Thomas Gainsborough, The Three Eldest Princesses: Charlotte, Princess Royal, Augusta and Elizabeth, 1783-84. The Royal Collection.
This Monday, 14 March, I will be talking about Gainsborough’s ‘Blue Boy’ and the following week, I will be returning to the Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace which I didn’t get round to talking about the last time I tried… so what should I talk about today? Well, how about sticking with Gainsborough, and children (though maybe girls, to even out the gender balance), in a painting which is in the Royal Collection? It makes sense to me, at least. There are plenty to choose from, not least because poor Queen Charlotte had 15 children, and Gainsborough painted them all. Today I want to look at a portrait commissioned by the eldest of those children, George, Prince of Wales – the one who grew up to be King George IV.
This portrait was included in the truly splendid exhibition George IV: Art and Spectacle, and although that is long gone, the catalogue, which must be the definitive book on the patronage and collecting of the most acquisitive of monarchs, is still available – just click on the blue link above if you’re interested! Today’s painting does not usually hang in the Picture Gallery of Buckingham Palace (which is currently being refurbished), and so it is not part of the exhibition Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace which opens at the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh next week – so I’m very happy to look at it today.
The eldest Princess is Charlotte, Princess Royal – a title given to the eldest daughter of the monarch, which is currently held by Princess Anne. Charlotte was born in 1766, so she would have been at least 17 when this was painted, still a ‘child’ as she would not attain her majority until she was 21. Augusta (the middle of the three in age, but on the left in the painting) was probably 15 and Elizabeth (seated) 13. It’s hard to be precise, as it is hard to pin down when, exactly, Gainsborough painted it. We know that he received the commission in 1783, and that he planned to exhibit what was a high status work in the most significant venue – the Royal Academy annual exhibition – in 1784. But we’ll get to that story later.
The status of Charlotte, as the eldest, is communicated by her central position, and by her height. Whatever her actual height was, she is shown as the taller of the two who are standing. Her shoulders are parallel to the picture plane, which means that she occupies more space on the canvas than her younger sister Augusta, whose torso is turned towards the other two, foreshortening the view of her body, and thus taking up less of the width of the painting. It is subtleties like this which help to define the niceties of family relationships, niceties which were still apparent to Jane Austen writing at the beginning of the following century. This turn inwards also helps makes the trio more of an intimate group, and is echoed, in reverse, by Elisabeth, whose chair is turned to face outwards, thus angling her towards the other two. Although being seated in the presence of those standing is often a sign of power, they do not pay her any attention, and so it simply brings her lower down the picture plane, and decreases her status. Elizabeth may have been the youngest of these three, but there were three more: Mary born in 1776, Sophia, born the next year, and Aemilia, who arrived in 1783, by which time this portrait, too, had probably been conceived…
There is something about the gazes which also conveys status. Charlotte has her face turned directly towards us, and yet she looks off into the distance, focussing on serious issues rather than merely being seen and being pretty: with age comes responsibility. Augusta, on the other hand, free from the potential burden of getting married first, may have her face turned dutiful towards her older sister, but she looks out to us, almost slyly, almost flirtatiously. Both have powdered hair piled up on their heads, with one long lock falling over a shoulder, a fashion popular in the mid-1780s. Both also have strings of pearls wound through their hair, helping to give solidity and form to Gainsborough’s evanescent brushwork, which shows the fully developed freedom and apparent spontaneity which were hallmarks of his late style. On the left we see a lowering sky, on the right a curtain – and between a column. All three are typical of Van Dyck’s ‘Grand Manner’ portraits, signs of the wealth and status of his sitters. The column, in particular, suggests the strength of the British monarchy, while the swags of drapery imply both wealth and the opulent femininity of the monarchy’s women. Gainsborough was enormously influenced by the 17th Century Flemish master – as we will see time and again on Monday – and so much of this portrait, from the compositional elements, to the freedom and transparency of much of the painting, is derived from an appreciation of his work.
The delicacy of the palette could hardly come from any other century. Pinks and blues are common to 18th century paintings from across Europe. In France and Italy Boucher and Tiepolo used the same light and airy shades for skies and skin, sunsets and satins. The primrose yellow is another common feature, and can be seen, for example, in Picture Of The Day 43 – Psyche, the work of Fragonard. It is above all in the collars and cuffs, the jewels, the scarves and the shawls that Gainsborough’s delicacy is most brilliant and most evocative, although when you get closer to the paintings themselves the shimmering fabrics are all constructed with a similar build-up of flickering, almost-transparent brushstrokes. The echoing of the black belts with jewelled buckles of the outermost sisters helps to bring them closer together, while the interlinking of the arms and hands makes the trio seem like an enlightenment equivalent of the Three Graces. Having said that, it is hard to see where Elizabeth’s right hand is – or her arm, for that matter… Even her left hand is cut off oddly. Is this an awkward attempt to bring the sisters closer to us, by pushing them into our space?
No. Emphatically ‘No’. George commissioned this portrait from Thomas Gainsborough in 1783, and paid him a handsome 300 guineas for it. Gainsborough himself was happy with the result, and later claimed he had ‘painted the Princesses in so tender a light’ that it really shouldn’t been hung too high on a wall. This comment was made in response to the Royal Academy’s decision to hang the painting ‘above the line’. The ‘line’, as I have mentioned before recently, was an imaginary one, at approximately eye-level. ‘Below the line’ you could hang small cabinet paintings, which would allow them to be examined closely. ‘Above the line’ you might hang large, bold paintings that need some distance to be fully appreciated. Or you could hang paintings which you don’t think really deserve to be seen clearly up there. This may result in them being ‘skied’ – literally as close to the sky as possible, where you can’t see them very well. Obviously the best place to be was on the line, and that is presumably what Gainsborough wanted for his Princesses. The hanging committee wanted it skied, so Gainsborough withdrew it, and never exhibited at the Royal Academy again. Instead, he showed it in his studio in Schomberg House on the south side of Pall Mall before it went to its owner, and found its place in Carlton House, the home of the Prince of Wales (and later Regent), George, who hung it in the Saloon.
Regular visitors to Carlton House apparently said it was impossible to keep up with the interior décor – George kept redecorating and buying more things. By 1816, even though the painting was still at Carlton House, it was in store, catalogued as no. 244. Three years later, it was still in store, and no. 352: I suspect that reflects the rate of acquisitions. But worse was to happen. Here’s a copy of the painting by Gainsborough’s nephew and only student, Gainsborough Dupont – who was, possibly, the model for The Blue Boy. I’m also showing you a print of the original painting (although probably relying on some other source), dated to somewhere between 1860 and 1900.
I know what you’re thinking. As a copy, it’s very free and inventive: they have legs. Well, skirts. Sadly not. At some point early in the reign of Queen Victoria (she succeeded to the throne in 1837, but this story was not recounted for another 30 years) the artist Edwin Landseer saw the ‘inspector of palaces’ – a man called Saunders – cutting down the canvas so that it could be used as an ‘overdoor’ (which is exactly what it says – a painting which is hung above a door). Comparison with what is left of the original shows that he removed the bottom third of the painting, and a considerable slice from the top. As it’s still there, it’s possible to say with precision that he also added an 11cm-wide strip on the left: the join can actually be seen quite clearly with the naked eye, even in reproduction.
The painting may have been cut down in its prime, but how did the Princesses fare? Well enough, I suppose, for women of their age. Charlotte became Queen of Württemberg, and lived to see her 62nd birthday, while Augusta died at the age of 71 having never married. Well, not officially, anyway: she did have a lengthy ‘romance’ with Sir Brent Spencer, an Anglo-Irish officer in the British army. If they married ‘illicitly’ there is no record of it. Elizabeth, the toungest here, became Landgravine consort of Hesse-Homburg, and lived to be 69. Not bad innings, you could say, for the 19th Century, and they all lasted a bit longer than the painting. What remains of it is charming, and delicate, even if the composition is now a bit unsatisfactory. The Blue Boy is different. We don’t know for certain who the model was, so we can’t be sure what happened to him. But the painting is doing remarkably well, and in wonderfully good condition for one that has travelled so far. I’m looking forward to talking about it and its family – all the paintings it looks back on and forward to – on Monday.