A Discriminating Dissolute

George IV: Art and Spectacle

an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, November 15, 2019–May 3, 2020; and the Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, October 16, 2020–April 5, 2021
(The Queen’s Gallery in London is temporarily closed.)
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Kate Heard and Kathryn Jones
London: Royal Collection Trust, 294 pp., £49.95
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,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.