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Succeeding as collectors of art

25 July 2014

Nicholas Cranfield sees a summer Royal Collection show

Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

Royal river:London: The Thames from Somerset House Terrace towards Westminster,c.1750, by Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto

Royal river:London: The Thames from Somerset House Terrace towards Westminster,c.1750, by Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto

QUEEN ANNE, the last of the Stuart dynasty, died on 1 August 1714. By the terms of the 1707 Act of Succession (with which Parliament is currently meddling again), the crown passed to the 51st in line of succession, the Elector George Lewis of Hanover, Duke of Brunswick and Lüneburg, thereby pass-ing over 50 Roman Catholic claimants.

He had only once before visited his future kingdom, calling on his distant cousin Charles II when he was a 20-year-old German nobleman. It has wrongly been assumed that this three-month visit in the winter of 1680 might have been with a view to marrying Princess (later Queen) Anne, but there is no evidence for this. She went on to marry another Brunswick-Lüneburg cousin, Prince George of Denmark, while he returned to Hanover and marriage (1682).

Princess Sophia Dorothea of Celle was another first cousin, but proved unsuitable for marriage, and George divorced her for her shameless public adultery. After the murder of her lover, she was imprisoned for the rest of her life. So, in September 1714, the Elector travelled to his new kingdom with his children and his grandson, but no consort.

This might suggest that the first Georges were remote from the country of which Parliament had made them successive kings; but, even before the 1707 Act, the Elector had been nominated as Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter by William III.

A similar honour was conferred five years later upon his son (later George II), by Queen Anne in 1706. A year after the Jacobite rising had failed, George I nominated his grandson Frederick and his own brother to the Order in July 1716 as a public statement that the Hanoverians were here to stay.

Not that the succession went unquestioned. Among more than 300 pictures and objects assembled for this commemorative exhibition we get to see a silver medal struck in 1732 by John Croker and John Sigismund Tanner, to be circulated abroad as a reminder that George II and his heirs were firmly seated upon the Stuart throne. The previous year, the pope had issued engraved medals to celebrate the birthday of the exiled Jacobite princes.

In 1745, the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, reached as far as Derby in his bid for his rightful throne, and the battles of that rising before the final defeatin the bloodshed of "Butcher" Cumberland at Culloden are generously illustrated from military maps in the Royal Collection.

Entering the principal first gallery, the visitor might wonder whether it is part of the exhibitionat all, so familiar appear the paintings. Guido Reni's Cleopatra, a melancholic beauty that must die, as Keats has it; Holbein's Duke of Norfolk of 1539, and his equally magisterial portrait of Sir Henry Guildford; the 1638 Van Dyck double portrait of Sir Thomas Killigrew and a man now knownnot to be the poet Thomas Carew. Each is familiar from the Royal Collection.

But the link is that these had been acquired by the first Hanoverians. George II acquired the Guildford portrait in 1734 (its companion portrait of Lady Guildford, holding her missal and rosary, eluded him;it is currently in St Louis Art Museum), and Frederick, Prince of Wales, acquired the others some time in the 1740s for his collection at Leicester House.

At the end of his life, George I acquired two celebrated paintings by Rubens for his home at Kensington Palace. The equestrian portrait is now known to be of Don Rodrigo Calderón, not that of the bloodied religious bigot the Duke of Alva. It is dated to the years after 1612 when Rubens returned from Rome to Antwerp, which is depicted in the background. For the Kensington drawing room George chose The Holy Family with St Francis.

Both canvases were greatly extended in order to fit into the scheme intended for their original hang. The barbaric 18th-century practice of cutting down or extending canvases was intendedto ensure a classical uniformity. Regrettably, the extant hanging plans for the private royal apartments at Kensington Palace, drawn by George Vertue in 1743, have not been loaned for this exhibition.

One of the paintings clearly marked by Vertue for Queen Caroline's Closet at Kensington as "Salutation painted on copper" proves to be Carlo Marratta's unhurried oil paintingTheAnnunciation, painted about the time of King's George's birth. Maratta, who died the year before the Hanoverian succession, became highly prized in Georgian England, never more so than in the collection of Sir Horace Walpole in the Maratta room at Houghton Hall.

Also in this first room are two wonderful Claudes,A Harbour Scene at Sunset, dated to 1643, in a spectacular rococo giltwood frame, andView of the Roman Campagna from Tivoli, of 1645. If Prince Frederick could not go on the Grand Tour himself, he could play at it vicariously by buying such pictures.

Indeed, the 1740s and 1750s saw a revival in the tradition of painting and visiting such scenes; the Welsh artist Richard Wilson, who was at Tivoli in 1754, could be found in the company of Viscount Bolingbroke and the Earls of Pembroke, of Essex, and of Thanet.

But the hazards of war-torn Europe (which sometimes raised awkward questions for the new dynasty when British and Hanoverian interests had to be reconciled) also brought the tradition of the Grand Tour to an end. The famous pair of paintings by Canaletto of the Thames, viewed from the terrace of Somerset House, are on the wall of the second large gallery. Together they offer a 180° view of the riverine city in 1750.

Hunt scenes by John Wootton (1682-1764), painted for Kew but now at Windsor Castle, and his views of the Thames at Henley, painted for a family who lived there at Park Place, are hung too high to be read easily, as, too, is a satirical scene set in St James's Park (unknown artist) with its throng of milkmaids, prostitutes, soldiers, and foreigners.

In the picture, fashionable and not-so-fashionable society turned out to promenade in Georgian London, including two Scotsmen risking public opprobrium for wearing tartan. Highland dress was banned in Scotland from 1 August 1746 by the Dress Act, which may help to date this picture, as the background includes a glimpse of the twin Gothic towers designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor for the west end of Westminster Abbey, newly completed in 1745.

Exquisite enamels, any number of miniatures and snuff boxes, the ewer and basin used at the private baptism of the future George III (1738), a Roubiliac marble bust of Handel (1739), Chelsea porcelain, and William Kent furniture all have their place in this exhibition, which comes ten years after an immensely successful one based on the collections of George III and Queen Caroline.

If I felt any disappointment, it was that I never really encountered the Elector himself. It was his Personal Union that brought together the Crowns of Britain and Hanover until 1837.

An educated French-speaking nobleman, who preferred hunting and opera-going to government, he had left behind him grander houses and palaces than he found in his new capital, prompting his fre­quent return visits, despite wide­spread British criticism. Might he have been privately an unhappy man?

Nevertheless, I think I shall still stroll down to my neighbouring parish of St Alfege's, Greenwich, on 18 September to see how they commemorate the landing of such an unpromising monarch.

"The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy 1714-1760" is at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London SW1, until 12 October.

Phone 020 7766 7300.


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