Nau mai ki te ao mārama, Pirinihi Hārata! Welcome to the world, Princess Charlotte of Cambridge, and may you prove a worthy spare for the heir, and a mini-feminist in your own right! The arrival of a baby daughter to the most famous woman in the world with an art history degree, the Duchess of Cambridge, has naturally prompted me to look at relevant holdings at Te Papa. The royal baby’s namesake, Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales (1796–1817), is the subject of two portraits by the English artist George Dawe (1781–1829), whose impressive body of work, alternately classically learned, powerfully romantic and regally splendid, is excellently represented in the collection.
Between Jane Austen and Titian
The smaller and more charming of the two paintings is a half-length depiction which relates closely to the version in the National Portrait Gallery, London. In pose, poise and beauty, Charlotte stands halfway between the sensibility of a Jane Austen heroine (and the Princess was one of her fans), and the grandeur of a Titian model, emphasised by the gorgeous blue gown. Our portrait reveals the flutings of a column, at the base of which Charlotte’s arm delicately rests. It is undated, but is likely to be contemporaneous with the full-length study, which is signed and inscribed 1817, the year that Charlotte attained her majority (legal adulthood), gave birth to a stillborn son and, tragically, died.
The full-length portrait depicts a similar pose in reverse, with a seated princess in a splendid but unspecified interior – perhaps Windsor if we are to judge from the mysterious landscape that lies beyond. In concept and scale, this painting looks for all the world like the study for a grand, life-sized portrait which, due to Charlotte’s untimely death, was never undertaken. Although she is clad in the same gown, she now wears a floral wreath in her hair. This looks back to antiquity (one thinks of figures like the Three Graces) but Dawe also romantically portrays her as a grown up child of nature, and a woman of feeling – which by all accounts the blameless Charlotte was in reality.
The ‘Forgotten Princess’
Princess Charlotte was the daughter of one of the most unhappy royal unions in history, that between George, Prince of Wales, and Caroline of Brunswick. When George first met his fiancée, he demanded a stiff brandy, and – quite a few drinks later for much of his wedding night – lay sprawled in a drunken stupor, his head in the fire-grate. The outcome, nine months later, was Charlotte, and the day after her birth, her father vowed to separate the infant from her mother. Charlotte grew up apart from both her parents and was placed under the tutelage of the dowager countess of Elgin till she reached the age of eight. There is an endearing record of the slightly older princess receiving instruction in religion and the political constitution from the Bishop of Exeter, but frankly preferring her piano lessons with the composer Jane Mary Guest. Her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry characterises Charlotte as ‘fair and plump, bright, high-spirited and boisterous’, qualities which reminded George too much of the wilful Caroline. To call Charlotte a tug-of-love baby would be accurate, but neither of her thoroughly selfish parents spared the growing child much love. Caroline was the less reprehensible of the two, but what on earth can one say about a mother who locked her sixteen-year-old daughter in a bedroom with a suitor, telling the pair to amuse themselves? That Charlotte ‘turned out clever, feisty and hugely popular’, as a Guardian contributor later put it, was little short of miraculous. In her lifetime, she was the sole legitimate grandchild of King George III, and had she outlived him and her father, she would have become Queen of the United Kingdom. She long appeared the one hope for the extravagant, degenerate and reactionary House of Hanover. But it was not to be; in the event, Queen Victoria, born eighteen months after Charlotte’s death when the pressure was on to produce a legitimate heir, would fulfil that role.
Love and Death
After rejecting an arranged marriage with another heavy drinker, Prince William of Orange, Princess Charlotte got engaged to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. This was evidently a love-match, and the only mishap in their wedding ceremony in 1816 was when Charlotte audibly giggled when the high-born but impoverished Leopold promised to endow her with all his worldly goods. Charlotte’s pregnancy excited press coverage and bets on the child’s sex that prefigure our contemporary world. But there the parallels end. After fifty hours of labour, on 5 November 1817, she gave birth to a stillborn son. Although cheerful throughout her terrible ordeal, Charlotte herself died five hours later. The male midwife, Sir Robert Croft, stood by and refused to intervene. Medical debate, poignant yet fatuous, continues to centre on whether he should have intervened, using forceps – quite likely themselves a source of infection. If many of us collectively wept at the fictional death in childbirth of the lovely Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey, this was nothing compared with the outpouring of popular grief that followed Charlotte’s death. Prince Leopold put it eloquently in a letter to Dawe’s fellow artist Sir Thomas Lawrence: ‘Two generations gone. Gone in a moment! …My Charlotte is gone from the country – it has lost her. She was a good, she was an admirable woman. It was my study, my duty, to know her character, but it was my delight’. In a tragic coda, Sir Robert Croft shot himself in the head with a pair of pistols. Whatever may be the destiny of Princess Charlotte of Cambridge, let us hope it may be considerably happier than that of Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales.