The beauty of going to any exhibition is the fact that each and every item being shown has the power to strike a chord, providing every visitor both a unique and a personal experience.
This fact can be no better demonstrated by going to ‘The First Georgians’ which is on at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until October 12th. Organised to mark the 300th anniversary of the accession of George I, Britain’s first constitutional monarch – this exhibition focusses on works of art collected by the royal family (at various times) dating from 1714 until the death of George II in 1760, what we might describe as the early Georgian era.
Hogarth’s business card as an engraver – but he was so much more
Fans of William Hogarth (1697-1764) will not be disappointed. His series of six paintings A Harlot’s Progress (1732) & Marriage A La Mode (1743-45) can be seen side-by-side in a section dedicated to perhaps the first exponent of British satirical art.
Seeing Johannes Kip’s incredibly detailed London maps and Canaletto’s overly idyllic views of the Thames from Somerset House was a great pleasure, but for me there are three stand-out exhibits worthy of the admission price alone.
- David Garrick and his wife, Eva-Maria Veigel, by William Hogarth (c.1757)
I have always associated Hogarth with the representation of idleness and debauchery via engravings such as Gin Lane (1751) but here we find an almost seaside-postcard style of painting with truly vibrant colours and little nuances of humour encapsulating his subjects perfectly.
David Garrick (1717-79) was one of the most frequently painted subjects in eighteenth-century Britain. He befriended Hogarth after the artist painted Garrick as the King in William Shakespeare’s Richard III in 1745 (Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery). But it is thought that the pair fell out over this particular portrait. Garrick was displeased with his likeness and disliked the original domestic setting. Hogarth amended the scene by adding a hanging chord in the background reminiscent of the stage, but Garrick never collected the painting and it was still in Hogarth’s possession when he died in 1764.
What I especially like is the depiction of Veigel sneaking up behind her husband to snatch his pen away. This gives me a sense of the warmth of their relationship, with Garrick’s smile adding further to the playfulness of the scene.
This painting is hung in the main gallery well away from the other Hogarth exhibits, and for this I think it benefits greatly and the style in which it is painted makes it refreshingly timeless.
- Thomas Killigrew with an Unidentified Man, by Van Dyck (1638)
This painting really is mesmeric to see in the flesh. Painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) it depicts two figures united by grief. On the left is Thomas Killigrew (1612-83), who is in mourning for his wife Cecelia Crofts, who died in 1638 just two years into the marriage. Killigrew wears his wife’s wedding ring attached to his left wrist by a black silk band. A silver cross inscribed with her intertwined initials is attached to his doublet and he wears a mourning ring next to his wedding band. In his hands is a piece of paper on which there are drawings, possibly made with a funerary monument in mind. Killigrew is being comforted by a friend, but is too distracted by grief to acknowledge what he is being shown.
Such is the incredible clarity of van Dyck’s brushwork that Killigrew really does come to life and his doleful eyes seem to draw you in from far away so you can come and pay your respects. Killigrew’s expression and his long hair would not look out of place on a 1960s hippie, but the sombre tone really does transmit his pain. There are some interesting theories about who the other gentleman may be, but I think the beauty of this painting renders knowing an irrelevance.
- Frederick, Prince of Wales, by Amigoni c.1736)
This may seem like an odd choice for my top three, but I have selected it because one of the very knowledgeable curators at the Queen’s Gallery gave a very informative 10-minute talk about it during my visit. Unfortunately she had to compete with a completely ignorant guide who stood at the opposite end of the main gallery talking very loudly to a party of tourists. Given that the guide had ample other points of interest to show her enthusiastic troupe, it was incredibly bad manners for her to blather on whilst the curator bravely soldiered on.
Above all this painting has exposed my ignorance about the Georgian succession. Up until now I have been happily deluding myself that George III was the son of George II and followed him as naturally as princes follow kings. But the fact is that Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751) was the man who ought to have succeeded George II, & whose death meant that it was a grandson who became George III in 1760.
Frederick seems to have had a very neglected childhood, having been left back in Hanover at the age of 7, and not seeing his parents for the next 14 years. Not surprisingly his relationship with George II was strained, and he spent his life trying to carve a separate identity. As Prince of Wales he fraternised with opposition politicians and became a patron of the arts. His knowledge and good taste led to the accumulation an outstanding cache of art, which now forms part of the Royal Collection.
Frederick was eventually banned from the King’s court in 1737 after he sneaked his heavily-pregnant wife out of Hampton Court Palace in the middle of the night, to ensure that the King and Queen could not be present at the birth. His poor spouse was forced to get into a carriage which raced over to St James’s Palace just in time for the birth. The King and Queen were furious at this perceived snub and never forgave Frederick for this act of independence.
This portrait by Amigoni was commissioned by the Prince’s friend, George Bubb Dodington (1691-1762), & given to Frederick as a peace-offering following a spat between them. As is appropriate for a friend’s portrait the Prince appears in an informal and affable guise, as patron of the arts. Frederick holds a book inscribed ‘Pope’s Homer’, alluding to Pope’s famous recently-published translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Cherubs fly above the Prince holding a lyre (the attribute of Poetry) and a snake biting its tail (the attribute of Eternity, the duration of a true poet’s fame).
Though his pose is relaxed, the Prince does have formal attributes: a crown on the table, and a riband of the Garter reminding us that this is not just any patron of the arts but a heroic and a royal one.
Frederick certainly seems a character worthy of greater investigation, not just for his contribution to the development of the arts, but also for his love of English culture. Whenever you next hear ‘Rule Britannia’ spare a thought for our lost King for it was Frederick, Prince of Wales whose patronage brought this song into creation.
Because I am really more of a Regency historian, I have shamelessly pillaged the Royal Collection website for background information on these great works of art. Any errors made are all mine though.
If you have been or are considering going to the First Georgians Exhibition I’d love to hear back regarding the works of art you found most compelling – As I have a free return voucher and it would be great to look from another perpective!!
Click Here for more info and facts on the First Georgians Exhibition:
The peerless Lucy Worsley has made a BBC4 TV show about the current exhibition
If you liked this you may like the following excellent Georgian era Blogs:
Jacqueline Riding is a fountain of knowledge on Georgian art amongst other skills
Who could resist the legend that is Madame Gilflurt
The British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies promotes all things Georgian
And finally, partly because Ireland is steeped in Georgian era culture, and partly because Frederick, Prince of Wales served as the tenth Chancellor of the University of Dublin (1728-51), I would recommend a visit to the Irish Georgian Society – Me being Irish might have had a hand in this too.