Kenneth Baker looks at the foibles and achievements of one of Britain’s most controversial monarchs through the eyes of his caricaturists.
"Never saw London so excited or lively ... crowds everywhere, particularly in St James’s Street ... the whole thing reminded me of a passage in an old comedy: ‘What makes him so merry?’ ‘Don’t you see he’s in mourning?’"
"There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than the deceased King ... an inveterate voluptuary ... of all known beings the most selfish."
"A more contemptible, cowardly, selfish, unfeeling dog does not exist ... There have been good and wise kings but not many of them ... and this I believe to be one of the worst."
The most extraordinary compound of talent, wit, buffoonery, obstinacy, and good feeling – in short a medley of the most opposite qualities with a great preponderance of good – that I ever saw in any character in my life.
These are the two poles of George’s reputation and all biographies since then have oscillated between them – most to condemnation and only a few to a forgiving understanding.
George’s successors to the throne wanted to wipe him out of the nation’s memory. His brother, William IV, sent all his clothes to be auctioned – the sale lasted three days (a similar fate awaited the dresses of Princess Diana). He also cancelled the buildings that were to flank Buckingham Palace and he pulled down most of the mock-Tudor Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park where his brother had spent his last few years. Queen Victoria, who had been welcomed by her uncle to Windsor, never really forgave his excesses. She sold the Royal Pavilion at Brighton to the local town council, and in 1867 ordered the demolition of the little Chinese temple that George had built at Virginia Water, where she had occasionally been taken on his fishing expeditions. All wanted to forget the gaudy extravagance of his reign. In 1855 Thackeray, in his lecture on the ‘Four Georges,’ turned his scathing sarcasm on the King: ‘This George was nothing but a coat, and a wig, and a mask smiling below it – nothing but a big simulacrum but a bow and a grin.’ Max Beerbohm, though, in an essay that was published in The Yellow Book in 1894, made a spirited defence of George, attributing his reputation to the ‘Non-Conformist conscience’.
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