King’s hearts and coro­nets

Matthew Den­ni­son ap­plauds a glit­ter­ing new ex­hi­bi­tion at Kens­ing­ton Palace that ex­plores the lives and pa­tron­age of three re­mark­able Ge­or­gian con­sorts

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

In the cen­tury be­fore Prince Al­bert broke Queen Vic­to­ria’s spirit and erased from the job de­scrip­tion of Bri­tish royal women any in­tel­lec­tual re­mit, three Ger­man princesses—caroline of Ans­bach, Au­gusta of Saxe-gotha and Char­lotte of Meck­len­burg-stre­litz—mar­ried heirs to the Bri­tish throne.

Their hus­bands—ge­orge II, Fred­er­ick, Prince of Wales and Ge­orge Iii—were ex­act­ing men of un­cer­tain tem­per. Ge­orge II ad­mired Han­del, Fred­er­ick ex­er­cised artis­tic pa­tron­age widely and Ge­orge III’S fas­ci­na­tion with emerg­ing agri­cul­tural tech­nolo­gies earned him the moniker ‘Farmer Ge­orge’. none of them sought their con­tem­po­raries’ es­teem for in­tel­lec­tual or cul­tural achieve­ments, con­sid­er­ing these the prov­ince of their con­sorts.

A daz­zling new ex­hi­bi­tion at Kens­ing­ton Palace, shown at the Yale Cen­ter for Bri­tish Art in new Haven, Con­necti­cut, USA, ear­lier this year, il­lus­trates the ex­tent to which Caroline, Au­gusta and Char­lotte seized the op­por­tu­ni­ties thus pre­sented to them. It sug­gests by im­pli­ca­tion a sub­se­quent im­pov­er­ish­ment of royal pa­tron­age once Al­bert, in over­mas­ter­ing the wil­ful Vic­to­ria, ef­fec­tively de­nied fu­ture royal wives this key role in pro­mot­ing the na­tion’s cul­tural, spir­i­tual, philo­soph­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual life.

The princesses of the ex­hi­bi­tion’s ti­tle were all prod­ucts of the En­light­en­ment, that Europewide rev­o­lu­tion in think­ing that as­serted the pri­macy of rea­son over su­per­sti­tion. Of princely lin­eage, Caroline, Au­gusta and Char­lotte were each prod­ucts of tin­pot Ger­man Courts, their home­lands smaller than many English coun­ties. What their

back­grounds lacked in ma­te­rial wealth, given their fa­thers’ sta­tus as mi­nor play­ers in the Hab­s­burg-dom­i­nated con­fed­er­a­tion of Ger­man states known as the Holy Ro­man Em­pire, they made up in cul­tural as­pi­ra­tion.

At Ger­man Courts, un­like their Bri­tish coun­ter­part, royal rule was not sim­ply a mat­ter of dom­i­nat­ing govern­ment, but of lead­er­ship ex­er­cised in ev­ery sphere, from the bat­tle­field to the pic­ture gallery. Among Caroline’s neigh­bours as a young woman, for ex­am­ple, was Duke An­ton Ul­rich of Wolfen­büt­tel, a reign­ing prince with his own opera house, who was also a mem­ber of the Fruc­tif­er­ous So­ci­ety, ded­i­cated to the restora­tion of Ger­man lit­er­a­ture; both the Duke and his sis­ter wrote lengthy nov­els of courtly ro­mance.

This view­point was ab­sorbed by all three princesses and be­came a cen­tral as­pect of each woman’s mar­riage. ‘En­light­ened Princesses’ con­vinc­ingly il­lus­trates its sub­jects’ wide-rang­ing in­ter­ests, from New­to­nian physics (Caroline) to the sci­en­tific clas­si­fi­ca­tion of plants (Au­gusta) and de­vel­op­ments in ob­stet­rics (Char­lotte). As a re­sult, some 200 ex­hibits ap­pear sur­pris­ingly di­verse.

Along­side pre­dictably ap­peal­ing ex­am­ples of 18th-cen­tury por­trai­ture are stuffed lin­nets and goldfinches mounted for Au­gusta, the ar­chi­tect’s pro­trac­tor made in sil­ver for Char­lotte by Ge­orge III’S math­e­mat­i­cal in­stru­ment maker, Ge­orge Adams, and a mar­ble bust of sci­en­tist and philoso­pher Robert Boyle, which Caroline com­mis­sioned in 1731 to pre­side over a new gar­den folly.

The mar­riages of all three women orig­i­nated in the Act of Set­tle­ment of 1701, which re­stricted in­her­i­tance of the Bri­tish crown to Protes­tants. In the case of each princess, her suit­abil­ity rested on her Protes­tantism and an as­sumed abil­ity to bear healthy chil­dren. In­fer­til­ity and flir­ta­tions with Catholi­cism had cost the later Stu­arts their throne. In con­trast to their im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors, Mary II and Queen Anne, Caroline, Au­gusta and Char­lotte pro­duced more than 30 off­spring.

Their fe­cun­dity con­trib­uted to the se­cure es­tab­lish­ment of the new dy­nasty and, in­evitably,

‘It re­asserts the Court as a re­gion of power, pol­i­tics and pa­tron­age’

re­vi­talised the age-old as­so­ci­a­tion of the role of con­sort and moth­er­hood: a num­ber of ex­hibits ex­plore the women’s en­gage­ment with con­tem­po­rary ideas of child-rear­ing, in time a metaphor for the nur­tur­ing, phil­an­thropic role of monar­chy that would de­velop over the next two cen­turies as the throne was fur­ther shorn of po­lit­i­cal power.

This is an ex­hi­bi­tion based on ex­ten­sive re­cent re­search. Its im­pact ex­tends be­yond a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of its trio of mostly for­got­ten royal sub­jects. In­stead, ‘En­light­ened Princesses’ of­fers vis­i­tors com­plex and multi-faceted in­sights into these women’s lives and worlds: it re­asserts the Court as a re­gion of power, pol­i­tics and pa­tron­age. Caroline, Au­gusta and Char­lotte con­trib­uted to the ca­reers of ar­chi­tects, painters, writ­ers, doc­tors, trav­ellers, mak­ers and man­u­fac­tur­ers. They spon­sored med­i­cal in­no­va­tion—dar­ingly and con­tro­ver­sially in the case of Caroline’s pro­mo­tion of vac­ci­na­tion in the 1720s; they played a key role in the de­vel­op­ment of Bri­tish gar­den­ing in the 18th cen­tury.

Like their hus­bands, at intervals, all three women in­spired am­biva­lence among their con­tem­po­raries; all found them­selves ob­jects of satire. Fol­low­ing Fred­er­ick’s death, gos­sip con­cern­ing Au­gusta’s re­la­tion­ship with her son’s tu­tor, the 3rd Earl of Bute, dam­aged both her rep­u­ta­tion and her pop­u­lar­ity. Char­lotte’s ru­moured par­si­mony, car­i­ca­tured here by James Gill­ray, proved less dam­ag­ing.

To­day, Char­lotte’s great­great-great-great-grand­daugh­ter El­iz­a­beth II is the world’s most re­spected head of state. As this ex­hi­bi­tion shows, the blue­print she in­her­ited was partly the Left: Char­lotte’s ru­moured par­si­mony car­i­ca­tured by Gill­ray (1792). Above: The Painted Finch and the Loblolly Bay

(1722–6) by Mark Catesby

cre­ation of in­ter­ested, en­gaged royal women. ‘En­light­ened Princesses: Caroline, Au­gusta, Char­lotte and the Shap­ing of the Mod­ern World’ is at Kens­ing­ton Palace, Kens­ing­ton Gar­dens, Lon­don W8, from June 22 to Novem­ber 12 (0844 482 7799; www.hrp. org.uk). A book of the same ti­tle by the cu­ra­tor Joanna Marschner is pub­lished by Yale (£50) Matthew Den­ni­son’s bi­og­ra­phy of Caroline of Ans­bach, ‘The First Iron Lady’, will be pub­lished by Wil­liam Collins on Au­gust 24

The Mu­sic Party: Fred­er­ick, Prince of Wales, with his Three El­dest Sis­ters (1733), by Philippe Mercier

The Chil­dren of Ge­orge III and Queen Char­lotte: the King and Queen had 15 chil­dren in to­tal

Above left to right: Con­nois­seur con­sorts: Caroline of Ans­bach, Au­gusta of Saxe-gotha and Char­lotte of Meck­len­burg-stre­litz

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