George III: A Life in Caricature

Article excerpt


In contrast to the distorted caricatures and cartoons in which George III so often featured, Johan Zoffany's uncluttered portrait of the King, left, painted in 1771 and exhibited at the Royal Academy the same year, was described by Horace Walpole as 'Very like ...'. Here Kenneth Baker discusses the many facets of King George and shows how these were depicted by the great caricaturists of the day, with samples and captions from his new book on the subject.

HORACE WALPOLE, WRITING to a friend, reported the death of George II on October 25th, 1760.

   On Friday the King went to bed in perfect health, and rose so the
   next morning at his usual hour of six; he called for and drank his
   chocolate. At seven, for everything with him was exact and
   periodic, he went into the closet to dismiss his chocolate. Coming
   from thence his valet de chambre heard a noise; waited a moment and
   heard something like a groan. He ran in, and in a small room
   between the closet and bedchamber he found the King on the floor,
   who had cut the right side of his face against the edge of a
   bureau, and who 'after a gasp expired.

His heir was his twenty-two-year-old grandson George, who was strong, good-looking, and had led a life free from scandal. Above all he spoke English as his native tongue--George III was the first king since James II to be born, educated and raised in England. Samuel Johnson, writing to a friend in Italy reported,

   We were so weary of our old King that we are much pleased with his
   successor, of whom we are so much inclined to hope great things,
   that most of us begin already to believe them.

It was an auspicious time to ascend the throne. England was thrashing France in the Seven Years' War and in 1759, the year of miracles, Wolfe had added Canada to the British empire by beating Montcalm at Quebec. At home the manufacturing towns were using the new machinery of the Industrial Revolution to make Britain the workshop of the world--as Edmund Burke commented, 'Commerce made to flourish through war'. In the countryside, where the majority of the population lived, a series of good harvests had spread contentment. But the euphoria was soon dissipated and by 1783, twenty-three years later, George III had become highly unpopular and if he had died then, history would have written him off as an unloved political disaster.

During the 1760s George searched for a prime minister who would rise above the wrangling of Whig factions in order to sustain what was, after all, his government. He dismissed two prime ministers--Grenville and Rockingham--and did nothing to help the Duke of Grafton to survive. Then through political misjudgement and military blunders Britain suffered the humiliating loss of the American colonies and much of the blame was laid at George's door. The Methodist preacher John Wesley had discovered on his travels throughout the country in 1775 that

   ... the bulk of the people in every city, town and village do not
   much aim at the ministry ... but at the King himself. They heartily
   despise his Majesty, and hate him with perfect hatred.


From George's accession to 1783, the records of the London theatres reveal, the song that was to become the National Anthem, 'God Save the King', was sung only four times. In April 1780, John Dunning's motion 'That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished' was passed in the House of Commons by a majority of eighteen. Then, following contemporary works on the creation of 'Britain' George emerged as the patriot king. From 1785 the national anthem was sung hundreds of times as the people really did want God to save their monarch--the patriotic leader of a country facing the threat of revolution and invasion. Even the previously vitriolic cartoonists became a little kinder. …