The future King George VII carried out his first official engagement at a playgroup in Wellington, New Zealand, early in April 2014. By all accounts, the 8-month-old son of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge handled the occasion with aplomb: after some impatient scrabbling on his mother’s lap, the prince bonded amiably with the other toddlers before taking charge and securing the best toys for himself.
This year is the 300th anniversary of the accession of the Hanoverian dynasty, and the Queen’s Gallery, tucked away at the side of Buckingham Palace, is the venue for this new show on the first two Georges, George I (1714-1727) and his son George II (1727-1760). The Hanoverians were a huge PR challenge for the royal image-makers, and this time there were no cute babies to help out. George I, already 54 in 1714, was a charmless brute who preferred his native Hanover to Britain and made no attempt to ingratiate himself with his new subjects (he didn’t even bother to learn English). On the Continent, meanwhile, the ousted Stuarts had charm to spare but were excluded because they were Catholics.
One point in the Hanoverians’ favor was that they were very good at winning wars. George I had fought bravely under Marlborough, and George II was the last British king to personally lead his troops under fire. A section here on “The First Georgians at War” shows not only how successive wars with France were won, but also how various Stuart pretenders such as “Bonnie Prince Charlie” were dealt with. In particular, maps, battle plans, orders and other military documents chronicle the ruthless efficiency of the campaign waged by George II’s younger son, the Duke of Cumberland, against the Scots in 1746. With a referendum on Scottish independence due this September, U.K. premier David Cameron could learn some useful lessons here.
When it comes to Hanoverian patronage of the arts, this exhibition is on shakier ground. George I’s opinions on art aren’t recorded, but George II was a self-acknowledged philistine: “I hate bainting, and boetry too! Neither the one nor the other ever did any good!” True, William Kent was brought in to work on the royal palaces, and of course we have Handel’s glorious “Music for the Royal Fireworks” and “Water Music,” but William Hogarth, by far the most talented British painter of his day, received no support or patronage whatsoever from the court, and not for want of trying on his part. As for collecting, the contribution made by the early Georgians doesn’t compare to later monarchs like George III or Victoria and Albert. The name that crops up again and again both as collector and patron is that of Frederick, Prince of Wales, George II’s estranged son and heir, who seems to have had real artistic sensibility; without him the acquisition record would be very thin indeed. Alas, Frederick died unexpectedly in 1751 from an abscess of the lung, caused by a blow from that most deadly of projectiles, a cricket ball.
Still, there’s plenty of good stuff in this absorbing, if rather haphazardly organized, show. As is often the case with exhibitions at the Queen’s Gallery, the most interesting works are the ones which show the royal family in an informal setting. From 1733, for example, there is a “conversation piece” showing Frederick making music with two of his sisters, while a third sits nearby reading Milton. In a similar vein are three charming pastels by Jean-Etienne Liotard of the future George III and two of his sisters (neither of whom, sadly, lived beyond their teens). There’s also a large selection of miniatures, most of them collected at Kensington Palace by George II’s consort, Queen Caroline, and lots of high-quality porcelain and silverware.
All 300 objects from the Royal Collection featured in “The First Georgians” are illustrated in the huge and lavish catalog, which is something of a work of art in its own right.