Thursday, February 28, 2013

Object of the Day, Museum Edition: The Soldier's Return, 1791

The grand old Duke of York, 

He had ten thousand men. 
He marched them up to the top of the hill 
And he marched them down again. 
And when they were up, they were up. 
And when they were down, they were down. 
And when they were only halfway up, 
They were neither up nor down. 

--Popular Rhyme of 1793, pillorying the Duke of York following the Flanders* Campaign
(*"Stupid Flanders"--H. Simpson)

"The Soldier's Return"
James Gillray and H. Humphrey, 1791
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Entitled “The Soldier's Return;” or “Rare News for Old England,” this hand-colored etching depicts Frederick, Duke of York. Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, Earl of Ulster was the second son of King George III and Queen Charlotte. He was, curiously, at 196 days old named Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück, making him, to this date, the youngest bishop in history.

Like his brother, the future King George IV, Frederick enjoyed a rather debauched life. And, like his brother (who married the future Queen Caroline with whom he had a strained and bizarre relationship) suffered through a less-than-successful marriage. Prince Frederick remained a relatively popular figure, making a strong impression on the population of Britain with his military work. His reputation, however, suffered two years after his marriage upon the unsuccessful Flanders Campaign. The subtitle reads: “See the Conquering Hero Comes.”

This scene might show Prince Frederick returning from Hanover to meet his cousin/bride Frederica Charlotte of Prussia whom he married in 1791. The print was published in London by H. Humphrey on “14th November 1791.” We should note that the Duke of York married his cousin twice—once on 29 September 1791 at Charlottenburg, Berlin, and again on 23 November 1791 at Buckingham Palace. This scene probably shows the Duke meeting his bride before their second marriage. Something curious about this, however, is that the new princess is clearly pregnant in this picture. The Duke and Duchess had no children together, however, he did sire many illegitimate children (keeping the family tradition of the time alive) with a slew of women all over Britain and Hanover. The depicted pregnancy was more wishful-thinking than anything else since all expected them to procreate. Furthermore, the image is intended to show not only the prince’s virility, but also the longevity of the Royal Family.

This, however, is not as much of a loving tribute as it is a satire. We see here, the Duke of York and his bride walking arm in arm, in the manner of a tramping soldier and his wife. But, there’s more to it than just that. Let’s look more closely. A large bundle on the prince’s back is inscribed “L. 300000.” This refers to the dowry that the Duke received upon his marriage. The dowry from the girl’s father, Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia, which amounted to only £13,000, was absolutely nothing in comparison with the Duke's debts. Meanwhile, the falsely pregnant princess carries a large money-bag reading: “Pin Money £50000 Pr Annm,” a reference to their controversial yearly allowance. Behind them, at the left, in the distance is a castle with a flag inscribed “Berlin”—a reference to Charlottenburg Palace, the place of their first, German, wedding. The Duke wears regimentals with his star; the Duchess wears a simple straw hat—denoting the idea that she was of humbler, if not still Royal, birth. However, this hat is tilted back to show a tiara, an obvious reference to her past and future great expectations.

Within the pattern of the ground, we can make out: “Pubd Novr 14th 1791. by H Humphrey No 18 Old Bond Street.”

Here’s another image that I know I’ve seen before, but not at the V&A. And, so, I’ve gone on a hunt to figure out where I’ve seen it. The listing for this piece in the V&A tells us nothing except it depicts the Duke of York in 1791—no more. So, I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on this one.

Another version of the same etching by James Gillray lives at the British Museum. I’m fairly certain that’s where I saw it. The British Museum’s example differs slightly since these were hand-colored. See below.

Whew! That’s enough digging into that for now.

The version from the British Museum

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