworks of the era, the painting is quite dark, particularly around the tomb. Rembrandt’s use of light in the background, which contrasts with the deep colours in the foreground, is symbolic. The darkness represents death and grief, whereas the opalescent dawn sky hints at hope and life. Jesus’ body is angled towards the background, suggesting he wishes to move on and embrace his post-resurrection role in the world.

At first glance, Two Sportsmen Outside an Inn (1651) by Paulus Potter (1625-54) may appear to be a typical everyday life scene, but George IV probably purchased it for its comedic value. Two professional hunters are being served beer from a small, remote inn. A barefoot young boy tends to one of the men’s horses while the other horse urinates on the ground. Whilst the horse’s action is natural, it is unusual for an artist to capture such a moment.

Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age typically depicted colourfully dressed, wealthy men and women. Poverty was rarely seen in Dutch paintings, yet Potter emphasised the impoverished state of the innkeeper, child, and drunken man sitting on a bench. Art historians liken the subject matter to a story told by Ovid about the Roman gods Jupiter and Mercury, who visit the elderly peasant couple, Philemon and Baucis. There is a stark contrast between the rich and the poor, both in the style of dress and attitude. During the 17th, 18th and 19th century, some viewers may have found this contrast amusing.

The artwork in the second gallery also come from the Low Countries, but they belong to more prestigious branches of art. All the paintings are significantly larger than those in the first gallery and depict narratives, religious subjects, landscapes and commissioned portraits. Three of the best artists of the 17th century dominate the walls: Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt.

Those fortunate enough to be visiting the exhibition at 12 pm or 3 pm have the pleasure of listening to a short talk about Milkmaids with cattle in a landscape, ‘The Farm at Laken’ by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-18).

Peter Paul Rubens was perhaps the most accomplished and influential artist of the 17th century. He was born in Siegen, Germany but spent much of his early life in Antwerp, where he established himself as a painter. Rubens subsequently travelled all over Europe as a court artist and diplomat for Philip IV of Spain (1605-65) and Charles I of England (1600-49).

Rubens was a very versatile artist. In the exhibition are three of his landscapes, two portraits, and the Assumption of the Virgin. He was very well-known for his large scale history paintings, depicting scenes from mythology and religion. His landscapes are less known, which he painted towards the end of his life. These were produced for fun rather than for patrons and stayed in Rubens’ personal collection or within the possession of friends and family.

The Farm at Laken is one of Rubens’ earliest landscape paintings and was acquired by George IV in 1821 for 1500 guineas (just under £100,000 today) and has remained in the Royal Collection ever since. It is a panoramic landscape where the details in the foreground are very clear and viewers also have a view of the horizon on the left-hand side of the painting. Rubens’ used subtle changes in colour to differentiate between the different levels of the landscape. In the foreground, he used brown tones, which become greener in the middle ground before transforming to blue in the background. He also uses a picturesque line of trees to lead the eye from one place to another.

Rubens produced this painting during the Autumn. This is evident through the subtle use of orange in the trees to indicate the changing colours of the leaves. The fields also have an autumnal glow, but the most obvious indication of the season is the activities of the people in the foreground. It is the time of the harvest, and some farmworkers are digging up vegetables, such as the cauliflowers and onions seen in a wheelbarrow and the basket carried by a woman. The well-fed cows are being milked, which along with the produce suggests the farm has had a successful, fertile year.

Some art historians believe there are elements in the landscape that relate specifically to Rubens’ life. He painted the scene between 1617 and 1618, almost ten years after the signing of the Treaty of Antwerp. The treaty declared a truce between the Habsburg rulers of the Southern Netherlands (where modern-day Belgium is today) and Spain, and the Dutch Republic. The two sides had been at war for 41 years, the majority of Rubens’ life, but the 1609 peace treaty resulted in twelve years of peace. The abundance of this Flemish landscape may represent this time of peace. The figures and animals may also personify the allegories of Peace and Plenty. The woman carrying the basket represents Plenty, and the flock of doves in the centre represent Peace.

The title of the painting, The Farm at Laken, refers to the church in the background between the trees. Art historians believe this is an impression of the Our Lady at Laken church, demolished during the late 19th-century. The church was associated with the rulers of the Southern Netherlands, Archduke Albert VII (1559-1621) and Isabella Clara Eugenia (1566-1663), who made a pilgrimage to the site every year. So, the farm did not just thrive under the peaceful watch of its rulers, but it also had religious connotations. Religion was extremely important to people living in Flanders and the Netherlands, but Our Lady at Laken held even more value because it contained a relic associated with fertility. Many women visited the church every year in the belief it would help them conceive a child.

Similar to other landscapes by Rubens, such as A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning and The Rainbow Landscape that were recently on display at the Wallace Collection in London, the painting grew during the making. The majority of Rubens’ landscapes were painted on wooden panels (ironically, the other two landscapes in the exhibition are on canvas), which allowed him to produce finer details and disguise his brushstrokes. Rubens began this painting on a much smaller panel, which he later expanded by adding extra panels to the top (13 cm), left (7 cm) and right hand (15 cm) sides. Some art historians suggest this is because he could not contain the abundance of the landscape on such as small panel (72.9 x 103.9 cm).

Christ Healing the Paralysed Man (1619) is, admittedly, not one of Anthony van Dyck‘s (1599-1641) greatest works, but he was only 20 years old. At the time, Van Dyck was a student under Rubens, and the painting was likely designed by the elder artist. Sketches of figures similar to those in this painting exist in Rubens’ hand. The religious theme is more synonymous with Italian painters of the 16th century, but many Netherlandish and Flemish artists practised by copying these styles.

Van Dyck, with Rubens’ help, depicted the scene in Matthew 9:2-8, where Jesus healed a paralysed man. Some men brought the man to Jesus, who said, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Although this evoked outrage amongst the Pharisees, the man got up and walked home. The man in question is likely the poorly dressed, older looking figure on the left. He is thanking Christ for healing him – a scene not mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew.

Art historians have identified the young man near the open doorway as the recently called James, the Apostle that became the Patron Saint of pilgrims. All the characters seem to be heading towards the door as though about to start a journey or pilgrimage. The world outside appears bright and positive, which contrasts with the darkness of the interior. The darkness symbolises the sins of the man, and the light colours his salvation.

Visitors will recognise Rembrandt’s Portrait of Agatha Bas (1611-1658) ‘Lady with a Fan’ from the promotion materials and advertisements for the exhibition. It is considered one of the most beautiful portraits in the Royal Collection. The 29-year-old woman was married to the wool merchant Nicolaas van Bambeeck (1596-1661), whose portrait hangs in the Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. The couple were not particularly famous, but Rembrandt knew them personally. After their marriage, the Van Bambeeck’s lived with Nicolaas’ mother, diagonally opposite Rembrandt on Sint Anthoniesbreestraat in Amsterdam.

Agatha wears a black gown over a pink silk dress. The gold flower patterns, pearls and fashionable fan reveal she was of a wealthy standing in Dutch society. Rembrandt expertly painted the white lace around her collar and sleeves, making the painting feel three-dimensional, almost as though the viewer could reach out and touch the material. Rembrandt also engages with the viewer by adding an ebony frame upon which Agatha’s hand rests, giving the illusion that she could climb through the frame into the gallery.

Lord Yarmouth (1777-1842) bought the Portrait of Agatha Bas at an auction for King George IV. Yarmouth was an art collector as well as a politician, so understood what to look for in a painting. The sitter’s beauty combined with Rembrandt’s delicate brush strokes and detail makes the portrait particularly striking. Not only is the artwork pleasing to look at, but it is also the work of one of the most well-known artists of all time.

Almost out of place next to Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck is A Kermis on St George’s Day (1649) by David Teniers the Younger (1610-90). Teniers was a versatile Flemish Baroque painter whose work greatly appealed to George IV. This painting is the most expensive work by Teniers in the Royal Collection, costing the King 1500 guineas in 1819; the same price as Rubens’ Farm at Laken.

A Kermis is a summer fair held in towns and villages in the Netherlands, often organised by the parish church. Teniers painted several Kermis scenes, but instead of capturing fairs for posterity, he filled it with examples of vices for comedic effect. In this painting, lust, wrath, drunkenness, and general boorishness are abundant throughout the crowds. They are all in high spirits, leading to careless folly. George IV was a wild partygoer, and he may have recognised himself in many of these characters.

The third and final room of the exhibition displays paintings created in Italy between 1510 and 1740. During this period, art styles changed and developed, as did the themes. Ideal female figures contrast with sober male portraits, and large landscapes depict a range of views and weathers. The choice of colour also differs from artist to artist. Some use chiaroscuro to emphasise particular sections of the painting, and others stand out with bright, attractive colours. Whilst most of the previous paintings were purchased by George IV, many of the ones from Italy entered the Royal Collection much earlier.

In 1660, the States of Holland and West Friesland presented Charles II with Pallas Athene (c.1531-8) by the Italian prodigy Parmigianino (1503-40). Also known as Francesco Mazzola, he gained the nickname Parmigianino, meaning “the little one from Parma”, due to his youth. Parmigianino began painting as a child, and by the age of 18, had already completed several commissions.

Pallas Athene was the Greek goddess of wisdom and a skilled warrior. Most artists depicted her wearing some form of armour, and Parmigianino followed suit by including a golden breastplate. The green gown covering Athene’s shoulders, combined with her long, curly hair, emphasise her femininity. Athene’s appearance, particularly her long neck, was inspired by classical statues, descriptions by the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-74), and Mannerist ideals of beauty.

In contrast to the beautiful Athene is Artemisia Gentileschi’s (1593-1652) Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), purchased by Charles I. Unlike the bright colours in Parmigianino’s work, Gentileschi used dark, earthy tones, showing the viewer an alternative interpretation of beauty. According to Iconologia by Italian iconographer Cesare Ripa (1555-1622), Painting is personified as “a beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought”. Gentileschi captured the essence of this description, but as a woman, she did not intend to present herself (for it is also a self-portrait) as a man’s ideal beautiful woman.

Artemisia Gentileschi came to London at the request of Charles I, suggesting he respected her as a painter despite her gender. Successful female painters were unheard of during the 17th century, but Gentileschi was very much in demand. Naturally, collectors were attracted by her unusual status as a female artist, but she also had outstanding artistic abilities.

Titian’s (1488-1576) portrait of Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530) is an example of the sober-style paintings of men from the 16th and 17th century, a stark contrast from those depicting women. Painted early in his career (c.1514-18), Titian used a restricted colour range, making the sitter look like a sensible, respected member of society.

Jacopo Sannazaro was an Italian poet best known for his humanist classic Arcadia, a poem that influenced the likes of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and John Milton (1608-74). Sannazaro claimed to come from a noble family, and this portrait reflects that. He sits with an air of importance, demanding respect from his viewers. In his right hand, he holds a book with one finger marking his place. Some art historians suggest it is a Bible, thus emphasising Sannazaro’s piety. 

Claude Lorrain’s (1604-82) Harbour Scene at Sunset (1643) is one of several landscapes in the latter part of the exhibition. It was first recorded at Buckingham Palace in 1785 but may have been purchased earlier by Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-57), the father of George III. The scene depicts the harbour at the Arco degli Argentari in Rome at sunset. The low sun creates a path of sunlight across the sea, providing enough light for the workers to unload goods from the ships.

The ancient Roman arch, yellow sky, and the “wine-dark sea” create an idyllic landscape, suggesting peacefulness, warmth and harmony. Yet, “Arco degli Argentari” means Arch of the Money-Changers and was located in a squalid corner of Rome. Lorrain used artistic licence to create an idealised version of the harbour. He did not aim to capture an accurate scene; instead, he worked to his strengths: his command of perspective and use of colour and tone.

In 1762, George III acquired The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day by Canaletto (1697-1768), which is a complete contrast to the landscape by Lorrain. Canaletto’s precise drawing and painting style create a perfect depiction of the Bucintoro, the state barge of the doge of Venice, returning to the city on Ascension Day. The annual ceremony celebrated the Sposalizio del Mar (the Wedding of the Sea), which symbolised Venice’s reliance on the sea. Several boats accompanied the Bucintoro, as seen in Canaletto’s painting.

Canaletto’s skill at architectural drawing is evident in his paintings because the buildings are precise and finely detailed. From a distance, the artwork looks like a photograph, but up close, the individual brush strokes are visible. He used the same technique for the ripples on the water and the boats. Although the canvas is fairly large (76.8 x 125.4 cm), the details are minute, suggesting Canaletto used a very fine paintbrush to painstakingly draw each line and flourish.

On display are four more paintings by Canaletto, which George III acquired in the same year. On a grander scale, these depict views of Venice away from the water’s edge. As a result, they lack the fine details seen in the water in The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day, but they are still impressive pieces of art. It is easy to see why the King liked Canaletto’s work, and visitors spend longer looking at the details in the landscape than they do in some of the other paintings in the gallery. In total, the Royal Academy owns over 238 paintings and drawings by Canaletto, making it one of the largest and most important art collections in the world.

Whilst the exhibition Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace evolved from an opportune moment – the Picture Gallery undergoing essential work – the curators have thought carefully about what paintings to display and where. Rather than placing them in chronological order, they are divided into three groups, which helps visitors compare artworks of similar styles. The exhibition provides details about each painting and encourages visitors to question what makes them so important that Britain’s previous kings wanted them in their collection. There is no right or wrong answer. The appreciation of art is a subjective topic, and what appeals to one person may not to another. The aim of the exhibition is not to educate but to provide visitors with the opportunity to think and reflect.

Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace is on display at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until Sunday 13th February 2022. Tickets cost £16.00 per adult but discounted tickets are available for over 60s, children and students. Get your ticket stamped, and you can return as many times as you wish throughout the year. 


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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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Treasures of Trafalgar Square

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Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Trafalgar Square is one of the most popular tourist interests in Central London, attracting well over one million people per year. Surrounded by museums, galleries and historic buildings, the public square is continually travelled through as sightseers make their way from place to place. Containing numerous statues, there are plenty of photographic opportunities for selfies or group pictures as well as the chance to witness a diverse selection of street performance.

With so much to offer, how much do visitors gain from their visit to Trafalgar Square? Apart from the lions and the acclaimed Nelson’s Column, a lot goes unappreciated or even unnoticed. By stepping back from the crowds and taking the time to look around you – up high, down low and side to side – you will discover the history and wonders of the dynamic location.

Trafalgar Square was developed by the architect John Nash (1752-1835) in the early 1800s. After its completion, the new square was officially christened Trafalgar Square in 1830 to commemorate the victory at the infamous Battle of Trafalgar a quarter of a century earlier. Some tourists are frequently confused by the name and incorrectly assume that the battle against Napoleon took place in this very square. The British Naval victory was earned at Cape Trafalgar on the coast of Spain, in which the Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson lost his life.

In 1843, a bronze statue of Nelson was erected on top of a 145 ft Corinthian column designed by the English architect William Railton (1800-77); a tremendous monument in honour of the war-hero. The bronze lions on the pedestal below, sculpted by Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-73), were added thirty years later to stand guard around the column.

Nelson, literally and figuratively, overshadows all the other statues and plinths around the square and, unless time is taken to study them carefully, many remain unaware of who they represent and the significance of their position. Over the years, several sculptures have been erected (and even removed from) Trafalgar Square and they are worth having a look at.

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Jacobus Secundus, Photograph by Prioryman

To the left of the entrance to the National Gallery, stands a particularly old bronze statue. Originally erected in the Palace of Whitehall in 1686, King James II stands in a Contrapposto pose (hips and legs twisted away from the position of the head and shoulders) sculpted to resemble a Roman emperor. With right hand outstretched, it is believed that the King, or Jacobus Secundus as the plinth states, once held a baton, which is now missing.  The rest of the plinth, when translated from the Latin, reads “by the grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland. Defender of the Faith. 1686.”

In the top right-hand corner of the square sits an equestrian statue of another king of England. Cast two years before George IV’s death in 1830, his statue depicts him in ancient Roman garments – possibly an attempt at resembling a Roman emperor similarly to James II – and was originally intended for the top of Marble Arch when it was used as the entrance to Buckingham Palace. Temporarily placed upon a plinth in Trafalgar Square, it has remained there ever since, although the inscription below was only added in the late 19th-century once his flattering features were no longer recognised by the public.

The most interesting thing about the George IV statue designed by Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey (1781-1841) is that he is riding with no stirrups. Whether it was intentional to depict the king bareback riding or an oversight of the sculptor remains unknown.

There is another equestrian statue in Trafalgar Square on the opposite side, near Whitehall. Older than both James II and George IV, the statue was cast in the 1630s by Hubert Le Sueur (1580-1658), a French sculptor, in honour of Charles I. Dressed in armour typical of the era, the King sits proudly on his horse who has its right front leg raised as if walking.

Those who know their English royal history will wonder how the statue survived after the execution of Charles I. The bronze figure was sent to a metalsmith in Holborn along with instructions to melt it down, however, the smithy secretly hid the statue instead. When the royal family was restored to the throne, it was rediscovered and placed in Trafalgar Square in 1675, on the original location of one of the Eleanor crosses.

The Eleanor cross that stood in Trafalgar Square was destroyed during the civil war, however, a replica was produced in 1865 in front of Charing Cross railway station, where it still stands today. The Eleanor crosses were ornately decorated monuments adorned with a cross commissioned by Edward I in memoriam of his beloved wife. Each cross was positioned at the site her coffin lay overnight as it made its twelve-day journey from Lincoln to London before finally being buried in Westminster Abbey. Charing Cross was the final stop and therefore the most elaborate of the twelve monuments.

Victorian sculptor, Thomas Earp (1829-93), constructed the replica cross from designs by E. M. Barry (1830-80), an architect famed for his work in Covent Garden. Using Aberdeen granite, Earp expertly carved the decorative monument, including a statue of Eleanor of Castile standing towards the very top.

 

There are a number of other statues located in Trafalgar Square, and there are even more located nearby within short walking distance. When visiting the square, there is so much to see in the surrounding areas, for example, the Eleanor cross, that could so easily be missed by tourists. Diagonally across from the north-east corner of the square, opposite the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery stands a monument to the British nurse, Edith Cavell. Working in Brussels when the First World War broke out in 1914, Edith nursed hundreds of soldier regardless of which army they came from. She also helped some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German occupation.

Unfortunately, Edith Cavell was caught and arrested by German soldiers, found guilty of treason and shot by a firing squad on 12th October 1915. Her remains were brought home after the war, her bravery earning her a state funeral at Westminster Abbey.

Sir George Frampton (1860-1928) constructed the modern-looking, ten-foot marble statue of the British nurse standing on a granite pedestal. Inscribed below are the words “Edith Cavell // Brussels // Dawn // October 12th 1915 // Patriotism is not enough // I must have no hatred or // bitterness for anyone.” The monument was unveiled by Queen Alexandra in 1920 and, since 2014, it received a Grade 1 listing.

Another statue to look out for in the area is the Royal Marines Memorial installed on the north side of The Mall. Created at the beginning of the 20th-century, the memorial honours those who lost their lives during the Boxer Rebellion in China (1899-1901) and the Second Boer War in Africa (1899-1902).

To get to the Royal Marine Memorial from Trafalgar Square, the pavement takes you under Admiralty Arch. This is just one of the many historic structures that surround the square. The Grade 1 listed triumphal arch was commissioned by Edward VII in memory of his long reigning mother, Queen Victoria. Initially used as a residence for the First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, the arch became government offices at the beginning of the millennium. The neoclassical arch is now in the hands of property developers who intend to reopen it as a luxury hotel in 2020.

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Admiralty Arch

London, being steeped in history, has countless plaques around the city commemorating certain events, past and present buildings, notable people and so forth. Although buildings have been demolished, plaques provide information about the past to prevent history from disappearing entirely. On the ground by the Charles I statue is a metal sign explaining that it was once the site of the Eleanor cross. On the railings in front of Charing Cross Station is another plaque with a lengthy description of the design and construction of the replica. Nearby is another sign recording details of a violent storm that occurred in 1987.

It is quite surprising the places that memorial plaques can be found. In St Martin’s Street, little more than an alley way, behind the National Gallery, is a sizable memorial of the 16th century Hampton Site. The information inscribed on the stone explains that the site used to belong to Hamptons furniture store which was flattened by bombs in 1940. Later, in 1959, the government acquired the demolished area allowing the National Gallery to expand. Thus, the Sainsbury Wing was born.

Plenty of tourists take photographs outside the entrances to the National and National Portrait Gallery even if they do not venture inside (although, judging by the crowds, most do!), however, it is not a common thought to look behind the buildings. By continuing along St Martin’s Street and turning right into Orange Street, a small Congregational Church is located sporting more historical information. According to historians, the former resident of the building next door was none other than the mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton.

Orange Street Congregational Church: This church was founded in 1693 by Huguenot refugees who fled from France at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In 1776 the Chapel passed into the hands of the Church of England. The Rev. Augustus III. Toplady author of “Rock of Ages” was one of its ministers. The Chapel passed into the hands of the Congregationalists in 1787. Adjoining the chapel was Sir Isaac Newton’s house which was built in 1710 and condemned in 1913. Mrs Jemima Luke, author of the beloved hymn “I think when we read that sweet story of old” was a teacher in the Sunday School. A copy of the hymn in her own handwriting is in possession of the church.

When exploring, always remember to look up. Approaching the National Portrait Gallery from Orange Street allows the building’s architecture to be seen in a new light. Above the highly positioned windows are sculpted busts that are easily missable from ground level. Sculpted along with the three founders of the gallery are fifteen illustrious portrait painters, writers and historians, notably: Horace Walpole, Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Anthony van Dyck, Louis François Roubilliac, William Hogarth and Sir Joshua Reynold.

 

There are far too many things to note in and around Trafalgar Square to write about it one go. The more you look the more you discover, especially when glancing in the more obscure places. Whilst standing at the foot of Nelson’s column, look out for the worlds smallest police phone box (now a cleaning store cupboard), and, whilst having a drink at the Cafe on the Square, do not miss the outdated standard Imperial measures plaque where people used to come and check the accuracy of their rulers.

 

Trafalgar Square is so much more than statues, water fountains and street performers. With so many marvels hidden in plain sight, hours can easily disappear as you tour the area. This goes for the rest of the City of London, too; the more you look the more you find. Do not be blind to the history surrounding you, it is there to be noticed.

Special thanks to Treasure Trails for providing such an in-depth self-guided tour of Trafalgar Square with an exciting Treasure Hunt game. Take a look at their website for more information about the trail. (Other areas are available.)