King George III in 1820

King George III in 1820

This remarkable engraving of King George III as an old man by Charles Turner [SGC F.155] was produced using mezzotint – a smoother, more refined printing process to create tones than the earlier, clumsier method of cross-hatching and dots.  Published in March 1820, three months after George III’s death, it was dedicated to his second eldest son, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany. It offers a remarkable insight into the man beneath the crown.

George III was crowned King of Great Britain and Ireland in 1760. He had a turbulent reign which saw the loss of the American colonies through the American Revolution as well as successful battles against Napoleon, including the Battle of Waterloo which celebrates its second centenary this year. So passionate was he about the office he held that he would often question whether he was the right man for the job. Despite the ups and downs and some less than flattering accounts of him, George III was largely thought of kindly in the final years of his reign.[1]

This engraving of King George III as an old man is strikingly different from typical royal portraiture. Other than the title, at first glance there appears to be nothing to suggest the status of the man portrayed. Gone are the regal paraphernalia of crown or Garter mantle. This elderly gentleman could be anyone’s father or grandfather sat in his favourite chair wearing a dressing gown. However, on closer inspection the chair back does provide us with a hint of the significance of the man with its adornment of a carved crown.

Perhaps the key to understanding this unusual royal portrait is looking at it in the context of who the picture was dedicated to – his son. Sidelining the regal attributes provides an intimate insight into the man himself, rather than through his title and position. The result is a personal and far more meaningful picture between father and son than an archetypal royal portrait would have been.

The artist has seemingly pulled no punches in his revealing picture of the king in his twilight years. The trappings of an aged face, hair and eyes blinded by cataracts are all on display. At this stage in his life, George was King in name only. Incapacitated by illness, his eldest son George, Prince of Wales (later crowned George IV) ruled in his place as Prince Regent. However, this picture gives an overwhelming impression that the king is ready to leap out of the chair to business at any moment! His posture is erect and the artist has given a fullness to his body and face. Despite the apparent blindness and what is known of his volatile mental state, there is no sign of vacancy or ill-health. He appears as alert as ever, ready to carry out the business and responsibilities of the Crown which he held most reverently.

To find out more about King George III during the prime of his life, visit the new exhibition in St George’s Chapel. The exhibition illustrates his love of Windsor and his commitment to restoring and improving the Chapel, making many changes which can still be seen and enjoyed today.

Gemma Martin, Archives Trainee

[1] J.H.Plumb, The First Four Georges, (1956), London, Penguin Books.

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.