George IV: Art & Spectacle is the latest exhibition to take place at the Queen’s Gallery, London. This king, who spent many years as Prince Regent (giving the Regency period its name) before taking the throne in his own right, is portrayed here as a keen art collector whose legacy can still be seen today.
Growing up, George was not allowed to leave the country owing to the orders of his father, George III, so instead he collected works of art from all over Europe and the east, as well as paintings of subjects closer to home – his family, and earlier monarchs. His energies were first directed at Carlton House, his London residence, which he filled with art, sculpture and furniture, but his vision eventually outgrew this comparatively small living space. Famously, he established the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, and on becoming king he instigated work at Windsor Castle and Buckingham House, transforming the latter, under the care of architect Thomas Nash, into Buckingham Palace.
It seems that George did have a keen eye: he collected works by the likes of Rembrandt, as well as commissioning works of his own. He enjoyed literature too, keeping a collection of Jane Austen’s works in each of his residences, and inviting Sir Walter Scott to dine.
One thing I found interesting about the exhibition was that George, spending money lavishly at a time of economic hardship for many of his subjects, was widely disliked, and this image of him has coloured our perception. I’m not really surprised, and it makes me wonder if having this exhibition now was really a good choice, as poverty levels in the UK reach crisis point. Not long ago, there was criticism over a plan to refurbish Buckingham Palace during this time of austerity, and however much George IV embraced the arts, I feel similarly about his own spending, fascinating as this exhibition was.