Queen of hearts
The marriage of George IV and Mrs Fitzherbert is celebrated as well as ridiculed and crowned heads are satirised
Mrs Fitzherbert seems to have been a remarkably decent sort. she put up an heroic resistance to the ardent pursuit of the Prince of Wales, the future George iv, and when, in 1785, he eventually persuaded her to marry him, which was illegal in english law and should have barred his succession to the throne, she did nothing to jeopardise his position.
Not only was she a twice-widowed roman Catholic commoner, but the Prince needed his father’s consent to the marriage, which would never have been forthcoming. After his death, she continued to act with dignity, handing over all his letters for destruction, and William iv thought so highly of her that he offered her a dukedom. she turned it down, but sensibly retained such vital documents as her marriage certificate by way of ensuring payment of her pension.
Despite their many quarrels and breakings up, and his many other affairs, there is little doubt that they loved one another and for the 10 years when they lived at brighton, they were happy together. to clear his debts, the Prince contracted a legal marriage to his cousin, Caroline of brunswick, but that was a disaster and, after the birth of their daughter Charlotte in 1796, they parted in acrimony.
the Prince’s will drawn up in that year left everything ‘to my Maria Fitzherbert, my Wife, the wife of my heart and soul. Although by the laws of this Country she could not avail herself publicly of that name, still such she is in the eyes of was, is, and ever will be such in mine’.
richard Cosway (1742–1821) painted many miniature portraits for and of the couple. in 2012, an early copy of one of her sold for £620 at Mallams in Oxford, but in Christie’s exceptional sale last month, something much more remarkable was on offer.
the 1½in-high miniature known as the Maria Fitzherbert Jewel (Fig 1) is one of a pair painted in about 1800. Given the probable date and the splendour of the settings, it is possible that the miniatures were commissioned to mark the couple’s reconciliation in June 1800 after a threeyear estrangement, during which he had pursued an affair with Lady Jersey.
Painted on ivory, the Fitzherbert Jewel shows a resolutelooking Prince posing as the realm’s defender in a gorget— he was always frustrated at not being allowed to take an active command—and it is contained in a locket by rundell, bridge & rundell set with 18 rose-cut diamonds. it is covered not by glass, but a portrait diamond— that is to say, a diamond sliced from a larger stone and polished flat on the lower side. Cosway charged £26 5s for each miniature and probably had to wait a long time for the Prince to pay him. it would be interesting to know what the lockets cost.
When George died in 1830, after a further estrangement and partial reconciliation, he was buried with Maria’s portrait locket around his neck. similarly, it is thought that she was holding this image of him when she died in 1837. it passed to the daughter they had adopted and descended in her family until this sale, where it made £341,000.
Like all of George’s mistresses, and indeed wives, Maria Fitzherbert was the subject of many scurrilous, even explicit, caricature prints by the great Gillray and others. Unsurprisingly, there were several examples in bloomsbury’s specialised cariheaven,
cature auction on July 13. An uncoloured example of the wellknown engraving The Morning after Marriage (Fig 3) by Plenipo Georgy, alias Gillray, sold together with a coloured copy of the Fatigues of the
Campaign in Flanders, satirising the military failures of the ‘Grand Old’ Duke of York, for £744. Maria was also the subject of
Love’s Last Shift and Dido Forsaken—the second featuring a basket of distinctly phallic money bags—which together made £992, and a rare copy of
The Sick Prince at £1,612. There was also French material on offer, including an impression of Daumier’s scathing 1831 lithographic caricature of King Louis Philippe as an obese giant, being fed money by the starving poor and excreting favours on the nobility (Fig 2). This is rare, as the police raided the publisher before it could be issued and destroyed the lithographic stone. It sold for £2,356.
The top price was £3,472, but, in fact, this was a remarkable bargain, representing just £4.50 per print for six volumes finely bound by Zaehnsdorf, containing about 770 caricatures, 693 hand-coloured, printed during the Franco-prussian War and Siege of Paris (Fig 4). Next week The Heavens espy
Fig 1: The Maria Fitzherbert Jewel. £341,000
Fig 2: Daumier’s scathing 1831 lithograph Gargantua. £2,356
Fig 3: Uncoloured The Morning after Marriage by Gillray. £744
Fig 4: One of 770 caricatures bound in six volumes. £3,472