Last Wednesday, I made my way through the push of children enjoying their Easter holidays and a hive of tourists to the Queen’s Gallery at to Buckingham Palace. The gallery hosts a wealth of exhibitions – I remember particularly enjoying one about Victoria and Albert – but this year its subject is The First Georgians. Huzza! The exhibition celebrates the House of Hanover’s accession to the English throne 300 years ago in 1714 and runs up until 12 October 2014. I would encourage any Georgian junkie to go and see the beautiful art and historic documents on display.
‘The First Georgians’ in this context are the early Hanoverian monarchs George I, George II and his wife Queen Caroline, and Frederick Prince of Wales. Although Frederick didn’t live to become King I am glad he got a mention, because he certainly deserves one as a connoisseur of art and literature. His tastes were to inspire his son George III, and in turn his grandson George IV, both of them avid collectors.One of the most poignant documents on display is a letter from Frederick to George III, advising him how to be a good King. He writes in a bold, clear hand – isn’t it wonderful when historic letters are actually legible? It is as if Frederick knew he would not wear the crown himself and left these instructions to live after him. In fact, several sources I have come across mention Frederick’s premonitions of a short life.
The first things you encounter when entering the exhibition are busts of Caroline and George II. I was ridiculously excited to see 3D representations of my royal ‘friends’, they really give you a feel for the features and you can imagine having a conversation with them. With so many paintings, our images of kings and queens tend to become cartoonish and two dimensional, but these busts help you to see the real people. Many of the busts on display were commissioned by Caroline herself to decorate ‘Merlin’s Cave’, a quaint thatched cottage she constructed at Kensington Palace. You entered the cave through a maze of clipped hedges to find wax works, allegorical figures, books and all manner of curiosities.
Caroline contributes further to the exhibition with her private collections. She greatly admired Queen Elizabeth I and owned many cameos of the Tudor monarchs. We also have to thank Caroline for rediscovering some of the most iconic images of the Tudor period – the sketches of Hans Holbein. It was while rummaging in Mary II’s bureau at Kensington that Caroline discovered Holbein’s work, along with drawings by Da Vinci. Caroline’s other pieces are charming miniatures of her children and acquaintance.
Speaking of Caroline’s children, there are also some document from the most infamous, William Duke of Cumberland. I think there is more to William than his title of Butcher of Culloden, but I will discuss this in another post. You get to see battle plans drawn in William’s own hand, guns of the period and many documents relating to the attempted Jacobite invasions of 1715 and 1745. I found a letter from James Stuart, ‘The Old Pretender’ to his son ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ particularly touching. Much as I love the Hanoverians, I do feel bad for the Stuarts. I think they had the legitimate claim to the throne. However, my mum has been well trained and is firmly in the Hanover camp. She viewed a Jacobite handbill with a portrait of James, turned up her nose and said she didn’t like the look of him!
George I and George II have the reputation of Goths and Vandals, unable to appreciate art and literature. George II famously stated he hated ‘boets and bainters’. But in The First Georgians exhibition, you can see they were not completely adverse to the visual arts. George I in particular had great architectural plans, transforming Kensington Palace and improving the King’s rooms at Hampton Court. In later years, George II was to continue work and build a whole new suite of apartments in Hampton Court for his beloved son William.
As someone interested in the day to day life of the royal family, I was fascinated with pieces such as the footstools placed in Caroline’s withdrawing room and George I’s dining chairs. There was also an exquisite gold dining set belonging to Frederick, decorated with mermen, shells and all manner of nautical motifs. I didn’t know before attending the exhibition that Frederick was a big fan of shellfish, particularly oysters. I will certainly be including this in my novel about his wife!
Again, many of my favourite paintings related to the royals. It was moving to see portraits of George III’s sisters Elizabeth and Louisa, who both died young. They tend to be forgotten in the mists of history and it was good to see them back in their rightful place. However, the paintings on display are by no means limited to royal people. You can see Hogarth’s original prints, paintings by Rubens and many other legendary artists. My favourite was the main image used for the exhibition, a playful portrait of Garrick and his wife.
When booking my ticket, I opted to visit the Royal Mews as well. I’m always a sucker for carriages. I particularly wanted to see George III’s state coach, now the traditional coronation coach. It didn’t disappoint! However, before you dream about riding in it, you might like to know it’s very uncomfortable! William IV, ‘the sailor king’, who would certainly know, likened his ride in it to being tossed in a tempest on the sea.
To find out more about The First Georgians and plan your visit, click on this link to The Royal Collection website.