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Enlightened Princesses to come to Kensington Palace

Three German princesses are to be the theme of the major new summer exhibition at Kensington Palace, “Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World,” which opens to the public on 22 June 2017. The three princesses were Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Each princess became successive mother-in-law to the next and of the three of them, two became Queen consorts of England, Caroline to George II and Charlotte to George III; the exception was Augusta, who was Princess of Wales in the lifetime of her husband, Frederick Prince of Wales, becoming regent – and then remaining – Dowager Princess of Wales following her early widowhood in 1751.

The exhibition seeks to look at each of these three royal women – hitherto rather bypassed by popular history in favour of their husbands – in their own right, focusing on how each made a contribution through her own intellectual interests and pursuits, individually chose to develop her role and became in turn, a ‘trendsetter’ in her own day. Augusta and Charlotte became the mothers of kings – Augusta of George III and Charlotte of George IV and William IV, respectively. Whereas Augusta was the exception in that she alone remained Princess of Wales and did not become a British Queen consort, it is Queen Caroline who became the exception in that she did not directly become the mother of a British king, rather instead to a British heir. Her eldest son Frederick, born in 1707, was Prince of Wales but died prematurely in 1751, and his eldest son, George – born in 1738 – then became Prince of Wales, in turn, making Caroline rather the grandmother of a king instead.

The part of the exhibition, “Royal Women: Mothers of the Nation” draws not only on the fact that each princess became a royal mother and was thereby instrumental in matters relating to the education of her own children. It also shows how each became a pioneer in her own way through charitable involvement and the support of initiatives in the interest of public health and welfare, for example with the famous Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury, London, founded by Captain Thomas Coram, as a hospital for London’s foundling babies. After 19 years of campaigning, Coram finally received a Royal Charter from George II in 1739 to establish his hospital, and he received the early support of both the artist William Hogarth and of the composer Georg Friedrich Handel in his endeavours. Handel himself conducted beneficiary performances of his great English oratorio Messiah at the hospital’s chapel.

The Foundling Hospital’s work continues today as the children’s charity Coram – a legacy which also pays tribute to its former royal patronage. Although the composer Georg Friedrich Handel is rather more associated with the Georgian kings – Handel’s Coronation Anthems were written for George II – Handel’s name also came to be linked with Caroline’s – most tragically, his music “Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline/The ways of Zion do mourn” was written on the Queen’s death in 1737. It is this music which permanently plays in Caroline’s Oratory in the Queen’s Private Apartments at Hampton Court Palace.

Queen Caroline, as painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller [Public domain, United States Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cultures of Learning: Powerful Conversations,” aims to show how each princess used her position to encourage and promote the leading philosophers, scientists, architects and artists of the day and how the significance of this encouragement left its own cultural legacy. Caroline possessed a formidable intellect and was an avid patron of the arts and sciences, admiring, in particular, the mathematician, physicist and astronomer Sir Issac Newton, telling her drawing room that she was “honoured to have lived in the same age as such a great man.” These German princesses were genuinely cultured women in their interests, based on the European model which they brought to England on their marriages. These interests helped to reflect their own individual reactions to the Enlightenment, in 18th century Britain. Their intellectual pursuits were represented in the libraries they owned: Queen Charlotte’s library duly confirmed her passion for botany, literature and the theatre, whilst Caroline established a splendid library at St James’s Palace.

Each princess promoted national trade and the produce of the Empire in their gardens and homes, a theme that continues with “Political Gardening,” which is perhaps best expressed through the development of the royal gardens at Kew. The philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment would come to find expression in the design of 18th century gardens and at Kew in particular. There, not only the diverse cultural interests of these three princesses were reflected, but also the wider ambition of Empire, as shown, for example, in the types of exotic seeds and plants that were transferred and imported, as well as in structures such as the Pagoda, designed by Sir William Chambers for Augusta.

Other gardens were established throughout the Empire which enabled the plants and produce to be controlled and cultivated according to where they were needed. Indeed, by the end of the 19th century, Kew was so much a garden of Empire, that many of its directors had close ties with the British government. One of the ancient five trees still remaining at Kew, was planted for Augusta in 1762. The oldest building in the gardens is Kew Palace, first leased to Queen Caroline and later bought by George III as a summer retreat for the Royal Family. Queen Charlotte’s Cottage also still stands in Kew Gardens.

Each princess was also a collector in her own right, acquiring pieces of artistic significance for The Royal Collection, as well as commissioning important portraits of their own families by leading artists of the time. Frederick, Prince of Wales, had himself been an enthusiastic patron of the arts and owned an outstanding personal art collection in his lifetime, including old Master paintings. Augusta commissioned the large group painting of her family by the artist George Knapton, in memory of Frederick. It hangs in the State Dining Room at Windsor Castle, which may be visited when the Semi-State Rooms are open at Windsor Castle, between September and March.

The princesses were also, of course, the subject of works themselves. Examples of portraits of Caroline and Augusta can be found at Hampton Court in particular. The princesses are also commemorated in other ways too: there is a memorial urn to Queen Caroline in London’s Hyde Park – unveiled by HM The Queen in 1990 – paying homage to Caroline for creating the Serpentine in Hyde Park and the Long Water at Kensington Gardens between 1726-1730. A statue in London’s Queen Square in now generally accepted as depicting Charlotte.

The exhibition will feature just less than 200 objects, including pieces from The Royal Collection, as well as from the royal collections of Denmark and the Netherlands. The activities and achievements of these princesses are being given special focus by placing them back within the context of their own times, enabling us to fully appreciate how each contributed in her own way, reacting to the era and position in which she found herself.

Joanna Marschner, the Senior Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, said: “Until this point, their contributions have been little understood, and it is the aim of this exhibition to demonstrate how they influenced their era in the most vibrant of ways.”

Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World,” which opened at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven on 2 February, closed on 30 April. It opens again in Britain at Kensington Palace from 22 June until 12 November 2017.

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