Women’s History Month in March always brings a slew of exhibitions spotlighting women who have languished in the shadows. A sumptuous show at the Yale Center for British Art highlights the cultural contributions of three eighteenth-century German-born British princesses who significantly influenced England as it tiptoed tentatively into the modern era. “Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World” showcases almost 300 objects (more than eighty borrowed from the Royal Collection Trust of Queen Elizabeth II) in New Haven, CT, until April 30.
The exhibition’s bountiful array encompasses both art and artifacts. Material-culture objects range from Wedgwood ceramics, jewels, architectural drawings and scientific instruments to court costumes. There’s fine art aplenty, too, with sketches by Hans Holbein and oil portraits by Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds and William Hogarth. Amy Meyers, director of the Yale Center, calls the palaces and gardens the three women created “incubators for enlightened conversation and experimentation” as well as “platforms to project the latest cultural developments.” At a press preview, she added that the period (known as the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) was a time of vibrant intellectual curiosity, “a potent moment with a huge impact on our world today.”
The lead curator Joanna Marschner, senior curator at Historic Royal Palaces in the UK said, “Until this point, the contributions of these three princesses have been little understood, and it is the aim of this exhibition to demonstrate how they influenced the interests of their era [and] to bring to the princesses the attention they deserve.” The exhibition travels to Kensington Palace in London from June 22 to Nov. 12.
They used philanthropy to advance social justice.
The show tells a complex story of a time when Britain expanded its Empire far beyond the “sceptered isle,” reaping wealth based on slave labor and imported goods like cotton. These gains gave royals the luxury of pursuing their passions, which had a trickle-down effect to elevate and beautify English life, which Thomas Hobbes described as “poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
These women exerted influence on British taste for more than a century. In 1714 after Queen Anne of England died, her second cousin ascended to the throne as the Hanoverian George I, his chief qualification being his staunchly Protestant religion. His clever daughter-in-law Caroline (1683-1737), Princess of Wales (later to be crowned Queen consort of George II in 1727) came along and made it her mission to overcome the skepticism of British natives about an imported dynasty of German foreigners.
Caroline assiduously collected, commissioned and displayed royal portraits, medals and cameos of Tudor forebears to cement the Hanoverians’ claim to legitimacy. It was a dicey time, when Stuart loyalists mounted substantial opposition to the rather distant succession. Caroline, well educated in the European intellectual tradition, cannily deployed symbols of monarchical continuity, although one of her commissions occasioned a fair amount of perplexity.
A patron of the architect William Kent, Caroline hired him to create a Gothic folly called Merlin’s Cave at her Richmond estate on the Thames. The structure housed an early version of a wax museum, with six life-sized wax figures representing worthies such as Merlin (to reinforce her link to Arthurian legend) and her own role model, the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I. She even installed a poet named Stephen Duck in residence as a quasi-hermit and tour guide. Caroline also had Kent build an exotic structure called the Hermitage. It housed portrait busts she commissioned of leading thinkers like John Locke and the scientist Robert Boyle to bolster her intellectual credentials.
The exhibition at Yale is a bit like a primer for Great Names of the Enlightenment, that long-ago, pre-Brexit period when reason, science and logical thinking ruled over emotion. Portraits and busts of leading figures like Sir Isaac Newton (whom Caroline championed in his epistolary debates with Leibniz), Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope and George Frideric Handel (music teacher for Caroline’s children) provide a glimpse into the Mensa star-power of the century.
Besides giving new energy to court life, cultivating the greatest minds and anglicizing the Hanoverian dynasty, Caroline was an ardent supporter of science. By inoculating her daughters against smallpox in 1722, she did much to win acceptance for what was considered a risky experiment. By mid-century this medical innovation was widely accepted, increasing public health by diminishing one of the biggest causes of mortality. Her biographer Stephen Taylor called Caroline “the most powerful queen consort of the Hanoverian period,” saying “she probably exercised more influence over English government than any queen since Elizabeth I.” A ditty during her reign broadcast her influence:
You may strut, dapper George but ‘twill all be in vain;
We know ‘tis Queen Caroline, not you, that reign.
Like her successors Augusta and Charlotte, Caroline was a pioneer in naturalistic garden design with the aim of, she said, “helping nature, not losing it in art.” In her expansive Richmond gardens (later merged with Kew to form the Royal Botanic Gardens), she revamped the landscape in an informal, picturesque style, sharply divergent from severely geometric gardens in France. Her taste for winding paths, ponds and groves of trees — considered patriotically British in its rustic charm — revolutionized garden design. As a devotée of the emerging sciences of botany and natural history, Caroline was a patron of the naturalist Mark Catesby, who produced the first illustrations of flora and fauna from England’s far-flung colonies.
Augusta (1719-1772) was the daughter-in-law of Caroline. Unlike her predecessor, she did not advance from Princess of Wales to Queen Consort, since her husband died while Caroline’s husband George II still lived. But as mother to the future George III, she was in charge of his education and played a significant role in court life.
“What was once a desert is now an Eden.”
Augusta shared Caroline’s passion for horticulture and also patronized Catesby’s explorations in natural history. She too focused her energy on her garden and hired the architect William Chambers to populate it with an array of theatrical follies, like a replica of the Moorish Alhambra, a mosque, 50-meter tall pagoda and an aviary. Her gardens at Kew contained 3400 species of plants from all over the world, with the goal of scientifically classifying them. As Chambers described the botanical garden, “what was once a desert is now an Eden.”
Augusta’s legacy also includes philanthropy. In an obituary the writer James Boswell praised her “bounteous hand” in discreetly donating to “indigent families.” Like Caroline before and Charlotte after her, Augusta supported the Foundling Hospital (a new kind of subscription charity) as well as charity schools and other needy causes to aid the poor.
It was a time of great social change. England was becoming industrialized and urban. Dislocation and social unrest were rampant, even while England’s trade boomed and new territories were colonized for the Empire. When Charlotte (1744-1818) married George III in 1761 the monarchy had already lost considerable power to Parliament. The role of Queen consort was not just to produce “an heir and a spare” but to represent the highest ideals of British domesticity and culture.
Charlotte fulfilled the role by patronizing painters like Reynolds, Gainsborough and Benjamin West. She also favored female flower painters like Margaret Meen and Mary Moser as well as Mary Delany, who produced “paper mosaics” — collages of flowers composed of delicately cut and colored paper. Charlotte encouraged musical connoisseurship by patronizing the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn and Johann Christian Bach. She accumulated a vast library of nearly 5000 volumes, including contemporary writers like Jane Austen and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Charlotte promoted modern medicine by engaging an obstetrician expert in female anatomy instead of a midwife to preside at the birth of her first child in 1762. When her husband King George III was in the grip of delusions during one of his frequent mental breakdowns, Charlotte was in charge of his health and household.
Her preferred charities related to women, such as “penitent prostitutes,” and orphaned or abandoned children, setting a pattern of royal sponsorship of good works that persists today. In a time when female roles were strictly circumscribed, philanthropy became a means of influence in the direction of social justice.
All wasn’t crumpets and clotted cream in Enlightenment England. Although the British monarchy avoided the fate of being guillotined like the French Louis XVI and his frivolous queen Marie Antoinette, all three princesses were lampooned in the popular press. For dullness (Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad), suspected adultery and rumored ambition and greed, these ladies were caricatured mercilessly by artists like George Cruikshank as well as writers like John Gay (The Beggar’s Opera) and Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels).
And one should not forget that the largesse of these one-percenters derived from raw materials like cotton and indigo produced by slave labor. To this end, the Yale Center for British Art commissioned for this show a sculpture by the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, MBE (born 1962). It alludes to a visit in 1753 paid to Augusta by a colonial entrepreneur, Eliza Pinckney of South Carolina. From the age of sixteen, Mrs. Pinckney had managed her father’s plantation, experimenting successfully with indigo production and silk manufacture.
Knowing of Augusta’s passion for songbirds, Pinckney brought a gift of living birds, a blue linnet, goldfinch and painted finch. To “materialize” their conversation (preserved in a detailed letter), Shonibare’s allegorical sculpture places a female figure precariously balanced on a globe depicting the British Empire. She wears a dress made not of Carolina silk produced by slaves but a Dutch wax-printed fabric associated with Nigeria. Her head is a birdcage, its door open, having released three songbirds that alight on the figure.
Aspiring to liberation is the theme — escape from the cage of custom, gender constrictions, racism and oppression that keeps the world spinning in unenlightened times. Even though birds take flight and sing in the gardens these princesses created, the three women themselves could only “lean in” and peek through the bars of their golden cage. This exhibition honors their legacy as patrons of the arts and science.