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George IV and the arts of France

May 1, 1966  |  By Geoffrey de Bellaigue, Deputy surveyor of the Queen's Works of Art

Originally published by The Magazine ANTIQUES in May 1966.

From the day that George IV, as Prince of Wales, first took up residence at Carlton House when he came of age in 1782, to his death in 1830, he collected French works of art on a scale previously unknown to English monarchs. Though his interest never wavered, his taste in art, and in the arts of France in particular, did undergo some change as he grew older.

Two commentaries on the furnishings at Carlton House serve to illustrate this shift in emphasis. In 1785 Horace Walpole wrote: "There is an august simplicity that astonished me. You cannot call it magnificent; it is the taste and propriety that strike. Every ornament is at a proper distance, and not one too large, but all delicate and new..." Twenty-seven years later Lady Beaumont, as reported by Joseph Farington, was equally enthusiastic but for a different reason: "... the splendour of the furniture at Carlton House is so great that let the company who go there be ever so finely dressed they are not seen, the eyes of all being drawn off by the gorgeous decorations of the apartments."

By 1812 the apartments in the simple neoclassical style of French inspiration laid out and furnished (see Fig. 1) by Henry Holland, which Walpole had so admired, had been replaced after Holland's death in 1806 by lavish furnishings and sumptuous interiors arranged under the guidance of Walsh Porter. This process, which was to be pursued after 1813 by John Nash, was paralleled by changes in the Prince's status - Regent in 1811, King in 1820 - involving additional duties of a ceremonial nature and an increase in public entertainment on a grand scale. It was during this later period of his life that George IV purchased some of his most arresting and flamboyant pieces of furniture, such as those mounted with still lifes in Florentine marble (Fig. 2). In 1825 he was, however, as likely to buy a piece of furniture in, say, the Louis SVI style, as he had been in 1785. Within each style he found sufficient variety to satisfy both his earlier preference for the simple and his later taste for the ornate.

George IV was a major collector of French works of art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He was among the first to take full advantage of the situation created by the post-Revolutionary sales of the sequestered property of the émigrés and Royalists which the Convention sanctioned in 1793. These seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works of art became directly available in large quantities to English collectors only during the 1801-1803 interlude in the Napoleonic wars and after the downfall of Napoleon in 1814. Tough George IV did not cross the Channel himself, many of his friends were among those who flocked to France.  He also dispatched his agents to Paris for the specific purpose of making such purchases.

The accounts of English tourists are revealing for the light they throw on the art market of those times. Sir John Dean Paul, who went to Paris in 1802 to buy eighteenth-century French furniture on his own account, remarked on the "many choice specimens in the old brokers' shops." Even in shabby junk shops he was amazed to find the owners "taking snuff out of rich gold boxes." Another visitor, Mary Berry, commented on the abundance and cheapness of Sevres porcelain selling in dealers' shops "for a fourth of their original price." Seven years later, in 1890, when she paid a visit in London to George IV's principal supplier of French porcelain, the dealer Fogg, she admired the Sevres he had then on display which, which she was told, Lord Gwydir had purchased. Perhaps George IV had also admired these pieces. The detailed description of three vases in Lord Gwydir's sale at Christie's in 1829 corresponds exactly to three pieces now in the royal collection, a fact also noted by Gerald Reitlinger (Economics of Taste, Vol. II, p. 157). Though the bills have not survived it is very probable that the King was the ultimate purchaser of these, particularly as he is known to have bought pieces of furniture at this sale as well as his finest French painting, Claude's Rape of Europa (p. 708).

Unlike Mary Berry, who judged the modern style in 1802 "so much less noble than that of fifteen or twenty years ago," George IV's taste for the arts of the ancien regime did not blind him to the merits of the French Directoire and Empire styles. He would certainly have shared John Scott's enthusiasm for the clocks on show in the shops of the Palais Royal. Writing in 1814 Scott commented: "Nothing can be imagined more elegant and striking than their numerous collections of ornamental clock=cases: ... modeled after the most favorite pictures and sculptures: ..." In particular Scott remarked on the popularity of the model copied from Louis David's painting of the Horatii and Curatii. Had Scott been privileged to visit the Crimson Drawing Room at Carlton House, he would have found further evidence of the popularity of this model. On one chimney piece stood the Oath of the Horatii clock purchased by George IV in 1809, and on the other the Rape of the Sabines clock, purchased in 1812 (this companion clock by P.-P. Thomire was also modeled on a painting by David.)

Though George IV's purchase of French art have been largely preserved in act and now form an integral part of the royal collection, his attitude toward collecting is difficult to assess because of the relatively few documents which have any bearing o the subject. It is, however, possible to draw some tentative conclusions from a consideration of the works of art themselves.

Among the books in the library at Windsor Castle bearing the Carlton House bookplate, those in French which are not literary works consist in the main of memoirs and volumes issued to commemorate royal occasions such as coronations and official celebrations. The French historical paintings George IV purchased, which are discussed in Oliver Millar's article in this issue, must have had for him the same sort of anecdotal appeal as the memoirs. By the same token, his acquisition of pieces of furniture described at the time of purchase as once in the Palace of Versailles undoubtedly owed something to this interest in the history of the palace from which they were thought to have come - and from which many of them did indeed come (Fig. 3, for example). Perhaps George IV was able to identify some of them himself in the Van Blarenberghe miniatures described in an invoice now in the Windsor Castle archives as "Representant L'interieur Du Chateau de Versailles du temps de Louis XV & XVI," WHICH DECORATED A SNUFFBOX PURCHASED BY Benois for George IV about 1820 for the high price of £250 (its present whereabouts is not known).

In addition to an interest in the building of Versailles, we can infer from the number of busts and portraits which he purchased an interest in the kings and courtiers whose lives revolved around Versailles (Figs. 4, 5, 6 are cases in point), and this interest may account in part for his acquisition of works of art which were said to have belonged to them. We read, for example, of his purchase of clock which "belonged formerly to Madame de Pompadour"; three pieces of pink Sevres "said to have belonged to Madame de Pompadour" (Fig. 7); a roll-top desk which "formerly belonged to Louis XVI"; a "Dessert service of Seve Porcelain made for Louis 16th" (Fig. 8); or another service "made for the Duc d'Orleans ..." We would expect to find at Carlton House, and indeed we do find there, portraits or busts of these three former owners. A portrait of Madame de Pompadour hung in the Ante-Room; the bust of Louis XVI modeled in biscuit de Severes stood in the Confectionary; Reynolds' portrait painting had been specially commissioned by George IV, who numbered the sitter among his friends until he turned regicide and voted for the execution of his cousin Louis XVI).

This historical interest in personalities also extended in at least one instance to a post-Revolutionary figure, Napoleon. George IV's enmity for England's would-be conqueror did not inhibit him from purchasing the effigy of his rival and works of art which had once belonged to him. George IV was, for example, glad of an opportunity to obtain a bust in marble of Napoleon; a drawing by Isabey probably commissioned by him, described in Mr. Millar's article; and a writing desk by F.-H.-G. Jacob-Desmalter said to have been made for him. In September 1817 Benois, acting for George IV in Paris, reported that the dealer Delahante had offered him for sale "La table de porcelaine de Sevre de La Malmaison." This was presumably the circular table with a porcelain top painted with the figure of Napoleon surrounded by medallions of his generals, now once again at Malmaison. Benois considered the price, £580, excessive. George IV must have thought it so too. In July 1820 Maria Edgeworth reported having seen it in France "by the favour of a friend ... I its place of concealment." One thing which may have influenced George IV's decision to reject this table was the fact that just four months previously Louis XVIII had presented him with the companion piece, "La Table des Grands Capitaines" (Fig. 9 and cover), which had also been commissioned by Napoleon in 1806. Its top is decorated with a painting of the head of Alexander the Great surrounded by portraits of other commanders of antiquity.

Sometimes running parallel with this historical interest, but more often divorced from it, was George IV's appreciation of the art of his own day. His enjoyment of what Mary Berry condemned in French nineteenth-century clocks and candelabra as "that minute frittered style" was a significant feature of his collecting. Even as he grew older this capacity to appreciate works of art executed in the latest style never deserted him.

In 1803 George IV purchased from Lignereux, the fashionable and expensive Parisian furniture maker and dealer, two cabinets in ebony mounted with pietre dure panels and executed "dans la forme antique." In a letter enclosing the bill Lignereux wrote: "Ce sont les deux premiers meubles que j'ai compose dans Cette forme et dans un Stile aussi recherché, d'ailleurs Ces meubles sont faits avec une perfection toute particuliere et un soin extraordinaire." Though we may dismiss the second statement as a vendor's puff there is no obvious reason to doubt that these pieces were in fact executed in the latest style. In this context we may recall that George IV purchased his Oath of the Horatii clock in 1809, five years before Scott wrote about the popularity of the model. On April 8, 1825, Jutsham, the inventory clerk at Carlton House, received a roll-top desk from Paris stamped by G.-A. Jacob-Desmalter (1799-1870), whose father, F.-H-G. Jacob-Desmalter, had made the desk referred to above that reputedly had belonged to Napoleon. Since the son, who had previously devoted himself to architecture, took over the family business only on January 1, 1825, this roll-top must be one of the first pieces ever made which bear his stamp. (In the royal collection there are two drawings, bought by George IV, which were signed by the younger Jacob-Desmalter while he was studying architecture under C. Percier.)

The influence which George IV exerted in spreading a taste for French art among the Enligh is worth a special study. When, for example, the fifth Duke of Bedford began transforming and refurnishing Woburn Abbey in the late eighteenth century, he chose as his architect Henry Holland, who was then engaged on work at Carlton House. Also in imitation of George IV, the Duke of Bedford bought French furniture from the Parisian marchand-mercier Donimique Daguerre (Dorothy Strond and Francis Watson in Apollo, December 1965). It may, however, emerge that George IV's influence was less lasting than might have been expected: Gerald Reitlinger has noted, for example, that after his death the price of Sevres in the London market suffered a marked decline. Furthermore, though by his gifts George IV spread French works of art throughout the land, their total number appears to have been small.

George IV's attitude toward his French purchases once they had reached Carlton House was ambivalent. On the one hand, when he decided on a new base for the equestrian statue of Louis XIV (Fig. 6) he did not place the order with an English furniture maker, but ha one specially made in France. On the other hand, this respect for French workmanship is lacking in a number of instances: we read the Sevres plaques being arbitrarily introduced into the doors of cabinets and into the fronts of chests of drawers, of four corner cupboards being transformed into cabinets, of a chest of drawers being altered to form a pair with another, and so on. Perhaps the most striking example is George IV's attitude toward his collection of French clocks dating from the eignteenth and early nineteenth centuries, B. L. Vulliamy, are studded with such comments as "both such very ill made clocks ..."; "the movements of all these Clocks are all very bad. It is impossible to make them keep time ..."; "The fixing into the Case of the Clock is so bad that it is as unsteady as a Clock can be ..." George IV evidently shared this contempt for French horology, and if a French clock did not function properly he had the movement changed for a modern English one. Not content with that, Vulliamy often also replaced the dial, with the result that today many of these clocks are marred by having, for example, an English metal-turned dial of 1820 on a French clockcase of 1750.

In this respect George IV was clearly of his epoch and of his country. In his purchases, however, he reveals himself as a man of more complex character, combining the antiquarian interest of a collector with the acquisitive instinct of a modern interior decorator. He bought seventeenth- and eighteenth- century furnishings, rich in historical associations, which a "modern", like Napoleon, rejected out of hand (cf. Fig. 10); and like a true conservative sensitive to the setting for which they were destined, he purchased Dutch and Flemish paintings to hang over these works of art, just as their former owners had done in France in the eighteenth century. On the other hand, like Napoleon, he bought what was new, even competing with the French Emperor in the patronage of the finest Parisian furniture and bronze makers, such as F.-H.-G. Jacob-Desmalter and P.-P. Thomire.

The visitor to the Queen's Gallery will be able to trace for himself these various trends, which are illustrated in the current exhibition George IV and the Arts of France. He will also be able to appreciate the quality of one of the finest collections of French works of art ever assembled outside France.

The special exhibition George IV and the Arts of France opened at the Queen's Gallery in Buckingham Palace in March and will be on view for an indefinite period. 


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