‘Bless’d be the Fertile Princess’: The Representation of Motherhood in Anglo-Hanoverian Art, 1714-1751

Sir James Thornhill, The Hanoverian Succession, 1714-1727, Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London.

Motherhood has been inextricable from the experience of royal women across the globe throughout history. In monogamous monarchic systems, the focus of reproductive anxieties and ambitions was traditionally the queen consort. A fecund royal womb was the guarantor of a dynasty’s future and if a dynasty was vulnerable then the pressure to successfully deliver an heir was intensified. A proliferation of heirs could stabilise the monarch’s hold on the throne and enable them to withstand challenges to their rule. During the reigns of George I and II of Great Britain, the princesses of Wales became the focus of this reproductive pressure due to the lack of queen consort. George I ruled without a queen and George II only ruled beside his wife, Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach, for only a decade until her death, after which he reigned alone for a further 23 years. The lack of a ruling pair at the heart of the Hanoverian monarchy was a destabilising factor that was exacerbated further by the preference for both monarchs to keep mistresses in their later years, an arrangement which contrasted sharply with the image of domestic harmony that was projected by the prince and princess of Wales, respectively George and Caroline (1714-1727) and their son, Frederick, and his wife, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha (1736-1751). A more significant issue was the Hanoverian claim to the throne which appeared weak when compared to that of James Francis Edward Stuart, the surviving son of James II. At the time of George I’s succession, the one advantage that the Hanoverians had which their Jacobite rivals did not was that they could project the image of a large royal family. This communicated to the kingdoms that the revolutionary settlement that had established the principles of the later-Stuart Protestant Parliamentary monarchy would endure. The dynastic security afforded by the fertility of the princesses of Wales helped consolidate the Hanoverian hold on the throne. The princesses’ status as vessels for royal children could eclipse many aspects of their public identities, sometimes even their names. This is rendered vividly in an August 1715 edition of St. James’s Evening Post, in which the entire royal family is extolled by name except Caroline, who is referred to merely as ‘the fertile princess.’ [i] During this period, the royal family and royal motherhood as represented by Caroline and Augusta became strong themes in Hanoverian art. This article will highlight two examples that foreground the princesses as progenitures of a large royal family and explore how this imagery was used to strengthen the Hanoverian regime.

William Hogarth, Gin Lane, 1751, engraving, Tate Gallery, London.

Sir James Thornhill’s mural in the Painted Hall at the Royal Hospital for Seamen, Greenwich is the earliest representation of the dynasty as Britain’s royal family. The choice of venue for the mural was important as the Hospital had significant ties to the later-Stuart monarchs, who Thornhill also depicted in the hall. This incorporated the Hanoverians into the visual pantheon of the post-Glorious Revolution monarchs, positioning them as their divinely appointed successors. Above George I, Sophia, Duchess of Hanover, is represented as Cybele, the personification of motherhood and mother of the dynasty. Her inclusion in the image was essential, as it was Sophia’s bloodline that had made the Hanoverian succession possible and the way that Sophia stares out of the mural at the viewer acts as a reminder of her importance. Caroline, standing behind George I as the figure of Prudence, also stares at the viewer. Her proximity to the monarch is reflective of the enhanced position she held as a quasi-queen in the absence of a consort, and the intensified responsibility that she had to ensure the dynasty’s future. The smile on her lips indicates no discomfort on her part with this reality as she knows she has succeeded. The mural overflows with the children of Caroline and George II. Their eldest son, Frederick, stands beside his grandfather, a representation of the monarchy’s future. At the base of the image, their five daughters and youngest son tumble down the steps beside an overflowing cornucopia, the comparison between the two evident. If Sophia of Hanover’s steady gaze says to the viewer ‘I made this possible’, then Caroline’s smile promises ‘I will ensure this dynasty endures’.

George Knapton, The Family of Frederick, Prince of Wales, 1751, Windsor Castle, Royal Collection Trust.

In 1751, Hogarth’s Gin Lane, with an infamously negligent mother at its centre, was published. The same year, George Knapton’s portrait, The Family of Frederick, Prince of Wales, was painted. The portrait came in the wake of Frederick’s sudden death, which threatened to destabilise the Hanoverian regime. A shard of light moves from the left side of the portrait, where Frederick’s image hangs, to the centre and to Augusta herself, who is seated beneath the royal coat of arms with her youngest child in her arms. Frederick reinforces what the light conveys by pointing in Augusta’s direction, identifying her as the custodian of their children: the future of the dynasty. Augusta’s eyes rest upon that future: the boy that would become George III. Around her, the younger Wales children are playing, enjoying the frivolities of childhood that only a loving mother could provide. No such imagery exists on Gin Lane. Unlike in the Thornhill mural, the king has no presence in Knapton’s image, reflecting the uncertainty that existed around who would have custody and oversight of the children in the wake of Frederick’s death. Knapton’s portrait is a powerful statement about Augusta’s belief in her capabilities as both a mother and as a kingmaker, designed to calm concerns about the future of the dynasty. Frederick’s death, while tragic, appears surmountable because of the large family he left behind in the capable hands of his wife.

In both images, the mother is figured as the successful author of the next generation of British monarchs. With Jacobite rebellions throughout the 1710s culminating in the rebellion of 1745-6, the Hanoverian regime seemed at times incredibly precarious. The imagery of the family, and the promise for the future that this entailed, helped to stabilise their position—something which was only made possible by the ‘bless’d’ princesses.

By Amy-Jane Humphries, University of Liverpool, UK.

Amy-Jane is a part-time second year PhD student at the University of Liverpool. Her doctoral research focuses on the Hanoverian mistresses and princesses of Wales who, in the absence of a queen consort for a large part of the 18th-century, held significant power at the courts of George I and II. This blog post is based on a chapter of her thesis that examines how the visual imagery of the women was constructed to signal their enhanced power and dynastic importance.

[i] “News.” St. James’s Evening Post, August 6, 1715 – August 9, 1715. Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Burney Newspapers Collection (accessed January 21, 2023). https://link-gale-com.liverpool.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/Z2001342103/BBCN?u=livuni&sid=bookmark-BBCN&xid=fcdcc1c6.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
courtstudies (March 29, 2023). ‘Bless’d be the Fertile Princess’: The Representation of Motherhood in Anglo-Hanoverian Art, 1714-1751. The Court Observer. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/n6um

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