Ep. 5 King George III & Queen Charlotte

This is the transcript for Season 2 Episode 5
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Hello I’m your host Janelle and in this episode I’ve brought us across the Channel to England, specifically London, during the reign of King George III and Queen Charlotte. As always you can view the images, transcript of this audio recording, and resources I discuss on my website www.boozyarthistorian.com. Right, now let’s get into the good stuff!

The reason I’ve brought us to London is because firstly, King George III & Queen Charlotte are the ruling monarchs during the time of the French Revolution, so it was a nice way to continue the historical timeline of this season, and secondly because we’ve just had the release of Netflix & Shondaland’s latest installment in the Bridgerton universe, Queen Charlotte! It also doesn’t hurt that we had an actual coronation that same weekend, so if you were trying avoid all things British that first weekend of May, you were a bit out of luck.

As an art historian I’m always slightly conflicted with period dramas and historical fiction, because sometimes people don’t understand that these stories aren’t in fact, well facts! But I will give the Bridgerton universe big props since they had a little disclaimer at the beginning of the series claiming that this was not a historically accurate show. Which I very much appreciate, and this to me, makes me appreciate the work the cast and crew have put into creating this wonderful universe.  Because it is engaging and people who I never thought would be interested in Georgian or Regency Era history are now coming to me with questions! Which is such a big perk to shows like these, engaging people who normally would claim history as “dry” or “boring”. But now I’ve had my little mini rant and I’m completely ignoring what we’re here for.  Who were King George III and Queen Charlotte?

There are so many resources out there, and as always I’ve linked the ones I think are the most helpful and/or interesting in the resources section of the page for this particular episode. As an American I was definitely brought up with a different version of George III than my colleagues/contemporaries, but it was really quite fun to hear their takes on his background and little details about his reign when doing research for this episode.

So who was King George III? My fellow Americans will know him best as “Mad King George” the guy who enacted a ton of taxes on the American colonies and caused the American Revolution, or as Jonathan Groff in Hamilton. But obviously he was more than that, and for art historians he plays an interesting role.  You can see in Image 1 that quite a bit happened during his lifetime. So let’s start at the beginning. Born in 1738 to Frederick, Prince of Wales and Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, and grandson to King George II.  Fun fact: George III was 2 months early! But it’s said that he quickly grew and was a very healthy baby. George III was given a high level education through private tutors.  It’s said that he was fluent in German by the time he was 8 years old, which of course was very helpful later on in his life.  But, what is particularly interesting about his education is his fascination with science!  Which I think the show did a brilliant job of depicting.  We have to remember we’re still in the Age of Enlightenment, which I discussed in Episode 4 in the Neoclassical art movement!

What the show didn’t mention, but that I think is important, is one of George III’s tutors, William Chambers, taught George all about architectural drawings and archeological digs! Which plays a big role in his passion for the arts later on in his life. Beyond his studies George lived a fairly quiet life, since his grandfather kept him away from the political world as much as he could, and his mother created a sort of domestic lifestyle, where the focus was on family rather than courtly ritual. At the age of 22 George becomes king after his grandfather passes, because his father the Prince of Wales died in 1751 from, what historians now believe was, a pulmonary embolism.  On the 8th of September 1761, George married the court-approved Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and then just a couple of weeks later, on the 22nd of September,  both had their coronation ceremony and are the new British monarchs.

Which leads me into who was Queen Charlotte?  And I know I kind of covered her in Season 1 but I figured I would give a little refresher, since it’s been a while. Charlotte was from the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, which is essentially the northern part of present day Germany. She was chosen as a wife for George III for a couple of reasons.  One of the most predominant being, that the Germanic ruling class had a very similar hierarchy to that of the British, and it made it an easy transition for her into their court without causing any fuss on what her status would be and if it was higher or lower than others. Because we all know very well that it’s all about the pecking order. It’s also important to note that some historians do believe that Charlotte was a woman of color.  Unfortunately there isn't any clear evidence to prove or disprove if this is true! But History with Amy on TikTok made a great video about this, and I’ve linked it in the resources should you wish to learn a bit more. She was 17 years old when she married George, and they did in fact get married just 6 hours after her arrival into London.  I understand why the show didn’t address this, but it should be worth noting that Charlotte wasn’t fluent in English by this point, but as I mentioned before George was very fluent in German, so they had no issue conversing. Which I think plays quite nicely into their overall relationship and the household they build together.

Which much like his mother, George wanted a family focused household rather than the lavish courtly life like his counterpart Louis XVI.  It’s also worth noting that George never took on a mistress, which was highly uncommon for the ruling class.  Ladies, I know the bar was truly that low back then. But this is what I loved about the show, is that they do emphasize a royal couple who truly loved each other and were devoted to one another.  It’s well documented how depressed Charlotte became once George’s health began to decline.  And a lovely little touch to the show is in the costuming.  Now some of you may have been wondering, why does the Queen have different style clothing than the rest of the ton in Bridgerton? Well the theory is it’s so George, whose mind is stuck in the time period her clothes reflect, will be able to better recognize her! Either way, I’m digressing! Let’s get back to it.

So like I mentioned, George and Charlotte are all about having a quiet private family life, so much so that one author I was reading called George the “middle-class” king.  Which I find slightly hysterical. This does help us understand as well why George purchased Buckingham House, now known as Buckingham Palace, for Charlotte and his children.  Again, unlike his French counterparts, George is creating a physical and metaphorical separation between the royal family and courtiers. As mentioned in Season 1, Buckingham House was purchased in 1761 and John Nash was one of the main architects of the building.  It’s also worth noting that it’s quite difficult to say when Buckingham House was truly completed since pretty much every royal who’s lived in the estate has made some kind of change to the building. So if Buckingham House is the private sphere, where’s the public sphere? That would be St. James’s Palace.  Which I discussed since this is where Daphne, and in Season 2 Eloise, are presented to the Queen.   Which leads me into discussing a topic that I think is particularly important to George and Charlotte’s reigns. Why is a public space necessary?

Because of a common European tradition of princely behavior. Now I talked about this idea of princely behavior with Louis XIV, but with him it was more about showing off and solidifying his power.  Whereas with George and other rulers, I would argue it was less about a display of power and more of setting a good example. A great modern example of what is princely behavior and how that translates into court ritual and then influences what is polite society is the iconic scene from The Devil Wears Prada where Andy is scolded for scoffing at the two belts, you all know the scene I’m talking about. If you don’t I need you to go run and watch the movie right now, like hit pause and go watch the movie. If you can’t remember that specific scene I linked in the resources section for you. Either way that idea that “the people in this room” create the fashion and taste of the fashion world is pretty much a perfect summation of what princely behavior is.  A few elite people set the precedent for the rest of society, what they say is what goes.

Now pretty much up until the 20th century, the monarchy or prince was the ultimate symbol of what a person should act like, dress like, and be like.  That was the model that all others followed.  From there we get courtly ritual, which is the watered down version if you will, where courtiers would emulate this behavior.  Which gets further watered down for the rest of the population. This was a very common set up in European courts, and most of the time it links back to the Medici family. Specifically the famous book Il Principe by Niccolò Machiavelli. In this book, Machiavelli basically lays out the rules of how new princes and royals should act. It’s a fascinating read, and not super long so I recommend it if you want to know more.  Either way it was created for the Medici princes, and I would be wrong to say that this is the beginning of princely behavior, because it existed well before the Medici family, but this is pretty much a good point in history to clearly show how Medici court affected most other European courts and their behaviors, because the Medici were incredibly good at expanding their empire. Any time a woman was born into the Medici family she was strategically married for political alliances, which means we see Medici influences in French monarchy, some of you may remember Louis XIV’s grandmother Marie de’Medici. And we see it in English courts as well.

The reason I draw the connection between the Medici and George III is because in a way they are similar. The young princes Machiavelli was referring to, were still fairly young in the region, like the Medici family is old, but they had been basically a wealthy land owning family rather than politically powerful family. To be honest, it goes so much deeper than this but for the sake of staying on topic, just know there will be a big Medici series coming out at some point. So these princely rules were for people who had a place at court but weren’t necessarily royalty.  Which is sort of true with George III, basically there had been so much change in the British royalty up until his grandfather George II that there really wasn’t a set precedent. So George III in a way followed Machiavelli’s handbook.  I can’t confidently say that it was part of his education but I would be rather surprised if it hadn’t been.

Either way, George III knows he needs to provide princely behavior for there to be courtly ritual because it’s a powerful move. If you aren’t leading, you’re following.  The problem is I don’t think he and Charlotte necessarily executed it in the way that Louis XIV did.  And the reason I say that is, they did let courtiers set fashion and taste, and they had a very clear boundary between their private and public lives. Hence having a family home in Buckingham House versus one big home and work residence like Versailles.

Also, random side note, the one thing that irked me was the way they made George III’s mom seem like she came up with the term “ton”.  She didn’t, it wasn’t a term used widely until the Regency Era. But for the sake of the show I see why they did it. Because they were trying to create a cohesive society. For those of you who don’t remember from Season 1, the term ton comes from the French phrase “le bon ton” which roughly translates to “have good manners/etiquette” so that nicely ties into this whole princely behavior creating court ritual which creates a polite society. Part of me wonders if the reason we see a rise in Grand Tours basically from 1680s to 1760s is because people had to go out to see princely behaviors of other monarchies and courts since the British really didn’t have a stable government in place? I could be totally wrong, but I’m currently doing some research on grand tours for an upcoming episode and I’ll come back to it then. Either way, one of the most important parts of princely behavior is acting as patron to the arts and sciences. And boy did George and Charlotte understand that part.

They acted as patrons to all kinds of new theater productions and musicians.  One of the musicians you saw in the show! For those of you who remember, it was Mozart, who was invited to play for Charlotte at the age of 8 years old! Mozart went on to dedicate 6 sonatas (for the harpsichord) to her.  Which I think is rather lovely considering he would’ve known how much Charlotte enjoyed the harpsichord and was really quite proficient at it.  George III also was an avid book reader and it was his book collection that became the foundation for the British Library we see today! More than books and music, George III loved the sciences and I adore how much focus they put on that in the show.  I really can’t say I blame George III for being excited about the sciences since he was living during the Enlightenment period where all kinds of interesting discoveries were being made!  Charlotte also was a patron to the sciences, specifically medicinal sciences and devoted quite a bit of time to creating hospitals throughout London.  One of which you can still visit to this day, The Queen Charlotte and Chelsea hospital which is located near the East Acton Tube station in London! Also they had extensive gardens in both the palace and across London.  It was actually Charlotte that helped expand Kew Gardens to the massive place we know it as today. But for me, the most important patronage they provided was to the arts, well specifically the visual arts.

Now George III and Charlotte acted as patrons to a variety of artists but for the sake of keeping this somewhat short, I will touch on four of them. The first artist being Allan Ramsay, which you may remember from the show. It’s the artist who was painting the wedding portrait of Charlotte and George but he couldn’t finish it because George was missing. In the show Charlotte calls him Ramsey, with an E instead of an A at the end of his name, and I’m not sure if that’s a typo in the closed captioning or if there are copyright issues with using Ramsay’s name, but either way Allen Ramsay painted these two famous portraits of George III and Charlotte. They now reside in the National Trust Collection, which is the British royal family’s art collection from over the countless generations, but you can find copies of the paintings in Colonial Williamsburg, where the portraits would’ve hung during the beginning of the revolution.

But to avoid getting off topic Allan Ramsay was a Scottish artist who traveled all over Europe to learn about art, and became a predominant portraitist upon his arrival back to Scotland.  Which landed him the prestigious role of Principal Painter to George III in 1761, and led to the production of the portraits I just mentioned and you can see in Image 4. Much like with Louis XIV we have a very strong portrait showing a full length monarch with his finery and symbols of right to rule, such as the crown on the right hand side of the painting, and the ermine cloak. What I find interesting is that technically it’s the “Studio if Allan Ramsay” who is credited with the creation of Charlotte’s portrait, which means that most likely Ramsay started it and then his pupils finished it. It is a very striking portrait filled with glittering gems, as we can see from her hairpiece, may I dare as to call it a pom pom? And these pearl bracelets and of course her hand rests on her crown, with the scepter behind it. Again very sumptuous, very regal, very clear representation of princely power. This is also the portrait that many people reference when discussing whether or not Charlotte was from African origins.   I won’t dive into it, but as I mentioned before you can go down to the resources section and find the links for academics who know more than I do on the topic.    

It’s worth mentioning that George III and Charlotte commissioned a lot of portraits to be made of themselves. Another great portrait of Charlotte is by another artist that they were patrons to, Thomas Gainsborough. The show actually uses a couple of his works in the sets but I’ll talk about that more in my next episode. Thomas Gainsborough also painted this next portrait of Queen Charlotte where we have her in a very big pouf hairstyle, if you want to know more about poufs then I recommend you go check out my member’s only episode of “But I Digress” on it. Either way, she is very regal looking and in a very sumptuous dress, I mean look at all those gauzy layers of fabric!

Gainsborough was a renowned portraitist and landscape painter.  While he was one of the founding members of the Royal Academy, he was a rival of Sir Joshua Reynolds, but I mean honestly who didn’t Reynolds have beef with? Gainsborough is considered by some to be the originator of the 18th century British landscape school. You can see his passion for landscapes in the portrait of Queen Charlotte, where we have this arch that allows the viewer a glimpse of trees and some kind of structure, perhaps a folly? Or was he following Grand Tour painting traditions and putting in a little Italian architecture in there for decoration? Fun fact: Gainsborough was up for the position of Principal Painter to George III after the death of Allan Ramsay, but he lost to Sir Joshua Reynolds.  This of course didn’t mean that Gainsborough didn’t remain a favorite amongst the royal family throughout his career.

You can usually tell if a work is by Gainsborough through the general rule of thumb that the person being painted has just emerged from some kind of outdoorsy space, or is situated outside. There’s also a certain level of gentleness and innocence in his children’s portraits, you can see it in Image 6,  which made me think of this portrait of the three youngest daughters of George III and Charlotte. Which you can see in Image 7. I think this is actually one of my favorite paintings of the royal family.  There’s all kinds of energy happening here. We have the youngest of the three in a stroller, or pram as the Brits would call it, and two dogs watching the youngest shake a sort of drum above her head and then at the very top we have two lovely exotic birds eating grapes from the vines twisting around the column behind the second eldest daughter. It’s such a striking portrait and much like Gainsborough, the artist Copley, has done a brilliant job of making it seem like the three girls have just come in from a fun afternoon out in the field behind them.

Which also, just to clarify the show was completely correct when they said that George III and Charlotte had 15 children! They had so many kids, I’ve put in a little graphic so you can better see the ages of them, but boy it took a while to put it all together. And it’s important to note as well that two of their sons were kings, but their granddaughter is who we all know the best, which is Queen Victoria! Ok but I’m getting off topic, let’s get back to the artists George III and Charlotte acted as patrons too. The next artist I want to discuss is my favorite, Johann Zoffany. Johann Zoffany was a Hungarian born painter who worked predominantly in England and Italy.  Along with Ramsay and Gainsborough, he was also a founding member of the Royal Academy.

As a historian the reason I love Zoffany so much is because of his later works, which were usually large scale paintings that included very easily recognizable contemporaries of the Georgian Era, as well as art works.  Which is fantastic for art historians because it helps create these little snapshots in time that help us better understand how things were in that time period. To be perfectly honest I have a whole side tangent on Zoffany which you can check out in my member’s only “But I Digress” shorts on Patreon. But for now we’ll stick to what Zoffany was best known for in regards to George III and Charlotte. Which are these wonderful and almost intimate portraits of them and their family. Which you can see in Image 8, where we have the happy couple with their six eldest children.  Here we have a big happy family, pets included, where children are playful and yet the crown, scepter, and orb, off to the right remind us the viewer that this is not some common family.

I really do love this particular portrait of them, where we see this sort of Gainsborough influence where it appears the family has been almost called in from a picnic and told to just sit wherever as Zoffany paints them all.  It really does capture this family forward dynamic and, honestly I kind of wish we could’ve found some way to make this work in Queen Charlotte since it’s a perfect example of the couple and how they raised their children. Zoffany really did have a knack for making the royals seem at ease in his paintings, which you can see another great example of in Image 9. Where we have Charlotte and her two eldest sons, along with a pet dog, alongside her toilette in Buckingham House.  It’s a very sumptuous interior and all three sitters have fancy attire on, but there’s still this joyfulness and intimacy to the work that makes it really welcoming.  I also think it’s rather fun because you can see how Charlotte had the rooms decorated during her time at the palace and that’s always fun for me.

I do have to chuckle though at Charlotte’s face which always seems rather like that of a tired mother who’s indulging her child in a photograph, which in Image 10 is very apparent.  Again we have this lovely decorated interior and Charlotte has this lovely pouf hairstyle and this very sumptuous dress, but what is particularly interesting to me is the black shawl she has on. I’m not quite sure why she has it on, since black is a color of mourning. So who has she lost recently that would cause this? I mean it is just a shawl rather than a full dress, so based on mourning etiquette one would assume that it was for either a distant relative or a political loss, like the loss of a battle.  

Which speaking of battle losses that brings me quite nicely to the next and last artist that I wish to discuss who George III and Charlotte acted as patron to, Benjamin West. The reason I connect battles and West, is most of you will know Benjamin West from his famous painting The Death of General Wolfe, which you can see in Image 11.  What is particularly interesting about West is he was entirely self taught and was incredibly talented.  He toured all over Europe and when he came back to England from his Grand Tour, he was the main reason the idea of the Royal Academy was even brought to George III. He was originally from America, and fun fact, was bff’s with Benjamin Franklin, who would go on to be godfather to West’s second son, also called Benjamin West. For my American listeners you may know him as well from his famous portrait of Benjamin Franklin holding the kite string with the little key and the electric spark coming out from it.  It’s a wild and wonderful painting so I recommend you having a google.

Either way, West was an incredible artist who acted as the official historical painter to George III, as well as painted a couple of portraits of him. West is definitely a big fan of dramatic lighting and North American based sitters for portraits so that’s always a good thing to keep in mind if you’re curious as to whether or not he painted a work.

Now something that I’ve kept to the end is the Royal Academy.  Mostly because I already talked about it in Season 1, but I think it’s good to come back and have a refresher when discussing the Georgian Era, and princely behavior.   The Royal Academy was founded in 1768, and resided in Somerset House which was closer to the Thames River than it is today.  It now currently sits in the Mayfair district of London, and you can visit it to this day! I actually highly recommend a visit they have a great rotation of exhibitions as well as a permanent collection you can see. But I digress, the point of the Royal Academy is a whole bunch of artists, including the ones I’ve already talked about, had been going to Europe to learn how to paint and/or to hone their skills as painters.  Many of them felt the need to have a standard education for future artists like these other countries, because the U.K. didn’t have anything like that, because again there wasn’t really a prince to give them patronage or to funnel money into the arts because the governments and heads of state were constantly being shuffled around due to conflict.

So like I said these guys, and two women, get together and bring it to George III and basically say “we need to have something here to help bring British art back on to the world scene, because this is ridiculous that we have to go on Grand Tour for a solid art education” and George III is like “absolutely, here’s some money and property to set up the school, have at it” and in 1768 the school officially opens. And the Royal Academy goes on to start teaching students who can’t afford Grand Tours, or don’t want to go on a Grand Tour, and help put British artists in the spotlight and compete with their European counterparts. Because in France, we have the Louvre and all kinds of Royal Academies there, as well as in Italy, and Germanic regions, and Spanish regions.  The U.K. was very much behind the times on this, and again I really do think it’s because of all the political turmoil. Like I said you can visit the Royal Academy today, which still remains one of the top schools for artistic training to this day! Also, for my Bridgerton fans, yes this is the school that Benedict Bridgerton goes to in Season 2! And that brings me to the end of my little discussion on Queen Charlotte!

As always should you have any questions, comments, or thoughts you can DM me on Instagram @boozyarthistorian. If you want access to the “But I Digress” mini episodes, you can find me on Patreon or use the link on my website www.boozyarthistorian.com. Thanks for listening in and see you next time!

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