Wednesday, September 7, 2011

King George IV—some alternate views

Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Loretta reports:

The recent Friday funny video about King George IV  had me wondering, as always, Why?  Why, after he died, had so very few anything good to say about him? Why during his lifetime was he so mercilessly lampooned?  Why did so few defend him?  Why hasn’t the view of him mellowed with time?  Yes, we know all the bad stuff:  the mistresses, the marriage fiascos, the drinking, gluttony, and extravagance.  But he was hardly the first Prince of Wales or English monarch to behave badly.  Why is he judged so harshly?

Craving a little balance, I offer today some of the more sympathetic views that Kenneth Baker, in his wonderful book, George IV: A Life in Caricature,* includes in his introduction.

The Duke of Wellington:  “The most extraordinary compound of talent, wit, buffoonery, obstinacy, and good feeling—in short a medley of the most opposite qualities with a great preponderance of good—that I ever saw in any character in my life.”

The Princess Lieven:  “ . . . if remembered it was only to criticize his morals.  It is in the middle and lower classes especially that this side of his character has left a very unfavourable impression . . . which overshadows much that was striking and brilliant in his reign.  His glory is forgotten and his vices exaggerated.”

Walter Scott:  “in many respects the model of a British monarch—has little inclination to try experiments or government otherwise than through his ministers.” 

J.H. Plumb (the historian):  “Few kings have been so hated or so mocked or had their virtues so consistently ignored.”

We can thank him for some of London’s most beautiful architecture and that splendid fantasia, Brighton’s Royal Pavilion.  He made the Royal Collection one of the world’s finest.  “He was a generous patron of English literature . . . the best educated of any English monarch—his rivals being Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.”  Baker has more to say about his good qualities—and for a lengthy, and very interesting defense, here’s Max Beerbohm’s 1894 essay.

Next week, I’ll have something to say about the numerous caricatures.

*NHG Library recommendation.

Illustrations:   James Gillray, A voluptuary under the horrors of digestion, 1792 July 2d.
Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
King George IV 1821, Courtesy Wikimedia.


Undine said...

Well, that business with Caroline was pretty scandalous, even by royal standards. That didn't help.

I've always felt a lot of his unpopularity came about because of the fact that he became Regent during his father's illnesses. From what I read, there seemed to be a lot of sympathy for George III, and a general feeling that his dissolute son was rather too eagerly taking advantage of the tragic situation to seize power. I don't know if this was a fair assessment or not, but that is what many people believed.

Anonymous said...

From HJ

There's an excellent series by Lucy Worsley on his regency being aired in the UK at the moment, called Elegance and Decadence, The Age of the Regency. Watch it when you can! It gives a more rounded view of his charcter and achievments, as well as being honest about his shortcomings.

Anonymous said...

I can not afford another book. I have several older ones on satire and the cariacatures of Prinny. The prince Regent seemed to go out of his way to give employment to cartoonists. His debts were more than the yearly expenses of a small nation and his private life was a disgrace. He made a good scapegoat for all the problems like the war and bad harvests that no one could control.

Maybe, making him the butt of so many jests, released enough tension to keep the country from revolution.

Thea said...

Perhaps it was that very lack of consistency and capricious behavior, as all his admirers point out, that makes our memories so zig zaggy. His position gained him more respect than his personal conduct. But he wasn't boring!

Kelly S. Bishop said...

His eagerness to take over for his father. The way he treated his wife and daughter. The lack of self-control & over-indulgence. The childish temper tantrums.

But I think most of all, he leaves you with the feeling of - he could have done better. I think it was the "unfulfilled potential" that caused his contemporaries to judge him so harshly. And history hasn't really changed that opinion.

Charles Bazalgette said...

Tom Ambrose does his best to show Prinny's good sides in 'Prinny and His Pals'. Undoubtedly there were good things about the man. However, even this book doesn't really succeed in rehabilitating him. There was just too much that was weak, wasteful, petulant and selfish.

Jane O said...

The problem seems to be that his virtues were not those of a king, and his vices were particularly contemptible in a king. Had he simply been a wealthy aristocrat, his role as patron of the arts might have made him admired, and his profligacy would have been a problem only for himself and his immediate family.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the links, Loretta. I saw in the video that George IV designed Buckingham Palace and I knew he was at least responsible for the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. I just spent an hour or more browsing the Royal Collection and there are many many pieces (including the whole Sevres china of Louis XIV -- at least I think that's the right Louis). Thanks for the revisit of George IV the much maligned.

Charles Bazalgette said...

Very astute comment, Jane - precisely. Trouble was that he loved the company of such rakes and didn't see why he shouldn't act the same way as they did.

Material World said...

Just love your blog. Your research is so good. You might be interested in a Costume Study tour to U.K. for April 2012. Check out details at:
Hoping to find 20 people to make this happen.
Joseph Hisey
Past Chair, Costume Society of Ontario

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