The King’s Gallery at Kensington Palace.
On December 1 1737 King George II’s wife Caroline died. Her death had been protracted and horrible. Suffering with an umbilical hernia, after ten days of agony her bowel burst. It left her dead body swollen and – many reported – completely black. Alexander Pope, who had long detested the queen’s political alliances, wrote her a grotesque epitaph in the form of a couplet:
Here lies, wrapt up in forty thousand towels
The only proof that Caroline had bowels.
The political symbolism of Caroline’s death was well noted. Her umbilical hernia was the result of too many royal pregnancies, a dark inversion of the sort of language about fertility and the health of the nation that the matriarchal Queen Victoria would encourage in the next century. With the body of the queen humiliatingly exposed and corrupt, the country outside felt similar. The final Jacobite uprising had taken place a mere two years before and the War of Jenkins’ Ear was still raging against Spain.
Moreover, the first offspring of Caroline’s turbulent womb, Prince Frederick, was once again bitterly quarrelling with both parents. Frederick had long been a figurehead for political rebellion against his father. Then, a few months before his mother’s death, he spirited his wife – already in labour – away from the palace in the middle of the night, rather than let his parents be present at the birth. That same year, he opposed his father in the general election and was summarily banished from the court. Caroline refused to see him on her deathbed.
You would know none of this to look at The Glorious Georges at Kensington Palace, though its attention is squarely focused on Caroline. She is shown as an intellectual woman ahead of her time, loved and trusted by her husband, who even made her regent in his absence. In fact, these regencies were a bitterly-resented ploy to keep Frederick off the throne, though this point, much like Frederick himself, is kept in the shadows.
There are nonetheless nice moments of historical anecdote here, such as the point that on the advice of her progressive friend Lady Mary Wortley Montgau, Caroline had her children – including the recalcitrant Frederick – inoculated against smallpox. Lady Mary, also friend to Dr Johnson, proto-feminist and member of the Hellfire Club, appears here as a beautifully constructed mantua dress made of paper.
There are similarly beautifully constructed but politically inert moments throughout. Lucy Worsley has been Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces for nearly a decade now, and her popular BBC style of dress-up social history is well entrenched in this exhibition. Glorious Georges therefore aims to be an ‘immersive’ experience that ‘brings the court to life’, both phrases that could equally well describe Worsley’s television programmes. So the map with which visitors are presented can be scratched and smelt, unleashing a different scent in every room. As you mount the splendid staircase, you hear Handel and smell beeswax; you are later invited to gamble at three eighteenth-century style tables, and dress up in court clothing.
Worsley has talked before about her interest in how ordinary people lived, and the physical, as well as social, experience of that history. It’s the same sort of historical approach that characterised the wildly successful Horrible Histories series when it first appeared and got a generation of children excited about history. Such a populist approach is not without critics: in 2010, Worsley defended herself impressively against arch-Govian David Starkey’s accusation that her brand of popular history was a kind of ‘historical Mills & Boon’.
But there’s something about the royal element of Kensington Palace that makes this a bit hollow. Above the gaming tables at which visitors are invited to play hangs Giorgio Vasari’s Venus and Cupid, from the Royal Collection. Vasari, the ‘father of art history’, based it on a painting by Pontormo after a design by Michelangelo. George II referred to it as his ‘fat Venus’ and was furious when Queen Caroline had it moved in his absence. The exhibition doesn’t, and doesn’t seek to, engage with the artworks on display and potential political objection to their presence here. But all the excitement of the charming anecdote and the magnificent experience reveals just how conservative it really is.
The Glorious Georges is at Kensington Palace from 17th April – 30th November 2014