The first Georgians must have been a grumpy lot. At least this is the impression visitors of the exhibition The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760 get. For all the publicity materials show a smiling David Garrick with his Wife Eva-Maria Veigel painted by William Hogarth, while none of the pictures of George I (1660-1727) currently displayed at the Queen’s Gallery were apparently friendly enough to make it onto the posters.
The oil painting of the king of Great Britain and Ireland, and elector of Hanover by Sir Godfrey Kneller, which greets viewers at the entrance of the gallery, looks rather stern and serious as if George was weighed down by his newly acquired role. The Act of Settlement (1701) had transferred the succession to the English throne to his mother, Sophia of Hanover as the next protestant in line. As she died shortly before Queen Anne, George had to uproot from his native Germany to take up his new responsibilities. Indeed he did not seem to have much to smile about.
Speaking little English and not exactly welcomed with open arms by his new subjects, he had arrived in Britain without his wife Sophia Dorothea, who had abandoned him and, as a punishment for her adultery with a Swedish count, was imprisoned in her native Celle. George I was also alienated from his eldest son, the future George II; and, of course, there was the Jacobite threat to consider.
The exhibition shows a deceptively harmonious-looking oil painting by Pierre Mignard of the alternative royal family of the Catholic James II around 1694, by now safely exiled to France. Yet, the Jacobite threat would persist, and uprisings, such as those of 1715 and 1745 would make the new Hanoverian dynasty feel uneasy on their throne. This is also documented through the many military maps displayed in the exhibition, some of them used by George II’s younger son William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (1721-65) on his campaign in the Scottish Highlands. Nevertheless, 300 years ago this Hanoverian dynasty began an unbroken line of succession to the present monarch Queen Elizabeth II.
There are more playful elements to the exhibition that reveal happier times and interesting personalities within the royal family. For instance, there is Queen Caroline’s Wunderkammer of small treasures, containing little hardstone carvings of the Tudors, or wax and ivory carvings of various family members alongside miniature paintings and enamels by the Dresden-born artist Christian Friedrich Zincke. In fact, there are many items in the exhibition that remind the viewer of the royal family’s German origins.
Apparently, the family had a particular liking for the work of Hans Holbein the Younger, and Queen Caroline discovered a complete set of his drawings, while one of the more famous items displayed in the exhibition is the oil portrait of Sir Henry Guildford (1489-1532), one of Henry VIII’s companions of his younger years.
There are also ornate items of furniture, gilded chairs and marble-topped side tables, as well as a silver dinner service, from which the family would eat English, German and French dishes. Alongside Meissen porcelain the viewer can also admire Chelsea plates with garden motives and a rather absurd-looking asparagus-shaped needle case.
Royal hobbies are reflected in the beautiful harpsichord next to a marble bust of Georg Friedrich Händel, while a number of sporting guns for game shooting reveal a taste for rather more bloody pursuits.
The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, open until 12 October 2014.