Cultural Politics at the Early Eighteenth-Century Court
Paul Mellon Centre for British Studies and Yale University Press 232pp £40
This volume is a sumptuous art history performance, with as many images as there are pages of text. This shows Caroline, the wife of George II, in regal splendour, on the back, a remarkable cut-away drawing of Caroline’s creation, the Merlin’s Cave in the Royal Gardens at Richmond. The end papers show the works of art which adorned the Queen’s Closet at Kensington Palace.
We know little in detail about Caroline, beyond her travels around England and the patronage she developed when her husband left her as regent during four absences in Hanover between 1729 and 1737. At least she was then entrusted with ‘all domestic matters’. The king’s long-term mistress, the Countess of Suffolk, was replaced in 1736 by a new one, Amalie Sophie Marianne von Wallmoden. Queen Caroline died the next year. The king behaved better to her in her death than he had in her life, ordering a new vault for the couple to be constructed in Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey.
The subtitle of the book – Cultural Politics at the Early Eighteenth-Century Court – raises expectations that are not fulfilled, since it is not clear that there were any very interesting cultural politics at the court of George II. This leaves a hole in the argument. Marshner does establish with determination and zeal how a lonely woman found a substitute for her husband’s failure to share her pleasure in art, by forming her own large circles of patrons. Through these she sought to attach herself to her adopted country’s most advanced aesthetic circles. The intention was to Anglicise the House of Hanover by collecting portraits of those who had come before her. Noting her interest in the Gothic, Marschner says that Merlin’s Cave was ‘imitated up and down the country for several decades’, yet she gives few examples. Caroline also ‘assembled and conserved the remnants of the Tudor and Stuart collections of paintings and drawings, of jewels, metalwork and medals’. In the Royal Collection, Yale found a lovely watercolour, circa 1815, of Queen Caroline’s library at St James’s Palace. Marschener confesses she has to make much of ‘a considerable and remarkable trail of material evidence’.
The structure of the book is convincingly thematic. Queen Caroline comes alive, in so far as the scant material about her patronage activities allows, in chapters which deal with the patronage of garden designers, architects, sculptors, artists, books and natural philosophers. The Introduction posits Caroline as a queen who the people saw as a powerful figure behind the throne: ‘You may strut dapper George, but twill all be in vain, we know that ‘tis Queen Caroline not you that reign.’ George allowed his wife great influence, in ecclesiastical affairs, for instance, and in the arts, which were her real passion: he was apparently devastated by her death. Much she attempted was incomplete when she died. Marschner has made a good attempt to rehabilitate a rather sad figure.
Anthony Fletcher is Emeritus Professor of English Social History, University of London.