Royal Pavilion, Brighton
George IV was regent for his sick father, and then king at a time of great social change in the early nineteenth century. In continental Europe the French Revolution was sweeping in new, and often brutal, ideas of democratic government and social equality. Against this background the extravagant and seemingly frivolous character of George IV might appear as a throwback. Many people at the time thought so. And yet as old social divisions were broken down, new ones were growing. This was the age of the Industrial Revolution when production was to be driven by aspiration. Products would be designed in a series of ranges leading people ever upward in a search for the style of those higher on the ladder. This began to happen first in clothing, a great passion of George IV. From the 1760s the Lyons silk industry introduced twice yearly collections to enhance differentiation between products. By 1800 patterns in printed cotton for dresses changed routinely with each season. Society was to become rich on the back of fashion, and George, never a great political force, was still significant as an early fashion idol for the new world. It was fashion idols who set trends and so drove production. In this sense George IV was not a throwback, but an essential part of the Industrial Revolution.
Kew Palace - all that is left of the Richmond buildings where George IV was educated
George, Prince of Wales was born on 12th August 1762 at St James's Palace, eldest son of George III and Queen Charlotte. Most of his youth was spent at relatively humble Richmond Lodge, following a stern educational regime, with regular disciplinary beatings sometimes applied by George III himself. By 1771 Charlotte had given birth to eight children, which meant school activities had to be moved to the larger White House at Kew. Here the educational routine continued, with Prince George becoming increasingly rebellious as he grew older. In 1776 the entire tutor staff was changed in an attempt to try and gain control over the wayward prince. Dr Richard Hull was put in charge. He drew up a wide ranging plan of study which included law, mathematics, literature, history, playing the cello, and bread making. George was a bright boy, but new tutors and study could not tame him. At age sixteen, passionate love affairs began, first with Mary Hamilton, a great great granddaughter of the Duke of Hamilton. Then came actress Mary Robinson, a skilled courtesan who managed to extort £5000 out of the prince in return for her silence on the details of their affair. Poor George III had to go to Parliament for the money to bail his son out. With bad behaviour continuing it was then thought best to send away the prince's two best friends, his brother Frederick, and Colonel Gerard Lake. In fact these two had a moderating influence, and their absence only worsened the situation.
It was perhaps inevitable that Prince George would become friends with his father's greatest political enemy, Charles Fox. In 1784 George supported Fox's election campaign for the constituency of Westminster. Great celebrations followed the campaign's success. During one boozy evening the prince was arrested for drunkenness by a constable who did not recognise him. Once the prisoner's identity became known there were profuse apologies for offending a member of the royal family, to which George responded: "Offended my good fellow? By no means! Thank God the laws of this country are superior to rank; and when men from high station forget the decorum of community, it is fit that no distinction should be made with respect to them" (quoted in The Prince of Pleasure by Saul David P 56). George accepted a new equality of society. Ironically, however, it was the prince's tailor who identified the prisoner to the unsuspecting constables. It was to be in the realm of fashion that the prince would embrace modern social divides.
1805 caricature of Beau Brummel by Richard Dighton. Image is copyright free
The prince went on his merry way and fell in love with twice widowed Mrs Fitzherbert, a catholic who he married in a secret ceremony on 15th December 1785. This marriage with a catholic had to be kept quiet, especially as George's father, the king, was now physically and mentally incapacitated, and there was a real possibility that the Prince of Wales would have to take over as regent. In the arguments over a possible regency the new equality in society was clear. While Charles Fox was arguing that the Prince of Wales was a man "different from any other person," and that it was simply his "right" to take the regency, the parliamentary leader William Pitt the Younger did not agree: "To assert such right in the Prince of Wales, or anyone else, independent of the decision of the two houses of Parliament was little less than treason to the constitution of the country. The Prince of Wales had no more right to assume the government than any other individual subject of the country" (quoted in Prince of Pleasure P110).
In the event George III recovered and George was not yet made regent, but arguments during the king's illness had revealed the power of new attitudes. As Pitt said, the Prince of Wales was just another "individual subject of the country". The force of new social attitudes was even more dramatically demonstrated in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille in Paris, and the beginning of the French Revolution. On 14th August 1789 the Declaration of Rights was published, which proclaimed: "Men are born free and equal in rights. The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and undoubted rights of man."
And yet as these social shocks continued to rumble through the old order, a new order of division was getting stronger. Prince George was a great friend of Beau Brummel. In the words of Saul David: "Brummel was the most celebrated member of that cult of social discrimination known as dandyism. The fact that he himself did not come from the top drawer of society was less important than the clothes he wore" (Prince of Pleasure P283). The Industrial Revolution demanded aspiration, expressed in things to buy. Brummel was the icon of this new social ladder, which put less emphasis on privilege of birth, and more on the privilege of style and possessions. The dandy was described in a late nineteenth century play called Beau Austin by W.E Henley and Robert Louis Stevenson as "a private gentleman by birth, but a kind of king by habit and reputation". As old kings passed away, a new royalty in which everyone could aspire to share was emerging. The Industrial Revolution brought mass production, which allowed products to be produced cheaply. It was increasingly the case that well made, attractive things were no longer the preserve of the rich. Many have applauded this. One work on industrialisation says that mass production released people "from the encumbrance of prescriptive privilege and traditional hierarchy" (Industrialisation and Culture Harvie, Martin, Scharf). Once again we can say that George IV, a seeming throwback, was part of this movement away from traditional hierarchy towards the hierarchy of modern consumer society. George's friend Beau Brummel had no time for fawning respect to the old aristocracy, and eventually Brummel even fell out with the Prince of Wales himself. Fashion was the new order. Beau Brummel was its king, with Prince George one of its greatest aristocrats.
Royal Crescent, Bath, a centre of regency style
So George continued in his life as Prince of Wales. In April 1795 the fact that Mrs Fitzherbert was a catholic was used to nullify their marriage. A marriage of convenience was then arranged with Caroline of Brunswick. George hoped that a protestant wife would help him gain approval from Parliament, who would then help him with his debts. This plan did not work, and the marriage to Caroline was disastrous from the very first meeting. George and Caroline were incompatible, and it is remarkable that a daughter, Charlotte, could ever have resulted. Mrs Fitzherbert continued as George's real "wife" with many other lovers taken to keep him occupied.
On 25th October 1810 the royal family gathered at Windsor Castle to celebrate the Golden Jubilee, marking George III's fiftieth year on the throne. But with the king slipping back into illness, a regency was again in prospect. Many politicians did not see George as the right stuff for a regent, and Lord Gray said so. Nevertheless with the king soon incapacitated, the Regency Bill became law on 5th February 1811. The next day Prince George was sworn in as regent at Carlton House. The celebrations were massively opulent. At dinner a fountain was constructed, feeding a canal which ran down the centre of the table. The banks of this stream were decorated with green moss and aquatic flowers, with fish swimming in the water. The poet Percy Shelley was not impressed: "It is said that this entertainment will cost £120,000. Nor will it be the last bauble which the nation must buy to amuse this overgrown bantling of regency."
Prince George was never popular. In the light of a growing sense of social equality his ostentatious spending of money was never going to win admirers. His carriage would often be jostled by hostile crowds. He was blamed for the Corn Laws which kept the price of grain artificially high to protect farmers, even though he had nothing to do with the legislation. George also did himself no favours in 1819 when he sent congratulations to army commanders for their speedy response in suppressing unrest at a meeting in Peterloo, Manchester. Heavy handed attempts to clear the crowd at this rally for parliamentary reform left nine men and two women dead, with hundreds injured. Inspite of his youthful friendship with reforming politicians such as Charles Fox, George seemed to have turned into a reactionary old regent, trying to defend the social privilege of passed ages. And yet he continued his interest in the thoroughly modern preoccupations of style and fashion. Fashion requires designers to plan changes to keep people aspiring and buying. People we now call designers were beginning to develop as a separate group, planning the function and form of manufactured objects. It is fitting that buildings which survive from the lifetime of George IV show a great deal of work from stylists. The regent's favourite architect was John Nash. Seeing Nash's work in the building of Regent Street in 1813, the prince commissioned him to rebuild his palace in Brighton. Work on a fantastical Royal Pavilion began in 1815 and was finished eight years later. The Royal Pavilion still survives as one of the most striking examples of the new power of style emerging at this time. George also remodelled Windsor Castle to give the fairytale environment visitors see today.
Following a long decade of illness George III died on 29th January 1820. George, Prince of Wales, finally became king as George IV. As king, George's initial efforts were focused on freeing himself from his wife, Queen Caroline. His only daughter Charlotte had died in 1818, and George now wanted a new wife and heir. George made great efforts to divorce Caroline on the grounds of adultery, which was hypocritical to say the least. Not only did these efforts fail, they added to his unpopularity. Caroline was to die in August 1821, but George never remarried. His brothers had now provided heirs, and George was in poor health. In his last years at Windsor Castle the king did little except eat and drink. A Captain Gronow commented: "... the way he spent his time was frivolous in the extreme. He was fond of punch made from a recipe by his maitre d'hotel, Mr Maddison, and which he drank after dinner; that was the only time he was agreeable, and on these occasions he would sing songs, relate anecdotes of his youth, and play on the violincello: afterwards going to bed in a 'comfortable' state" (quoted in Prince of Pleasure P422).
George's condition began to deteriorate rapidly in 1830. His health had never been robust, and it is likely that he inherited George III's tendency to the metabolic disease porphyria. A massively indulgent lifestyle did not help. George IV died on 26th June 1830, probably of heart disease. He was not much mourned, seen by many as an unprincipled burden on a society trying to reinvent itself on more egalitarian lines. This was not really fair. He was highly intelligent, and contributed to the emerging scientific and industrial cultural life of Britain. He was president of the Royal Institution and endowed readerships in geology and mineralogy at Oxford University. He knighted chemist Humphrey Davy and astronomer William Herschel. He was a great patron of architecture, helped found the Royal Society of Literature and the National Portrait Gallery. Finally, George IV, extravagant in his personal tastes did not instinctively want to shut royal riches off from the rest of society. In 1823 he donated his father's library of 65,000 books to the British Museum. Most of all, however, it should be remembered that society, for all the huffing and puffing of idealists, did not want to be egalitarian. It wanted steps for consumers to endlessly and profitably climb. George was a perfect symbol of this new society. For better or worse, George was a prince of pleasure, consumption and style.