Yale Center for British Art’s, ‘Enlightened Princesses’: The Power of Human Endeavor

Tyler Griffith
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Jean-Baptiste van Loo, Augusta, Princess of Wales, 1742, oil on canvas, 94 1/2 x 62″. Royal Collection Trust.

Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World offers a visceral, multi-faceted and interdisciplinary look at the eighteenth century told through the passions and activities of three women—German aristocracy by birth, British royalty by marriage. Among their shared interests were natural philosophy (we moderns might call it “science”), literature, theater, music, fine art, religion, architecture, collecting, exploration, patronage, botany, charity, medicine, education, politics, crafts, horticulture, and gardening; and the list could go much, much further on. All three women demonstrated a deep-rooted and persistent interest in the limits and possibilities of human endeavor, both in terms of the interior developments of creative genius and in the external interaction of humanity with the world around them. They used all available resources to encourage the arts and sciences to blossom under their charge as Queen Consorts and senior women at court.

A floral metaphor is apt, because their gardening activities present one of the most distilled and poignant examples of the breadth of their interests and the complexity of eighteenth-century British culture as a whole. The story begins in 1718: shortly after their arrival in England, Caroline and her husband took over the lease on a house just west of London, Richmond Lodge, which had been seized from a Jacobite rebel only three years before. Over the following two decades, Caroline expanded the property and carried out extensive landscaping in the new, “natural” style advocated by contemporary gardeners while commissioning numerous buildings to adorn the grounds.

Right: Joseph Highmore, Queen Caroline of Ansbach, c. 1735, oil on canvas, 29 5/8 x 24 3/8″. Royal Collection Trust.

The work that Charles Bridgeman and William Kent carried out for her at Richmond combined two features then coming into fashion: a more informal and irregular style, which recognized the affinity between landscape painting and the disposition of plantings, waterways, groves and buildings in a garden; and the incorporation of sculpted portraits or narrative programs into building schemes that made explicit their owners’ political or philosophical affiliations. It is interesting that this extended to the choice of architectural styles for the little buildings. Merlin’s Cave, a building designed by Kent, incorporated portraits that aligned Caroline with renowned English philosophers and famous figures from Arthurian legend, thus contributing to her assertions of the patriotism and legitimacy of the (then new) Hanoverian dynasty. The sculptural program installed in the Hermitage celebrated contemporary philosophers and scientists, aligning her with the intellectual pioneers of her own age.

Left: Claude Du Bosc, engraver, after Hubert-Francois Gravelot, View of the Hermitage in the Royal Garden at Richmond, 1730-37, etching, 14 1/2 x 10 14″. Publ. by Carington Bowles, London. Coll. British Museum.

Caroline’s activities at Richmond set a precedent for Augusta and Frederick, Prince of Wales, whose neighboring garden, around the White House at Kew, developed into a site for architectural innovation and for the cultivation of a stunning variety of plants from Britain and the empire—and the new botanical knowledge that came with it. Frederick leased the White House in 1731, and by the time of his death in 1751, he had expanded the grounds and begun to stock the gardens with foreign trees and exotic plants. As a widow, Augusta carried out many of Frederick’s unfinished plans for Kew, but she also realized her own vision for the estate by collaborating with her friend John Stuart, third Earl of Bute, and the architect William Chambers.

Right: Francis (Franz Andreas) Bauer [1758-1840], ‘Strelitzia Reginae Banks’, design for Strelitzia Depicta, 1792-1817 [1812?], watercolor on paper, 22 1/8 x 16 1/8″. Natural History Museum Library and Archives, London.

Bute, whom contemporaries acknowledged as one of British botany’s foremost practitioners and patrons, drew on his network of correspondents and suppliers to ensure that Augusta’s gardens at Kew became one of the most extensive plant collections in the world. Princess Augusta appointed William Chambers her architect at Kew and architectural tutor to her son George, Prince of Wales. Chambers drew on his years of travel in the East to design many creative structures at Kew, among them his famous pagoda and the Chinese-style menagerie, the latter of which housed large birds and a pool stocked with goldfish.

Left: Johan Zoffany [1733-1810], Queen Charlotte, 1771, oil on canvas, 64 3/8 x 54″. Royal Collection Trust.

At George II’s death in 1760, the grounds of Richmond Lodge were largely unchanged since Caroline’s time, with landscaping, paintings, and buildings by Charles Bridgeman and William Kent intact. The estate became a summer residence for George III and Charlotte, and in 1764 they commissioned the fashionable landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown to reshape the property. Caroline’s garden buildings, except the Hermitage, were demolished. Brown’s approach, combining undulating lawns, waterways, groves, and curving walkways, heightened the informal and picturesque effects introduced by Bridgeman. When Augusta subsequently died in 1772, the neighboring garden at Kew fell under the oversight of Sir Joseph Banks, a close friend of George III and Charlotte. Banks used his influence in government and his involvement in imperial projects to extend Kew’s global reach by appointing official plant collector and adopting a more systematic approach that put botanical knowledge to work in the service of empire.

Right: Jeffry Wyattville [1766-1840], [Design for] ‘Sections of the Exotic House…Kew Gardens’ (Detail, showing hot water pipes), 1800, pen and ink on paper. Royal Institute of British Architects, London, Library Drawings and Archive Collections.

In 1802, the gardens of the two estates were joined by demolishing the walls on either side of the lane that ran between them. The architect Jeffry Wyatt, later Wyatville, designed for George III a new palace in Gothic style at Kew, begun in 1801 but later abandoned, and an exotic house which included a heating system built at Kensington in 1825 and moved to Kew Gardens in 1836. His hothouse included an innovative heating system that used piped hot water rather than fires, whose smoke and fumes might damage delicate plants.

Left: William Elliot, engraver, after William Woollett [1735-1785], Kew: The White House, Orangery, and Temple of Arethusa, c. 1760, engraving, hand-colored in watercolor, 14 1/2 x 21″. Printed by Sayer & Bowles, London. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

After George III’s collapse into mental instability and blindness, Charlotte seldom visited Kew, but she died there, in the Dutch House, in 1818. In 1841, with William Jackson Hooker as director, the Royal Botanic Gardens were established at Kew as, essentially, an arm of the government. At the center of a worldwide network of botanical gardens and herbarium collections, experts at Kew in the nineteenth century sought to acquire, study, redistribute, and exploit plants as a resource for empire. Today, Chambers’s Pagoda (right) still stands with a handful of other architectural commissions. Five trees planted at Kew in the mid-eighteenth century, known as the Old Lions, have survived the intervening centuries. Building on a troubled heritage, scientists at the gardens now take a leading role in the conservation of biodiversity and habitat around the world.

By Tyler Griffith, Contributing Writer   

Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World, at YCBA through April 30, 2017.

Kensington Palace, London, from June 22 to November 12, 2017.

The lead curator is Joanna Marschner, Senior Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, assisted by Samantha Howard, Curatorial Assistant. The organizing curator at the Center is Amy Meyers, Director, who is assisted by Lisa Ford, Assistant Director of Research; Glenn Adamson, Senior Research Associate; and Tyler Griffith, Postdoctoral Research Associate, who prepared this review.

The exhibition is accompanied by a publication of the same title, a beautifully illustrated catalogue of works edited by Joanna Marschner, with the assistance of David Bindman and Lisa Ford. Co-published with Historic Royal Palaces in association with Yale University Press, the book features contributions by an international team of scholars. 592 Pages, Price: $85. Available at: http://britishart.yale.edu/research/publications/enlightened-princesses-caroline-augusta-charlotte-and-shaping-modern-world

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