Monday, May 05, 2014

The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714 – 1760. A Question of Spin?

This enjoyable exhibition, which opened recently at The Queen’s Gallery, celebrates the arrival of the Hanoverian dynasty in Britain.

When the Stuart Queen Anne died in 1714, Parliament had a problem. They did not want, James, Anne’s Catholic half-brother, brought up in exile in ancient régime France, as king.

Photo:  George I by Godfrey Kneller

18th century Britain was a prosperous nation, proud of its liberalism and freedom of speech. Parliament saw the country as modern and forward-thinking. They wanted a constitutional Protestant monarch without any of the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ nonsense which had so be-devilled the Stuarts.

Photo:  George II by Christian Friedrich Zinke 1717
Parliament trawled through the family tree and found the staunchly Protestant George, Elector of Hanover. He was directly descended from the Protestant Princess Elizabeth, sister of King Charles I, who had become ‘the Winter Queen’ of Bohemia. Elizabeth’s daughter, Sophia, who married the Elector of Hanover, was George I’s mother.

(Those of you who are Rupert of the Rhine fans might like to know that Rupert was Sophia’s brother - and thus George I’s uncle. I do like it when things link up!)    

Photo:  The Neptune Centrepiece att. to Nicholas Sprimont 1741/2 

In 1714, George I, together with his eldest son, arrived in England. George I (born 1660) was already in his fifties, and his son in his early thirties. Neither spoke very good English. They were worthy, undoubtedly Protestant, and would, Parliament hoped, let it get on with governing the country. On the other hand, they had an image problem; they lacked the Stuart charisma. This was something that Bonnie Prince Charlie, James’s son, would try to exploit in the future.

Photo: Queen Caroline, Consort of George II, by John Michael Rysbrack, c.1739

So, how did George I and George II present themselves to their new subjects? Sensibly, they kept things low-key. They did not go in for an extravagant Stuart-type court, for example. Instead, they sponsored composers like Handel, supported the setting up of the Chelsea Porcelain Works, and encouraged scientific enquiry – there are some beautiful botanical prints on display. Their new art collection, in the splendid crimson and gold gallery, shows that they also wanted to be seen as art connoisseurs.

Photo: Chelsea Porcelain plate

Various Hanoverian royals swim into focus; the highly intelligent Queen Caroline, wife of George II, for example. She was friends with the philosopher, Leibniz; she admired John Locke, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton; and she considered herself ‘the promoter of enlightened ideas.’ Why have we forgotten her?

Photo: The Music Party: Frederick, Prince of Wales with his sisters, Philippe Mercier, 1733

Caroline’s cultured eldest son, Frederick, Prince of Wales, was a keen and discerning art collector. Frederick died before his father, so he never became king; his son, George III, inherited the throne instead. Another of Caroline’s sons, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, was a highly competent military commander. The duke’s plan for the battle of Culloden (1746) and other memorabilia of the campaign are on display. 

I really enjoyed this fascinating and wide-ranging exhibition. It is on at The Queen’s Gallery, 11th April – 12th October, 2014.

Images courtesy of: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014.

Elizabeth Hawksley


Prem said...

What a lucid and excellent account.

Prem said...
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Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you, Prem. Exactly why George I had a claim to the British throne is complicated at the best of times.

Fortunately, once you realize that the claim goes down the female line, it's a lot easier.

Christina Courtenay said...

Sounds like an interesting exhibition, another must-see! A shame Rupert of the Rhine couldn't have become our king insted of worthy George though - now he would have been dashing :-)

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Now there's a thought, Christina. Sadly, Rupert was a lot older than Sophia. He was born in 1619 and died in 1682, and Sophia was born in 1630 and died in 1714 - she must have been the little afterthought.

It's a lovely exhibition - I particularly like the room they've transformed into a coffee house, complete with windows with views of 18th century London outside. It's very atmospheric.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. It was great to see such a clear explanation of George's claim to the throne. At Ashdown House we have a direct link to George I through his mother Sophia (we have a beautiful portrait of her) and Elizabeth, the Winter Queen. It makes me cross when people think George had only a vague claim to the throne since he was directly descended from James I! The majority of the other - Catholic - claimants to the throne were also Elizabeth's descendants. She had 13 children, of whom Sophia was the youngest surviving.

I think Diana Norman wrote a book in which Rupert was married and his children had a claim to the throne.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your comment, Nicola. I agree with you - I, too, get cross. For heaven's sake! The line is both direct and short. It just happens to be female.

Rupert made an early unwise marriage, which wasn't recognized by the Stuarts, and his son, Dudley, had no legitimate claim to the throne. He also had an illegitimate daughter, Ruperta.

Diana Norman's brilliant novel, The Vizard Mask, has an aging Rupert as protector and lover of her heroine, an actress and friend of Aphra Behn. I recommend it highly.

Nicola Cornick said...

I love The Vizard Mask. It's a brilliant book, IMO. Was it her book Shores of Darkness that dealt with the succession question? I will have to read it again.

Lord Craven of Ashdown was Ruperta's guardian after Rupert died. I was fascinated to read that Sophia liked Rupert's "wife" very much even though there seems to be no question of anyone (including Rupert?) accepting his marriage. These "secret marriages" seem to be a bit of a feature withe the Stuarts. There is one in my new book...

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I agree that 'secret marriages' do feature rather a lot among the Stuarts, as you say, Nicola. Perhaps that's why Parliament chose George I. He may have locked his unfaithful wife away in a castle, but at least their marriage was legitimate - with plenty of children.

Yes, Diana Norman's 'Shores of Darkness' does deal with the succession - more illegitimate Stuarts - and she's very sympathetic towards Queen Anne, which I like. I've always felt so sorry for Anne, losing all her children.

Recent television programmes have, most unfairly, called her 'barren' - which she wasn't.