George IV by Amanda Foreman

Selfish to an insane degree, untrustworthy, and lazy, but also utterly unrestrained whether over women, money, or his emotions, George IV (1762-1830) remains on the periphery of public consciousness. His influence is everywhere: Regency design, Regency architecture, Regency novels, but the man is missing. It is necessary to see the palaces he built to understand the true measure of George’s talents. Most people know about Brighton Pavilion, but few are aware that he was also responsible for much of Buckingham Palace, and for the magnificent interiors of Windsor Castle. Indeed, George spent the last seven years of his life turning Windsor into one of the finest palaces in Europe. The pity is that the country saw the bills but not the results. Just one room alone, the Crimson Drawing Room which was never completed in time for the King to use, cost more than £45,000. Yet one could argue tht the money was well-spent. He ordered only the best quality silks and furnishings, and for once the vast sums: 2,000 on a sofa, 1,000 on a curtain, are clearly apparent in the finished product.

George IV was always an enigma. Somewhere underneath the ludicrous wig and sybaritic blubber, his friends occasionally caught the glimpse of a scholar, a connoisseur, and a patron of the best of British culture. Embracing this medley was a complete lack of consistency – one moment he was passionately interested in something, the next it was forgotten. The history of Windsor Castle is a perfect example of this; only after he was King did it become an obsession. What is extraordinary is that he ever turned his taste and talents to Windsor at all. He had originally loathed the place, which was so closely linked to his unhappy childhood.

Perhaps, George IV would have always been a mass of contradictions. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the horrible upbringing meted out to him and his brothers left them all scarred. A child that is never praised, that is overworked to exhaustion, and is consistently denied any pleasure has a good chance of developing a fixation or two. When the Prince of Wales reached 18 in 1780 and legally came of age, he was like a man released from life imprisonment. He had no knowledge of the world outside the schoolroom, no friends or common experiences; all he had was money in his pocket and a burning sense of desire.

With the help and encouragement his new friend, the loveable rogue Charles James Fox, the Prince soon discovered the delightful company of women. He began with some of the more celebrated actresses and courtesans of London. But he subsequently learned that princes are also more vulnerable to blackmail and, after a scandal over some emotional letters he had written to the actress Perdita, he limited his activities to within the aristocracy.

As much as he liked beautiful women, the prince also liked beautiful things. The moment he moved into his own establishment, Carlton House, he began extensive renovations, changing the façade to have a Corinthian portico and filling the rooms with specially commissioned French furniture. Later, he began his vast project for the Marine Pavilion at Brighton. Usually, the mistress of the moment had her say in the designs, but already George had his own ideas which he shared and discussed with his friends. Paying for it was a different matter.

A certain slipperiness with money would always be one of George’s less appealing traits. He once cheated at racing, too. But he could also be generous, particularly to those in distress. Even when deserting his mistresses he was punctilious about paying their debts. These contradictions in his character rose to the fore when, in 1784, he met Mrs Fitzherbert, a highly respectable catholic widow. They had nothing in common beyond physical attraction, and legally they would never be allowed to marry. But the prince conducted a highly emotional, even hysterical campaign, to win her and eventually they married in a secret ceremony.

They had one and possibly two children together but, by the time of the Regency Crisis in 1789, when George III suffered a bout of temporary insanity, he was already beginning to grow bored. By 1794, George had pensioned off an unwilling Mrs Fitzherbert and was having an open affair with Lady Jersey. A manipulative and spiteful woman, Lady Jersey achieved a kind of infamy by deliberately persuading the prince to marry the least suitable princess of all his choices. George had to marry a royal bride in order to pay off his debts. But Lady Jersey ensured that marriage was doomed. She tortured poor Caroline of Brunswick, even going so far as to have herself installed as the new princess’s Lady-in-Waiting. George claimed that he slept three times with Princess Caroline, enough to father a child and to convince him that he never wanted to touch her again. They separated, and the apartments at Windsor Castle which George III had ordered to be modernised for them were never used.

After Lady Jersey came Lady Hertford, a handsome and elegant woman who held the Prince’s attention for 12 years. She became his mistress just when he had reached a crossroads in his life. In 1806, George lost two of his best friends, Charles James Fox and the Duchess of Devonshire; four years later, in 1810, George III went permanently insane and George IV began his Regency.

George tried, at least in the beginning, to be a conscientious Regent. Yet still, he could not bear to live with his mother and unmarried sisters in Windsor Castle. He preferred to refurbish a cottage in the Great Park and turn it into the Royal Lodge. Family life, especially his own, depressed him.

Despite being Regent during Britain’s greatest military triumph, the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, little of the public’s good will spread to George. He remained unpopular and somewhat despised. His position worsened when he tried to divorce Caroline in 1820 after the death of George III. Mobs burned effigies of George and of his latest mistress, the Marchioness of Conyngham. His isolation may explain why he suddenly decided to abandon London and spend much of his time at Brighton and Windsor. From 1823 onwards, the Castle was his greatest obsession.

Choosing Jeffry Wyatville as his architect, George IV commissioned a total redesign of Windsor’s Private and State apartments. He installed Lady Conyngham and, although his own bedroom naturally received the most attention, he gave to her the best views of the gardens. Her rooms were almost as sumptuous his, with blue damask on the walls and neo-classical gilt on every possible surface. Dominating the bedroom was a vast polonaise bed with four posters crowned with classical helmets; it was not so much as dignified as impressive. Lord Conyngham, who was Lord Steward of Windsor Castle, was tucked away on the floor below and presumably made only rare forays to the bacchanalian suites above. George also lavished money on the library. For some, it was all too much.

The Government grumbled at George IV’s incontinent spending. Did the green Library chairs really cost a hundred pounds each, they asked. Meanwhile, much of the good that the King did went entirely unnoticed. From the beginning of the Regency, George had proved himself to be a generous and enthusiastic patron of British culture. His personal style, a sort of classical theme based on Greek rather than Roman models, with a dash of Egyptian and Chinese thrown in, had become the Regency style. In literature he had championed Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen; in the arts he supported Constable, Lawrence and Westmacott. He restored the Royal Collection, helped to establish the British Museum and the National Gallery, and was president of the Royal Institution.

Yet George IV remained a laughable figure – he even managed to convince himself that he had fought in the battle of Waterloo. By 1828, when he was at last able to move into his new Windsor apartments, he was so fat and wheezy he could hardly remain standing for more than five minutes. Although he liked to show off his beautiful creation to guests, mostly the King lived quietly with Lady Conyngham. But the urge to decorate never left the King and he was still coming up with ideas when he died in 1830.

It is impossible to look at George’s achievements without wondering how the man himself was such a disaster. He died a lonely death and probably nobody felt sorrier for the King than he did. Yet, there is proof everywhere of the better man that might have been, and of the good in the man that could have been more. As the Duke of Wellington said, George was ’the most extraordinary compound of talent, wit, buffoonery, obstinacy and good feeling.’ He had exquisite taste and a kind heart; but the former was hidden from the public, and the latter hidden from himself.

Copyright© 2001 The Telegraph