Angus Stewart on The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy
Exhibition in the Queens Gallery, Buckingham Palace
In 1987, after a lengthy verbal tussle, the gentleman-scholar Sir Brinsley Ford and the American philanthropist and collector Ian Woodner accepted that William Hogarth (1697 – 64) had the status of an artistic founding father on both sides of the Atlantic. So it is no surprise that the current Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and curator of The First Georgians, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, chose the artist’s untroubled and exuberant double portrait of the actor David Garrick with his wife to grace the catalogue cover.
The exhibition in the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, covers the period 1714 to 1760 and is titled The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy. It continues until October 5th; see it if you can. The furniture and furnishings are stunning, the pictures and sculptures are exquisite and a revelation. The jewels and miniatures, porcelain, and plates indicate a monarchy requiring exquisite craftsmanship and outstanding design. With over 300 items, from the minute to the magniloquent, this is a display of art and design seldom seen.
This particular royal exhibition is of great import to Americans for it brings to the fore the decades directly preceding the Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July, 1776. It is some long time since I studied the early Hanoverians but as I recall they were not without flaws. The literature of the time exposes a general degeneracy, cruelty, and corruption. I believe that many of the British who took refuge in America had good reason to flee from Great Britain. For example, times were tough for such as Hogarth’s father, Richard.
Richard Hogarth published Latin and Greek textbooks and ran a Latin-speaking coffee house in London’s Clerkenwell. On the failure of the latter, he was confined for debt for four years in the Fleet prison and then forced to live nearby under its rules. So from the age of 7 until 11, the child Hogarth was an outsider. Hogarth’s determination to rise in the world and his later cantankerousness may have had their origins in his family’s early misfortunes.
Hogarth could well have been tempted to go to America. He certainly mixed with Americans in London and a number of his paintings and prints are in prestigious American collections. However he remained in London, and became not only a prominent artist but also a respected writer on art, and a noted philanthropist. The Royal Collection has over 1,000 of his works on paper, prints, and drawings.
The exhibition explores the reigns of George I (r. 1714 – 27) and his son George II (r. 1727 – 60), shedding fresh light on the role of this new dynasty in the transformation of political, intellectual, and cultural life. From paintings and furniture to garden design and table settings, the exhibition presents an all-embracing picture of early Georgian taste at a time when Britain emerged as the world’s most liberal, commercial, and cosmopolitan society.
The reigns of George I and George II were fraught with familial strife. Both kings fell out spectacularly with their eldest sons, expelling them from court. Both sons set up alternative headquarters, furnishing their residences in grand style to rival those of their fathers. George II’s son, Frederick, Prince of Wales, used his independence to indulge his enthusiasm for the old masters, among them Guido Reni, Anthony van Dyck, and David Teniers.
During this period, the focus of British cultural life began to shift away from the court, as artists achieved success and fame through their own efforts, without the traditional support of a royal patron. The emergence of a new leisured class with an insatiable appetite for luxury goods drove Britain’s commercial enterprise. Antonio Canaletto’s elegant views of London, contrast with William Hogarth’s satires on the fashionable tastes of the newly prosperous.
The continuous threat to the Hanoverians’ rule, both at home and overseas, is reflected in a fascinating display of military maps and drawings. A battle plan by George II’s son, the Duke of Cumberland, who led the King’s Troops at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, is shown alongside a letter from Bonnie Prince Charlie’s father consoling his son following his defeat at Culloden.
The favorite genre of the early Georgian period was satire, both pictorial and literary. In 1724, its greatest practitioner, Hogarth, published The Bad Taste of the Town, ridiculing British taste for foreign forms of art, such as Italian opera. London’s leading exponent of Italian opera was the German composer George Frideric Handel, who was employed in many royal roles. He was music teacher to George II’s daughter, Princess Anne, who is seen playing the cello with her two sisters and brother, Frederick, Prince of Wales, in Philippe Mercier’s “The Music Party” (1733).
The desire for fashionable luxury goods drove Britain’s commercial enterprise and turned London into the most important trading city in the world. The Chelsea porcelain works, one of several new ventures set up to compete with the newly established Meissen factory in Germany, typified the entrepreneurship of the time. With the emergence of a new leisured class came an explosion of coffee houses, gaming haunts, assembly rooms, theatrical entertainments, and pleasure gardens. In the painting “St James’s Park and the Mall,” from 1745, all elements of cosmopolitan Georgian society mix together, with Frederick, Prince of Wales at the center, rubbing shoulders with his future subjects.
The exhibition catalogue, at nearly 500 pages, is mighty heavy to hold, and stuffed to bursting point with learning and propaganda. How could it not be? It’s stated purpose is to celebrate the 300th anniversary of a once-new royal dynasty. Here it is right to observe in passing that the scholarship is elegantly expressed and lightly brought to the readers’ attention. The Prince of Wales introduces the catalogue. Six scholars are listed as contributors, they appear to have worked in close fellowship, for the tone is consistent and the language always temperate. I can’t but think it has been trimmed and pleached, for it is entwined and interlaced with great dexterity.
Overall the exhibition is wonderful to behold and hard to leave. I can’t believe that anyone would head for the exit without some misgivings, for there is more to see and learn than can be absorbed. The catalogue, too, remains a haystack to play on, to dismantle and to rebuild. While many visitors will be satisfied by what they see, those hungry for more will find enlightenment itself at this banquet fit for many monarchs.
ANGUS STEWART is a London based curator and critic. His special interests are the writings of the young Jane Austen and the paintings of his crony Francis Bacon.