Coronation portrait of George IV

Royal Collection Trust

Coronation portrait of George IV by Thomas Lawrence, 1821

“There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased King. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow?” Thus The Times of London in 1830 upon the death of King George IV.

There have been more wicked kings in English history, but none so unredeemed by any signal greatness or virtue. That he was a dissolute and drunken fop, a spendthrift and a gamester, “a bad son, a bad husband, a bad father, a bad subject, a bad monarch, and a bad friend,” that his word was worthless and his courage doubtful, are facts which cannot be denied.

Thus J.A. Hamilton in the original, late-nineteenth-century Dictionary of National Biography.

No, George IV has not had a good press. The present Prince of Wales isn’t putting too fine a point on it when he says that George “was certainly not free from controversy and he was often the subject of satire.” The man who was successively Prince of Wales, prince regent, and king, “Prinnie” to friends and sometimes foes, was condemned by posterity, and derided in his own time as well by people as different as his sternly unforgiving father, King George III, and Thomas Jefferson, who claimed that the prince, in early manhood, was barely educated,

nor has the society he has kept been such as to supply the void of education. It has been that of the lowest, the most illiterate and profligate persons of the kingdom, without choice of rank or merit, and with whom the subjects of conversation are only horses, drinking-matches, bawdy-houses, and in terms the most vulgar.

After George III came to the throne in 1760, the early decades of his reign saw the loss of the American colonies, before his first alarming bout of madness in 1788 seemed to incapacitate him. Prinnie had become a friend of the leader of the Whigs, Charles James Fox, whose love of liberty, as well as libertine tastes, the young prince appeared to share, and there were short-lived hopes that if the king were declared unfit, Prinnie would become regent and place the Whigs in power. But the king recovered, shortly before the French Revolution and the long years of war with France. Then came his final and complete derangement: a regency was instituted in 1811 and lasted until the “old, mad, blind, despis’d, and dying king” of Shelley’s savage poem “England in 1819” did die the following year, and his son became George IV.

When the Regency began, war abroad and turbulence at home meant that a firm guiding hand was needed, or simply a good regal example. George Tierney, a member of Parliament, visited the new prince regent and found him “very nervous, as well he may be at the prospect before him,” and

frequent in the course of the day in his applications to the liquor chest. I much doubt, however, whether all the alcohol…in the world…will be able to brace his nerves up to the mark of facing the difficulties he will soon have to encounter.

The prince regent disappointed the Whigs, and by the time of his death the youthful liberal prince had become an aged reactionary king, sunk in a haze of gluttony, brandy, and laudanum. In 1827 Albert Gallatin, the Swiss-born US ambassador, visited George at his beloved Royal Pavilion in Brighton and found him supine and sodden, until he brightened, and “the conversation was boisterous and indecent.” Afterward, Gallatin paced up and down the seafront with his son, saying, “And that is a King.”

And so a reader of Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags could be forgiven some perplexity when Ambrose Silk feels for George IV “a reverence which others devoted to Charles I.” But then Ambrose is a pansy aesthete (as he would say), and to understand his reverence you need to visit the marvelous exhibition “George IV: Art and Spectacle.” Whatever his numerous failings as a monarch and a man, George was the greatest connoisseur, collector, and patron of the arts on the English throne since the martyred king, himself the subject of the magnificent “Charles I: King and Collector” exhibition at the Royal Academy two years ago. Not just the first since Charles, he was our last sovereign who possessed genuinely good taste, in painting, architecture, music, and literature. After seven years of George’s forgettable brother reigning as William IV, the young Victoria became queen in 1837, and for twenty years her energetic German husband, Prince Albert, briefly made the court something of a center of intellectual life. Since Albert’s early death the British monarchy has been distinguished by philistinism.

George IV was born in 1762, forty-eight years after his great-grandfather the Elector of Hanover arrived in England to become King George I and two years after his father inherited the throne from his grandfather George II. When he came of age, Parliament granted him an annual allowance of £100,000, which his father, who had already taken against the prodigal son, reduced to £50,000. Within a few years the prince had run up debts of more than £260,000, mostly spent on Carlton House, his new palace facing Pall Mall and running down—literally so, since it was built on a slope—to St. James’s Park. Since the house was both built and demolished in his lifetime, we have to follow its story through plans and paintings of its interiors, and the account given by David Oakey in “The Construction, Decoration and Demolition of George IV’s Carlton House,” one of the learned essays that comprise the admirable catalog accompanying the exhibition.


Apart from the huge sums spent on building and decorating, George had already discovered the delights of collecting, and he filled Carlton House with pictures, furniture, and bits and pieces of all kinds. Some of his early interests were conventional enough, such as the miniatures that were much sought after by the rich. Even then George chose well, commissioning fine portrait miniatures from Richard Cosway: several of the prince himself and a delightful one of Maria Fitzherbert, the actress he married clandestinely and illegally in 1785, a marriage from which he later extricated himself to enable his legal, and disastrous, marriage to Princess Caroline of Brunswick. He also collected caricatures, although very much not the ones of himself that are on display in the exhibition, like Thomas Rowlandson’s His Highness in Fitz, which shows the Prince of Wales in bed with Maria, or James Gillray’s even more brutal A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion. There was also a vogue for sporting art, and the prince was lucky that this was the age of George Stubbs, an animal painter touched by genius. The Prince of Wales’s Phaeton—two horses, two grooms, the phaeton or light carriage, and an enthusiastic dog—is a wonderful composition.

Among George’s absorbing interests were the Stuarts, his unlucky seventeenth-century predecessors, and the French ancien régime, and he avidly collected anything connected with either, from a bejeweled locket containing strands of Charles I’s hair to François Girardon’s bronze equestrian statue of Louis XIV. He yearned to be a magnificent monarch in their tradition, something for which neither he nor the age was suited. And yet, if his political career was dubious, he played an important part in refashioning the monarchy as an embodiment of the nation, what Walter Bagehot later called the “dignified” part of the constitution, a function it could fulfill while allowing the “efficient” part—the government—to get on with running the country. This is still the theory, even if our present government has yet to show much efficiency, and our reigning dynasty at the moment looks even less dignified.

Not that “dignified” came easily to George either. “The first gentleman of Europe” who greeted crowned heads gathered to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon soon incurred the hatred of many of his own people, partly because of the grotesque trial of his wife for adultery by the House of Lords and partly because of his support for the reactionary government of Lord Liverpool, which led to the Peterloo Massacre of protesters demanding the reform of parliamentary representation in 1819. But the public was fickle, George’s popularity increased after his coronation, and he paid remarkably successful visits to Ireland and Scotland, where no king had set foot in more than a hundred years.

His Scottish visit was organized by his friend Sir Walter Scott, a central figure in the Romantic rediscovery of the past, and it was a wondrous spectacle of invented tradition, specifically that of the Highlands about which Thomas Macaulay, and later Hugh Trevor-Roper, wrote so sardonically. George held court at Holyrood wearing a kilt over pink tights; or, as Macaulay put it, the king

thought that he could not give a more striking proof of his respect for the usages which had prevailed in Scotland before the Union than by disguising himself in what, before the Union, was considered by nine Scotchmen out of ten as the dress of a thief.

Still, Sir David Wilkie did his best to paint the king looking like a true chieftain in full Highland garb, which has since become one of the favorite apparels of our royals: even in his French exile the Duke of Windsor dined each night wearing a kilt.

Pitzhanger Manor

Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Joseph Gandy: Pitzhanger Manor, 1800

As for George’s happiest role, as connoisseur and patron, he was fortunate in his timing. The French Revolution had led to the dispersal of great royal and aristocratic possessions, and these were years of plenty for collectors, not to say for the Parisian marchand-merciers, who did a roaring trade. During the French and Napoleonic Wars George couldn’t visit France himself, but he acquired a network of agents, dealers, and friends, thanks to whom he became a major collector of furniture, porcelain, bronzes, and jewelry as well as painting. As prince regent he had a much larger income at his disposal and, as Desmond Shawe-Taylor writes, with Waterloo and the return of peace, George and his friends “embarked on a four-year spending spree remarkable even by royal standards.”


At the time the Low Countries masters of the seventeenth century were the height of fashion among art lovers, but George showed his usual discrimination, whether his purchase was Adriaen van Ostade’s The Interior of a Peasant’s Cottage or Rembrandt’s wonderful The Shipbuilder and His Wife. Anyone with enough money can buy art, old or new, good or bad, as that riveting tragicomic documentary The Price of Everything recently reminded us, but a real art lover bestows his patronage by commissioning contemporary artists. Here again George was lucky to find himself in a golden age of English painting. Thomas Gainsborough painted his three elder sisters, Princesses Charlotte, Augusta, and Elizabeth; Joshua Reynolds painted Maria Fitzherbert in a manner both touching and saucy. George also much admired the work of Antonio Canova, the Italian sculptor already famous throughout Europe. They met when Canova came to London in 1815; he left with a royal snuffbox containing £1,000 as a down payment on his Mars and Venus Symbolizing War and Peace.

Taking the waters was already a fashion among the rich, reaching its apogee in the years before the Great War when many of the crowned heads and statesmen of Europe were found each August at Marienbad. As Stella Tillyard says in her admirable George IV: King in Waiting, part of the Penguin Monarchs series of brief lives of English kings and queens, George would doubtless have traveled to continental spas but for war. Instead he “made Brighton into his own spa, at least until his sensitivity about his bulk meant that he stopped sea-bathing in 1806.” But he didn’t stop building the Royal Pavilion, which became “his Xanadu, his stately pleasure dome.”

As Oakey says:

It comes as a shock…that—after playing such a leading role in national life, and the expense and effort…Carlton House would be reduced to rubble just six years after the prince’s accession to the throne.

But it had become inconvenient, not private enough for the increasingly reclusive king, not grand enough for state occasions, and without enough space properly to display his collections. And so his attention was now focused on Brighton. European connoisseurs relished Oriental art and decoration, Turkish, Chinese (or “Chinoiserie”), and Indian (or “Mughal”), which had been taken up as architectural styles, so that by 1762, Tillyard writes, “the gardens at Kew were adorned with a pagoda, an ‘Alhambra’ and a ‘Mosque.’” George had visited Sezincote House in Gloucestershire, built in the neo-Mughal manner, and the Royal Pavilion became a fantastical and appealing mishmash of these styles.

In the last room of the exhibition we reach the culmination of George’s career as patron. To mark the peace and the Congress of Vienna, the prince regent commanded from Sir Thomas Lawrence a grand series of full-length portraits. One is of course of George himself in gorgeous silver and velvet, a huge canvas that tested Lawrence’s skill in portraying him as a grand seigneur in the manner of the Sun King (see illustration on page 28). (Another picture, by Benjamin Robert Haydon, is of George being shown the Battlefield of Waterloo by the Duke of Wellington; its caption doesn’t mention that George became convinced that he had fought at Waterloo in person, as he told Wellington, to the duke’s bemusement or amusement.) But that pales beside the other portraits, which were originally intended for Carlton House but ended up in the Waterloo Room at Windsor Castle. Here are the scheming Metternich, the towering Archduke Charles of Austria, Cardinal Consalvi, and Pope Pius VII, a masterpiece reminiscent of—and standing comparison with—those other great papal portraits, Titian’s Paul III and Velázquez’s Innocent X.

No doubt Ambrose Silk revered George as the last English monarch to leave London more handsome than he found it. Although Carlton House, his greatest extravagance, didn’t long survive, and although Regent’s Street running north from there still exists by name but is unrecognizable and dreary after so much spoliation of John Nash’s work, Regent’s Park with its encircling terraces remains one of the glories of London. The great age of English baroque architecture—Christopher Wren, John Vanbrugh, and the astonishing Nicholas Hawksmoor—had lasted into the reigns of the first two Georges, before baroque was succeeded by the less exhilarating Palladian style, but George IV encouraged another generation of outstanding English architects, notably Nash and Jeffry Wyatville: the highly distinctive silhouette of Windsor Castle as we now know it is the work of Wyatville at George’s command.

Neither architect was as brilliantly original as Sir John Soane, George’s close contemporary (born before him in 1753 and outliving him to 1837). Even if he hadn’t been so gifted, Soane’s story would be fascinating. “Slow rises worth by poverty deppress’d” was Samuel Johnson’s bitter line earlier in the eighteenth century, and that was still true in the age of George IV. Although the industrial revolution had begun to transform England, with a new bourgeoisie and proletariat, and the turn from a society based on rank to one based on class, social mobility was still rare. But not unknown: Soane was born the son of a bricklayer and ended as Sir John, a rich and famous architect whose wonderful house in London delights visitors to this day.

More recently Soane became a hero for American as well as European architects—Philip Johnson, James Stirling, and John Simpson among others—which is surprising if pleasing since so much of his best work, such as the Bank of England and other buildings in the City of London, was laid waste by the Victorians. One of his better-known surviving works is Dulwich Picture Gallery and its adjacent mausoleum, built to commemorate Soane’s great friend Sir Francis Bourgeois and to house his collection. But for an even better illustration of why those successors have so admired Soane, go to Ealing, in his day a leafy village, now a suburb of west London (still quite leafy) reached on the Underground. There stands the beguiling Pitzhanger Manor, which has happily just been restored and reopened.

When Soane bought Pitzhanger in 1800 as a rural retreat, there was the personal connection that it had been owned, and added to, by George Dance, the architect whose pupil he had once been, although that didn’t stop him from demolishing all but Dance’s addition. As rebuilt by Soane, Pitzhanger is wonderfully dramatic, above all the main façade, which he called “a picture, a sort of portrait” of himself. Soane had made the Grand Tour and imbibed classical architecture, to much better effect than some of the more sterile Palladian architects. He was particularly taken by the Arch of Constantine in Rome, which inspired Pitzhanger. The façade is framed by four grand Ionic columns, each crowned by a caryatid echoing the Acropolis, although unlike those Attic models they aren’t marble but Coade stone, a composite invented in the 1760s by the clever entrepreneur Eleanor Coade.

Inside the house, one room after another shows Soane’s theatrical gift for using space and light. It might seem churlish to say that the house is unlived-in, but there is a problem with highly personal houses like this or Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill.* Carefully restored and tended as they are, both now stand largely empty, and imagination is needed to conjure up the original atmosphere. That’s why Soane’s London house is such a joy, crammed as it is with his possessions, and why the “Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill” exhibition brought that house to life last winter by briefly assembling as many as possible of Walpole’s now far-flung possessions.

Not only the prince regent but the Regency has a bad name, suggesting a chocolate-box scene of a buck eyeing a maiden through his quizzing glass, or sugary historical novels, although the portrait of Regency England Thackeray gave in Vanity Fair was far from sentimental. It was in truth a brutal age in many ways: “A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field,” Shelley wrote, “Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay.” Even so, for all the destitution, political reaction, and judicial cruelty, the 1810s—the decade of the Regency—were one of the most astonishingly fecund moments in English cultural history, from art and architecture to literature, with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Byron, Keats, and Shelley in their prime.

And although Shelley saw the prince regent as among “the dregs of their dull race,” and for all the harsh words of Gallatin and Jefferson (whose report was secondhand, it should be said), George was far from stupid, an amusing conversationalist when reasonably sober, and a brilliant mimic, which caused political problems when his cabinet ministers winced at his clever imitations of their colleagues, or maybe those colleagues winced when they heard about them. Those who have thought, then and since, that George was a selfish sybarite forget that he opened his collection to public view, saying that he had not bought these things for his “own pleasure alone.” Though not its only begetter, he was one of the founding fathers of the National Gallery.

Along with George’s patronage of the visual arts, John Hoppner’s portrait of Haydn recalls the composer describing George as having “an extraordinary love of music and a lot of feeling.” He supported chamber music concerts at Carlton House and at Brighton, where the wind band delighted Rossini. And George was an intelligent reader who admired Scott but most memorably Jane Austen, even if she didn’t wholly reciprocate his admiration (she privately deplored his treatment of his wife). Here in the exhibition, open at the appropriately fulsome dedication to the prince regent, is a copy of Emma, surely the last great work of literature dedicated to an English king or queen. Looking around us today we might hesitate to deride an age that could produce a writer like her, or a patron like him.