The Saatchi of the 18th Century; George III Was an Enthusiastic Patron of Modern Art and Left a Magnificent Collection, of Which Some 500 Works Are Now Displayed at the Queen's Gallery
Byline: BRIAN SEWELL
POOR George III - six decades on the throne and all that most of us know of him is that he lost what was to become the USA, was nicknamed Farmer George for his interest in agriculture, and died a lunatic.
These are bald truths. Britain did indeed lose her grip on colonial America but this was far more the fault of his ministers than of George himself, and the Declaration of Independence of 1776 was deliberately in mischievous error when it enshrined the King as villain; he was indeed something of an expert on grass and hay and modern farming methods; and die a lunatic he did, but not of the conventional dementias or senility, nor of Alzheimer's disease, but of a hereditary metabolic disorder that we now identity as acute intermittent porphyria.
From this last he temporarily recovered, despite the formidable brutality of doctors ignorant of the disease, but in his last years it returned with a vengeance and rendered him totally deaf to the music that he continued to play on his harpsichord, and blind to the paintings, drawings and other aesthetic possessions that he had so diligently collected earlier in his reign.
Some five hundred of these form the new exhibition at Buckingham Palace, the house that as a young man he bought in 1762 for his 18-year-old wife, Charlotte Sophia, newly uprooted from the small German court of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Theirs was not a love match; love was something that he had learned to eschew when his tutorturned-friend and eventual Prime Minister, Lord Bute, forbade him to propose to Lady Sarah Lennox, a 15-year-old beauty for whom George felt passionate desire.
In contrast, Charlotte was thin and plain to the point of ugliness, sexually undesirable (though we would never guess so from the flattering portraiture of the day), and it was only out of a sense of duty to the state's requirement for an heir to the throne that she and George doggedly came together again and again to breed another and another child. A sane couple would have stopped at four or five, but 13 sons and daughters were alive for Gainsborough to paint in 1782-3, and two others died in infancy.
As George and Charlotte kept separate households the prurient may wonder how their bedding assignations were arranged, for though their shared interests in music, books, philosophy, botany and what was then contemporary art must have eased them into companionable states, they can hardly have engendered the blind lust required for coupling without mutual desire.
Both cared passionately for the children whom they pupped, both were severely Protestant and anti-Catholic, and both led lives that were as utterly proper in privacy as they were when going about their public duties - as they very frequently did.
It is easy to forget that George's reign, 1760-1820, was more or less concurrent with the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the decades of the 18th century when intellectual enquiry was a driving force for kings and gentlemen, when sciences were hand-in-hand with new philosophies, when all over Europe dictionaries, encyclopaedias and lexicons were published, when the origins of man and language were topics of drawingroom discussion, when new uses were developed for coal and iron, when the expansion of empire expanded industry too. In Britain there were painters, architects, designers, poets and novelists in numbers hitherto unimaginable, the British Museum and the Royal Academy were founded, and the National Gallery was the brave intention of men both rich and wise.
In so fervid an intellectual and aesthetic atmosphere it is not altogether surprising that in pursuing many of these aims and interests George III became the Charles Saatchi of his day. Looking back at him from the first years of a new century and seeing pictures by Zoffany, Gainsborough, Loutherbourg, Ramsay, Canaletto and West, it is essential to remember that these were as much George's contemporaries as Freud, Hockney, Lucas, Emin and Hirst are ours, and that in their 18th-century day some of these artists must have been the subject of something of the same excitement and anticipation. …