George IV

George IV, 1762-1830: Prince Regent, 1811-1820; King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Hanover, 1820-1830; libertine, patron of the arts. In 1894 Max Beerbohm wrote: “I am glad that the Pavilion still stands here in Brighton. Its trite lawns and wanton cupolae have taught me much. As I write this essay, I can see them from my window. Last night, in a crowd of trippers and townspeople, I roamed the lawns of that dishonoured palace, whilst a band played us tunes. Once I fancied I saw the shade of a swaying figure and of a wine-red face.” George set a trend for raffish bad behaviour, improvidence and foppishness that has ebbed and flowed in modified forms to this day in select corners of the aristocratic and pop-celebrity world. Vice had existed in many forms in pre-Regency England, but under George it took on an identity and sense of purpose it had always lacked: hellfire orgies in gilded interiors; mighty estates lost on the drunken turn of a card; footpads, pornography, the unhindered and unpunished seduction of housemaids; all of these were stark realities of the period, not latterly manufactured stereotypes or rakish wishful thinking. For most of the Regency and George’s reign the country was run by a conscientious if unimaginative Prime Minister, The Earl of Liverpool – variously assisted or challenged by a hugely talented constellation of Whig and Tory politicians, administrators, soldiers and sailors. While they steered England through the Napoleonic Wars, the loss of America and the madness of King George, the Regent, now famous for debt, created a climate of extravagant patronage which, luckily, brought out the best in some of this country’s most productive architects, artists and designers – men such as John Nash, who built the Brighton Pavilion – and the cabinet makers Thomas Hope, George Smith and the Seddons who produced increasingly elaborate up-to-date takes on Roman, Greek and Egyptian models. Some praise Regency style for its bold stance against 18th Century refinement and arid Neo-Classicism, while others condemn as vulgar its wanton richness and unbuttoned exoticism. George, fearful of his unpopularity, is said to have hired the prizefighters Tom Cribb and ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson to act as ‘minders’ at his Coronation. His biographer Amanda Foreman memorably wrote of him that he “had exquisite taste and a kind heart; but the former was hidden from the public, and the latter hidden from himself.”

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