Amidst the national remembrance for the First World War, it’s easy to forget that 2014 also marks the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian monarchy in Britain. Following up on the British Library’s exhibition early in the year, the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace has rooted around in the archives and put together a fascinating collection of rarely seen treasures which give us an insight into cultural, political and dynastic life in Georgian England.
The exhibition is divided into several sections; the first understandably is a selection of individual and family portraits of the Georgian royal families, just to give you a sense of who everyone is. There are lots of nice pictures here and a hint at how marketing the family ideal was done in the eighteenth-century – this was after all a new and foreign monarch who needed to be portrayed as being just like his British subjects.
Things get considerably more interesting after this, both in terms of the themes of Georgian life that we’re shown and the diverse content of the Royal Collection. The section on new modes of architecture and landscaping places original floor plans for great houses and gardens alongside paintings and sketches of the finished product. We see which rooms were designed for specific contemporary purposes including how to display its owner’s taste and education, as well as seeing interior rooms or galleries as they were. It’s a fascinating insight into the planning and building of great houses, and into the romantic way in which the finished product was presented to the world.
But if you think eighteenth-century Britain is all about culture and art, then the next section quickly reminds you that throughout the early Georgian era the first two monarchs were beset by political instability and the threat of war from the displaced Stuarts. Original battle plans are shown alongside maps, portraits of generals and other war-related items including some original weapons. It’s a clever reminder that for all our notions of polite society at this time, there was still a quite serious struggle to gain legitimacy for the new regime. And it certainly makes you look back at the previous two sections as clever marketing designed to create a sense of progress, refinement and stability at time when the latter could not be guaranteed.
In the third section we see more about society outside the royal circle, with the centrepiece being prints of Hogarth’s Marriage-a-la-mode showing a couple’s journey from a money-based arranged marriage to adultery, poverty, murder and death. The same is true of A Harlot’s Progress, also seen here, showing the corruption of a young girl which again leads to dissipation and death. On the surface Georgian England was obsessed with taste and lineage but underneath it all, human vice remains ever present. This certainly adds another dimension to the painting of the party-atmosphere in St James’s Park with people carousing happily throughout. At least Canaletto’s beautiful pictures of the Thames show the changing architectural shape of London without comment on the moral dubiety of London’s inhabitants.
After this you move into several other rooms which are clearly part of a permanent collection but the gallery has spun them to make it seem like they’re 18th century related. For a start all the walls up until this point have been a Wedgwood cornflower blue shade and now they’re red and green. Most of it is from the Charles I and II era with notes saying this was all highly collectable in the eighteenth-century. There are interesting pieces of furniture, portraits and even some crockery, but you can tell it’s not part of what we saw before. Nice try Royal Collection but we’re not fooled – clearly the main exhibition is over and this is other stuff. But its ok, we don’t mind.
So the genuinely Georgian bit of this exhibition is really interesting and great to get an alternative perspective on events, showing not just this cultural change, but also the political and international dimensions to the first two Georges. Be warned it took me two attempts to get into this, and the second time I had to book, but it is worthwhile. And the permanent collection at the end is worth a wander too – it is included in the ticket after all! There are still a couple more weeks to enjoy these rarely seen pieces, cleverly curated to shed light on the first half of the eighteenth-century and showing us how the balance of international politics and skilful marketing laid the foundation for a new monarchical house.
The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy 1714-1760 is at the Royal Collection until 12 October and tickets are £9.75 with concessions available, but do book in advance.