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.

Russia in London

This winter, Russia has come to the UK capital with a double exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. The two exhibitions explore Britain’s relationship with Russia through works of art belonging to Royalty and the Romanovs and Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. The contrasting displays show two sides of a relationship between two countries: war and peace, positive and negative, dynasty and military. Coinciding with the centenary of the end of the Russian monarchy, the Royal Collection Trust reflects on the past and examines our ties with the world’s largest nation.

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The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887 – Laurits Regner Tuxen

The earliest links between Britain and Russia date back to the mid-sixteenth century through trade relations. In later years, political and military alliances formed, particularly during the Napoleonic War (1803-15), however, it was not until the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) that strong connections began to form. The Queen was the matriarch of a remarkably large family, as can be seen in Laurits Regner Tuxen’s (1853-1927) painting The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887, in which 54 members of her family surround Victoria in the Green Drawing Room at Windsor Castle.

Queen Victoria and Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819-61) were the parents of nine children who went on to provide them with 42 grandchildren. Subsequently, this generation went on to provide the Queen with 87 great-grandchildren, many of whom belonged to foreign royal houses through intermarriage. Princess Alice of Battenberg (1885-1969), for example, Victoria’s great-granddaughter, the small child on the far right of the painting, went on to marry Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark (1882-1944) in 1903. Of their five children, their youngest went on the become the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip (b.1921).

At the back of the painting on the far left are two cousins who, unbeknownst to them at the time, would grow up to become monarchs of two warring countries. These are the future George V (1865-1936) and Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) of Germany. The year 2018 also marks the end of their battle, World War One.

Russia: Royalty and the Romanovs

Royalty and the Romanovs begins with a bust of William III (1650-1702) who was on the throne at the time Tsar Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725) visited England in 1698, the first Russian ruler to do so. Peter later went on to proclaim the establishment of the Russian empire in 1721, thus becoming its first emperor.

The portrait of Peter the Great was painted during his stay in England by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), the leading portrait painter in the country at the time. It was gifted to William III who hung it in the Drawing Room at Kensington Palace. Peter’s visit was part of his ‘Grand Embassy’ of 1697-8 in which he aimed to discover more advanced information about countries of Western Europe. He was particularly interested in the ship-building of the English and the Dutch, having set up the Russian Navy a few years previously.

This initial contact was the start of a new, dynastic relationship between Britain and Russia and the portrait of Peter I was not the only painting of a Russian ruler to be gifted to a British monarch. Other gifts also found their way into Britain, for example, a box featuring the profile of Peter the Great on a Renaissance style medallion, which Queen Mary (1867-1953) gave to George V on his birthday in 1932.

The exhibition features a large number of portraits of Russian royals that now belong in the Royal Collection. One of the most significant of these is the coronation portrait of Catherine II (1729-96), Empress of Russia painted by the Danish artist Vigilis Eriksen (1722-82). Twice a day, a short talk is given by the gallery staff about the clothes Catherine the Great is wearing, her crown and the objects she is holding. The orb and sceptre are symbols of rulership, just as they are in Britain, thus emphasising her power. Her silver brocade robe also emphasises her leadership with numerous hand-stitched embellishments of the imperial double-headed eagle.

Unlike many other monarchies who pass their royal crowns down from one ruler to the next, the Russian monarchs each had their own personal crown. In the portrait, Catherine II is wearing her imperial crown, which had been made especially for her by the court jeweller, Jérémie Pauzié (1716-79). It was an extremely valuable item, decorated with over 5000 diamonds.

It is uncertain how this portrait found its way into the Royal Collection, however, the most likely explanation is that it was a gift for either George III (1738-1820) or the Prince of Wales, later George IV (1762-1830). Records state that it was eventually relocated to Carlton House in 1813 where it furnished the royal apartments in preparation of Alexander I’s (1777-1825) visit the following year.

Portraits of the Russian monarchs’ families are also in abundance at the exhibition. Positioned opposite Catherine II is Elizabeth Alexeievna (1779-1826), previously known as Princess Louise of Baden until her marriage to Tsar Alexander I. The demeanour and dress of the Russian empress starkly contrasts the opulent outfit of Catherine the Great. This painting was produced by George Dawes during the interim period between Alexander’s death on 1st December 1825 and Elizabeth’s on 16th May 1826. She is dressed in typical black mourning clothes and clutches her heart as if in grief. Standing next to a bust of her late husband, it is not certain whether her facial expression is one of mourning or perhaps something of the opposite since it is believed the couple’s relationship was rather unhappy. Nonetheless, Queen Victoria was inspired to purchase the painting a mere six months after her own husband’s death.

Hanging next to Elizabeth is the Emperor of Russia himself, Alexander I, also painted by Dawes. Dawes spent ten years in the service of the Tsar and this is one of his highest quality paintings. It shows Alexander in the uniform of a Russian field marshal decorated with the star of St Andrew of Russia with the Order of the Garter, badges of St George of Russia and Maria Theresa of Austria, the Iron Cross of Prussia and the 1812 medal. He also has the Sword of Sweden on his hip, adding to his majestic pose and emphasising his height. Queen Victoria was offered this portrait in 1861 and it was eventually hung in the Household Corridor of Buckingham Palace.

Also by George Dawes is a portrait of Charlotte (1798-1860), the wife of Nicholas I (1796-1855), with her two eldest children. The daughter of Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was betrothed to the future Tsar for political reasons, however, the marriage was a happy one and the couple produced seven children. Rather than painting her alone, Dawes had Charlotte pose with her two eldest children, Alexander and Maria. The restless young boy would one day be Emperor Alexander II (1855-81), also the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland.

The clothing of the Russian royals, particularly the women, were particularly elegant and adorned. In a portrait of Princess Charlotte (1796-1817), the only daughter of George IV and wife of the future king of Belgium, a particular style of Russian dress can be seen. The gallery not only has this painting on display but also has the very same dress in a display cabinet nearby. Manufactured in England around 1817, this dress, a Sarafan-style ensemble, is made of French silk and comprises of a blue bodice and skirt with gold and red highlights, a gold fringe, and high, drawstring waist.

The royal men, however, were always painted in military clothing, for example, Nicholas I in the red uniform of the Russian Cavalier Guard. He is also shown wearing the badge of the Order of St George, and ribands and stars of the Order of the Garter and St Vladimir. The purpose of this was to emphasise the sitter or poser’s status. Whereas women were respected for their grace and beauty, men were exalted for their military achievements.

The outfit of Nicholas II (1868-1918) is far more familiar to the British public than the uniforms of the previous Tsars. Here, Nicholas wears the uniform of the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys, a cavalry regiment of the British Army) to which he had been appointed colonel-in-chief in 1894 by Queen Victoria. This particular painting, however, was not completed until 1908 and, therefore, it was King Edward VII (1841-1910) who received it as a gift from the Tsar.

Of the numerous portraits, many of them help to identify the connections between the families of the Russian and British monarchies. Many of these occurred through marriages, both before and after the reign of Queen Victoria. One example is Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1781-1860) whose portrait the Queen had copied in 1844. Juliane was Victoria’s aunt who married into the Romanov family in 1796. By marrying Grand Duke Konstantin (1779-1831), she became the sister-in-law of Alexander I and Nicholas I.

The captivating portrait of Grand Duchess Alexandra (1830-1911) has connections to today’s royal family. Alexandra, or Sanny as she was often known, was the fifth daughter of Joseph, Duke of Saxe-Altenburg and Amalie Therese Louise, Duchess of Württemberg. In 1848, she married Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich (1827-92), the second son of Nicholas I, with whom she had six children. One of these, Olga Constantinovna (1855-1926) became the mother of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, thus completing the connection to the British royal family.

In stark contrast to the bold, vibrant paintings of the 19th century, two watercolour paintings by the Russian painter Savely Abramovich Sorine (1878-1953) show two important members of the British royal family. These are HRH The Duchess of York (1900-2002) and HRH the Duchess of Edinburgh (b.1926), or as they are known today, the Queen Mother Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Her Majesty the Queen. It is believed that the soon-to-be Queen Mother commissioned these portraits, although over 20 years apart.

It is without a doubt the extensive family of Queen Victoria marrying into foreign families that strengthened the ties between other countries, particularly Russia. Two famous wedding paintings are on display, the most significant, perhaps, being the marriage of the Queen’s second son Alfred to Maria (1853-1920), the only surviving daughter of Alexander II. Initially, Queen Victoria had misgivings about the match, stating in her diary that she:

“Felt quite bewildered. Not knowing Marie & realizing that there may still be many difficulties, my thoughts & feelings are rather mixed, but I said from my heart ‘God bless them’, & I hope and pray it may turn out for Affie’s happiness.”

Queen Victoria’s Journal, 11th July 1873

The wedding took place at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg on 23rd January 1874, directly uniting the British and Russian royal families for the first time. Unable to attend the wedding, Queen Victoria was provided with a series of watercolours of the marriage ceremony that Prince Alfred had commissioned the Russian-born artist Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902) to produce. From these illustrations, the Queen commissioned an oil painting, which hung in Buckingham Palace from 1901.

Another wedding painting, also commissioned by Queen Victoria, was of her grandaughter’s, Princess Alix of Hesse (1872-1918), marriage to Tsar Nicholas II at the Winter Palace on 26th November 1894. The artist, Tuxen, beautifully highlights the faces of the bride and bridegroom with the soft glow of the candles they are holding. Known as Alexandra Feodorovna throughout Nicholas’ reign, she was assassinated in 1918 along with her husband and immediate family while in Bolshevik captivity. Thus ended the Russian monarchy. Princess Alix has since been canonized as Saint Alexandra the Passion-Bearer.

Not all the items in the exhibition are paintings. Within the Royal Collection are a number of objects that have been collected, bought, or gifted over time by the British royal family. Displayed amongst the paintings are a range of things that originated in Russia, for example, a number of malachite vases, candelabra, and columns.

Russian jewellery is also presented within display cases, the most famous being the Vladimir tiara. Made for Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (1890-1958), wife of Grand Duke Vladimir (1847-1909), it consists of converging circles studded with diamonds and adorned with green pearls. It eventually made its way into the Royal Collection after being given as a gift to Mary of Teck (1867-1953), the wife of George V, in 1921.

Other jewellery included brooches, such as the Diamond Jubilee Brooch given to Queen Victoria by Nicholas II, Alexandra Feodorovna and her other grandchildren to celebrate the 60th year of her reign. Made of diamonds and sapphires, it features the Slavonic symbol for the number 60 within a heart-shape.

Finally, there were many items made by the most notable Russian jeweller, Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920). Famous for the Fabergé egg, he and his company also produced other pieces, including chalcedony figurines, ladies’ fans, and cigarette cases.

Russia: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea

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Self-portrait dressed as an Algerian Zouave

The second exhibition is far less glamorous than Royalty and the Romanovs, focusing on the aftermath of the Crimean War. Commissioned by the Manchester-based publishers Thomas Agnew & Sons, Roger Fenton (1819-69) went out to the areas affected by the conflicts and captured the scenes and people involved for consumption by the public. Until then, the true effects of war had been concealed from society, often being glamourised in paintings of war heroes.

The Crimean war began in 1853, pitching the allied nations of Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia against the Russian Empire. Despite the previous exhibition suggesting a positive relationship between British and Russian families, Britain and her allies were determined to prevent Russia from gaining territorial control of various regions in eastern Europe, including on the coast of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Many people when talking about the Crimean War, think of people like Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) and Mary Seacole (1805-81), who played a vital role in caring for the injured troops. Fenton, however, concentrated on the soldiers and the major battles of 1854, including Alma (20th September), Balaklava (25th October), and Inkerman (5th November).

Photos include landscapes of the war-torn land, such as the Valley of the Shadow of Death, which Fenton titled after the passage in Psalm 23, suggesting that the barren scene full of spent cannon balls shows that humanity is walking a fine line between the realms of life and sudden death. With no sign of civilisation, this photograph evokes a feeling of the loss and destruction experienced in that area.

Fenton also captured shots of soldiers within their camps, revealing a role women played in the Crimean War. In the photo of the Camp of the 4th Dragoons, a woman can be seen serving refreshments to the troops.

A significant photograph Fenton managed to take is a portrait of Captain Alexander Leslie-Melville (1831–57), also known as Lord Balgonie. The Scotsman stands staring away from the camera, his clothes unkempt and his expression rather shaken, as if he had only momentarily stepped away from the battlefield. Today, this image is regarded as the first photographic portrait of shell-shock.

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The Queen inspecting wounded Coldstream Guardsmen in the Hall of Buckingham Palace – John Gilbert

As part of this exhibition, some focus is given to the British royal family’s involvement in the years after the war. This painting by John Gilbert (1817-97) shows a crowd of injured Guardsmen in the presence of Queen Victoria. This meeting took place at Buckingham Palace on 20th February 1855. Shortly after, the Queen awarded the first Victoria Cross, which is currently the highest and most prestigious award of the British honours system, awarded for gallantry “in the presence of the enemy”.

With an audio guide, which is provided free of charge for both exhibitions, visitors can listen to Prince Harry’s (b.1984) thoughts and opinions on the photographs, artwork and items featured in Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. Having been a Cornet in the Blues and Royals and an Apache co-pilot/gunner in the Army Air Corps during the Afghan War, he is sympathetic towards the soldiers, understanding what they had gone through and the way it would have affected the remainder of their lives.

Critics accused Fenton of staging many of the photographs he took in the Crimea, however, regardless as to the truth of this, they provide information about the war that no written account could ever hope to achieve. Through his photographs, the gallery has created a timeline of the war and helps visualise the scenes that are only ever heard about or even forgotten about, overshadowed by the two World Wars.

Whilst it is a pleasure to view the photographs of Roger Fenton and look at items in the Royal Collection as part of the Royalty and the Romanovs exhibition, both lack a sense of narrative. One feels as though they are going from one image to another thinking, “here’s a painting of a dead Tsar, and here’s another … and that’s so-and-so’s wife.”

The Crimean War almost has a narrative in that there is a clear timeline of events, however, the other exhibition has no sense of continuity. Being the centenary of the assassination of Nicholas II, the opportunity to focus on the lives of the Romanovs, their successes and their inevitable demise, would have been an obvious route to go down, however, the curators failed to rise to this occasion. Whilst this is a great shame, it is fascinating to see how far Queen Victoria’s immediate family stretched across Europe and Russia.

The Royal Collection Trust arguably has some of the finest works of art in the world and it is always a pleasure to view them at the Queen’s Gallery. Despite not quite living up to expectations, these two exhibitions are great for art lovers and historians with an interest in royalty and the Crimean War.

At £12 per adult, one ticket gives you access to both Royalty and the Romanovs and Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. These exhibitions are open to the public in London until Sunday 28th April 2019. By asking the Gallery to treat your ticket purchase as a donation, you receive free access for the following twelve months.