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Celebrating Prinny, Britain’s second-greatest royal collector after Charles I

The Carlton House treasures reassembled from the Royal Collection for the first time since 1827

Christopher Gilbert

London

The exhibition “Carlton House: the past glories of George IV’s Palace”, which brings together an anthology of some 200 treasures from the royal collection is at the Queen’s Gallery until 11 January 1992. Carlton House, which occupied a site between Pall Mall and the Duke of York’s column, was presented to the Prince of Wales in 1783 and became possibly the most dazzling royal mansion anywhere in Europe until abandoned and demolished in 1827. Its Corinthian columns were re-used for the flanking entrances of the National Gallery; other features were salvaged and incorporated at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, while the magnificent contents were mainly spread between these and other residences. Fortunately, the ravishing interiors are recorded in twenty-four aquatints published by W.H. Pyne in 1819.

The show is supported by a substantial catalogue which makes a significant contribution to art history. This project, organised by Sir Geoffrey de Bellaigue, Director of the Royal Collection, has clearly benefited from the energy and expertise of Hugh Roberts, Deputy Surveyor of the Queen’s Works of Art and Christopher Lloyd, Surveyor of the Queen’s Paintings, both fairly recent recruits to the curatorial team. The Queen’s Gallery has an excellent record of exhibitions exploring phases of royal patronage, which helps to compensate for the lack of modern decorative art catalogues.

The authors point out that, owing to the prince’s reckless extravagance, many of the furnishing schemes – like those commissioned for the Royal Pavilion at Brighton – were bewilderingly ephemeral. In 1810, Lady Sarah Spencer visited Carlton House, “which is so magnificent just now... He changes the furniture so very often, that one can scarcely find time to catch a glimpse of each transient arrangement before it is all turned off for some other”. The Pyne views illustrate only one moment in the extraordinary history of the various room ensembles. A careful study of relevant archive material (inventories, bills and day books) shows that the well known views published by Sheraton and Pyne sometimes give a misleading impression of the ever-changing decor and furnishings. In fact, detailed documentary research has yielded a wealth of previously unrecorded evidence for attributions and a re-examination of certain famous objects such as the pair of thrones supplied by Tatham & Co in 1812 have revealed the unsuspected existence of original upholstery materials.

George IV was a passionate collector of modern and antique French furniture (particularly Boulle work) and also betrayed a fondness for marble and gilt bronze Parisian clocks, candelabra and ormolu mounted vases. Accordingly, these branches are well represented in the selection of objects for display. At the same time, he placed extravagant orders with English cabinet-makers, his principal suppliers being Tatham, Bailey and Sanders (who in one two-year period provided goods to the value of £30,000).

Although the Prince employed leading British painters, including Reynolds, Gainsborough, Beechy, Lawrence and Stubbs, his finest achievement was in assembling a collection of over 200 works by Flemish and Dutch artists. Pictures of the High Renaissance and baroque periods are absent, primitives are also lacking. Interestingly, he returned Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini marriage” (now in the National Gallery) after having it on approval at Carlton House for two years. George IV’s brilliant activities as a collector of paintings are well emphasised in the exhibition. Silver has always been a hallmark of conspicuous consumption and the show includes a cross-section from the Plate Closet at Carlton House, allowing “a unique glimpse of the way in which Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, the leading goldsmiths of the age, responded to the constant demands for changes and improvements from their “greatest Patron & best Friend”. George IV’s collection of eighteenth-century Sèvres porcelain is acknowledged to be the finest in the world. He also made purchases from British manufacturers, but it was the Sèvres garnitures, conceived as essential elements in decorative room schemes, that formed the most memorable ceramic presence at Carlton House, although they are not conspicuous in the current show.

The Prince of Wales was an enthusiastic collector of antiquarian and contemporary arms, armour and uniforms. By 1819, the Armoury occupied five rooms. Happily, his vastly impressive holding of mainly European, Indian and North African weapons survives largely intact. This material adds variety and spice to the display. For everyone interested in the fine and decorative arts or Royal patronage, the Carlton House exhibition offers an unheard of cornucopia of riches. It is a wonderfully imaginative show supported by a catalogue which is going to be of inestimable value for years to come.