George IV: the rehabilitation of Old Naughty.
Britain's Most Useless Monarch deserves some credit for presiding over transformative decade.
Lucy Worsley in The Guardian, 29th August 2011.
Endless Jane Austen film adaptations have given us the idea that the Regency was a classy, pretty, palatable period of history. Notable for their muslins, tea parties and flirting, you'd think that most Regency folk lived in highly desirable rectories. In reality this decade was far from ladylike: it was vibrant, eclectic, even frightening.
People often misuse the term "Regency" to describe art or antiques dating from a vague period between the 1790s and the 1830s, but technically the period only lasted between 1811 and 1820. It began 200 years ago when George III descended into his final spell of "madness" and his son (the future George IV) stepped in as Prince Regent. The next nine years were transformative in art, architecture, literature and life.
The contradictory tone of the age was set by the Prince Regent himself, dogged by accusations of debt, drinking and non-diligence. The "Prince of Whales", as the caricaturists called him because of his 54in waist, was voted Britain's Most Useless Monarch in an English Heritage poll.
At his fantastic holiday home, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, he lived in elegance and squalor combined. In its overheated, gas-lit rooms, he would drink brandy for breakfast. He eventually grew too fat to climb upstairs and had to sleep on the ground floor.
The Prince Regent was as unpopular then as he is now for his excesses and neglect of his duties. These were exciting and dangerous times: Napoleon was narrowly defeated at Waterloo, peaceful protesters calling for parliamentary reform were slaughtered by the authorities in the Peterloo massacre, and the Luddites were vandalising the frame-weaving machines that had destroyed their livelihoods. But the Prince Regent never set foot on a battlefield, and completely failed to address his people's problems.
These political crises were accompanied by an upheaval in the arts. Turner and Constable were in competition with each other as painters, while portraitist Thomas Lawrence captured the gaudy, tawdry brilliance of high society. Jane Austen and Mary Shelley wrote novels about manners and monsters respectively, while Byron pumped out poetry.
The period's defining architect is John Nash, with his crazily clashing source material. He built stage sets for the Prince Regent's no-rules lifestyle: as well as the Royal Pavilion, he carried out endless and unaffordable remodellings of Carlton House, George's London residence. Nash also created the sham palaces of Regent's Park, and sliced Regent Street through London's West End to provide Carlton House with a magnificent approach. Meanwhile, speculators ran up many a sub-Nash terrace in property hot spots like Leamington Spa.
Regency buildings are often said to lack the serenity of their early Georgian predecessors, or the intense scholarship of the subsequent Gothic revival. Many seem rather gimcrack (Nash's novel glass-roofed picture gallery at Attingham Park, for example, quickly started to leak) or weren't valued highly enough to retain. Regent Street itself leads to nowhere because the Prince Regent quickly got bored with Carlton House and demolished it to rebuild Buckingham Palace instead.
Jane Austen, once invited to visit the over-the-top splendours of Carlton House by George himself, remained distinctly unimpressed. She'd always support the Regent's estranged wife, she wrote, "because I hate her husband". It's hard to defend the Prince Regent as a family man, with his endless procession of matronly mistresses and his addiction to the liquid form of opium.
But the charitable would see his vices as merely the props they were for a fatal weakness of character. He simply didn't have the stamina and firmness of purpose to rule effectively and win affection. And for all the carping about spending from contemporaries, he did actually achieve something of lasting value. His lavish spending on the arts contributed enormously to the image Britain still presents to the world today.
The Prince Regent's wife said he would have made a great hairdresser – he certainly had creativity and an eye for style. He was the best patron and collector of art ever to sit on the throne, and the Royal Collection owes much to his magnificent magpie instinct. The very best Regency buildings are playful, capricious masterpieces, and George created the most recognisable skyline of any building in Britain with Windsor Castle.
Every king and queen since has posed for portraits in the state rooms created by our Most Useless Monarch, and his own brilliantly staged-managed coronation marked the high point of a pageantry still to be observed in this year's royal wedding. These achievements continue to attract tourist dollars to Britain.
One hears the late Queen Mother used to call the Prince Regent "Old Naughty", which puts him firmly in his place. Despite the decadence and the drugs, though, he deserves some credit for presiding over an intense decade of design.
• Elegance and Decadence, the Age of the Regency, starts on Monday night at 9pm on BBC4