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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: Anchor, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Spotify.
If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!