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
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