Room 17: Royalty, Celebrity & Scandal

See the portraits currently on display in Room 17 here

Room 17

© The National Portrait Gallery, London

As Prince of Wales, Prince Regent and King, George IV was an exceptional patron of art and architecture. Despite the remarkable elegance of his court, George led the monarchy through a period of constant humiliation and scandal. The poet Shelly, voicing the popular mood, scorned George and his corrupt and decadent brothers as 'the dregs of their dull race'.

In 1783 George began socialising with Charles James Fox and his Whig circle, notorious for its debauchery. George himself was given to gluttony and womanising, activities that were mercilessly caricatured by satirists such as James Gillray.

George had secretly married Mrs Fitzherbert but, when Parliament agreed to cancel his debts, he married Princess Caroline of Brunswick in 1795. The marriage was an immediate disaster; they separated and Caroline sought revenge by living a life of promiscuous abandon in England and Europe.

When George IV acceded to the throne in 1820, Caroline returned to Britain to take her place as Queen. Cheering crowds, disaffected with the monarchy, greeted her as their champion. But George was determined to divorce her for adultery. The dramatic proceedings are recorded in Hayter's Trial of Queen Caroline.

In later years George was reclusive and self-deluded, believing himself the victor of Waterloo. Image was everything to him as he vied with real heroes and popular celebrities for public affection.

Icons and Image Makers

'in this AGE OF PERSONALITY'
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1817)

A cult of patriotic heroism spread through Regency society with each new victory in the wars against France. Portrait painting and sculpture were particularly important in the creation and commemoration of war heroes.

The Regency fascination with individual lives did not stop with the military. Romanticism had proposed a new idea of individual genius. Whether poet, prince or politician, celebrity and reputation could be created and promoted by portraits displayed and circulated in every medium from engraving to commemorative pottery.

Each person displayed in this group was depicted many times and was acutely aware of the role that portraiture played in their self-promotion and popular reputation. Nelson, Wellington and the Prince of Wales chose their artists carefully, but the most potent form of portrait was beyond their control: the biting caricatures created and engraved by James Gillray and his peers.

Friendships and Feuds

Regency politics was bitterly personal. Friendships and feuds shaped the policies and fortunes of the Whigs and Tories, the two main parties. Charles James Fox, leader of the Whigs, was close friends with King George III’s wayward son. George, Prince of Wales and championed his claim to the throne during the king’s apparent madness in 1788-9.

Woman did not have the vote but the personal nature of politics gave them substantial influence as political hostesses. The most important Whig women were Elizabeth, Viscountess Melbourne and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. They brokered alliances and consolidated party support from the 1770s onwards. The ‘Devonshire House set’ was also notorious for their fashionable clothes, sexual intrigues, slang and enormous gambling debts. These scandals contributed to the Whigs’ defeat by the Tory William Pitt in the 1784 general election.