Thursday, September 15, 2011

King George IV & the paparazzi of his day

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Loretta reports:

My recent blogs about King George IV and Lady Worsley got me thinking about the media’s influence on our attitude toward historical figures.  Sir Richard Worsley tried to make a life for himself after the crim. con. case, but it haunted him for the rest of his life, thanks to the caricatures.  Displayed in print shop windows and print sellers’ umbrellas, these reached a great many more people, from all walks of life, than did newspapers and printed reports of legal proceedings.

King George IV had a similar problem.  He “had the great misfortune to live through the golden age of English caricature from 1780 to 1830 when the high and mighty were not spared.”*

“No account betrays the impact of satirical iconography on memory and hence on verbal caricature more obviously than Thackeray’s”**  (Beerbohm’s essay tackles Thackeray’s version of history.)

“Even now Gillray’s and Cruikshank’s prints more deeply influence our sense of the prince than any contemporary textual description.  Modern attempts to rehabilitate George IV’s reputation as connoisseur or statesman in effect still do battle with the caricatures.”**

The years I’ve spent researching his world lead me to the same conclusion.  I keep finding myself comparing and contrasting.  That nasty divorce case, for instance.  So I wonder why Henry VIII, who went through six wives, isn’t a bigger villain.  He executed two—and their bad conduct was mild compared to Caroline’s, as England belatedly discovered.

As to libertines, I reflect on Charles II.   He had a harem of mistresses, yet frequented brothels.  He showered his favorites with riches.  (Susan can tell you how many ships it took to carry the Duchess of Portland’s stuff back to France).  He begat many bastards, and gave most of the males dukedoms or earldoms.  He got the nickname the Merry Monarch.

Edward VII was a serial adulterer, too.  But “Punch never hinted at his philandering.  It was left to the French magazines, which did not circulate in Britain, to show him frequenting brothels, fondling naked prostitutes, smoking and drinking to excess.”*

“Unlike George IV, Charles II and Edward VII left behind them no enduring monuments for which the nation could be grateful.”*

They didn’t leave behind so many caricatures, either.

*Kenneth Baker, George IV A Life in Caricature.
** Vic Gattrell, City of Laughter.

Illustrations:  George, Cruikshank, Merry making on the regents birth day, 1812.
(Published by W Benbow) The Kremlin in commotion - or - the Grand Lama sick of the horn cholic, 1820. Both prints courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.


Sarah said...

The beauty of the caricatures for me though is in the wealth of extraneous social and costume detail to be found in them. Hard lines for Prinny, but hey, he knew the likes of Cruikshank were out there. If you don't want it published, don't do it. Same as with the paparazzi today.

Jane O said...

Well, Charles II did manage to bring some peace to England with the Restoration, even though his foolish brother didn't have the sense to follow in his footsteps. He may have "showered his favorites with riches" but never to the extravagant level George showed in his spending. And one could argue that chartering the Royal Society benefitted the country far more than building the Brighton Pavilion did.

I wouldn't care to try to defend either Edward VII or Henry VIII, but I can't feel much sympathy for George IV. After all, it isn't as if he didn't do the things that were being caricatured. You play, you pay.

Isobel Carr said...

I’ve always had a soft spot for Prinny and think he gets a very raw deal from many historians. They skip over the years where he was “the first gentleman of Europe” and obfuscate his contributions to art and culture in favor of showing him as an elderly, fat buffoon with a penchant for older, fatter women.

Marilu Veale said...

Probably the reason for this was the proliferation of the printing press for which we all give thanks. And of course a century of upheaval had weakened royal power to do a red queen "off with their head" every time someone criticized the monarchy. Indeed, the inability to dispose of his critics while he lived life in such a fishbowl could well have provoked George to outrageous antics and capricious expenditures with the thought that if he could not please, at least he could irritate.

Jenny Woolf said...

It's interesting but I think some monarchs have "star quality." That's notoriously hard to pin down, but Queen Elizabeth I and Henry VIII had it.

To sum it all up in a very simplistic way, they were rich, powerful, gorgeously dressed, fun-loving, clever, ruthless and ready to take what they wanted.

None of the other monarchs you mention seemed larger than life , and I think Edward VII was actually repulsive in a sort of watery, drippy way.

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