Princesses Charlotte, Augusta, and Elizabeth, about 1784, by Thomas Gainsborough 191
This portrait shows King George III and Queen Charlotte's three eldest daughters, the Princess Royal, Charlotte (1766–1828), Princess Augusta (1768–1840), and Princess Elizabeth (1770–1840). Thomas Gainsborough painted the portrait at the request of the princesses' brother George, Prince of Wales (later George IV). The portrait was completed in time to be shown, along with seventeen other works by the artist, at the 1784 exhibition of the Royal
Academy. A dispute arose when Gainsborough requested that the Academy depart from custom (where full-length portraits were hung above the height of doorways), and not hang the picture of the princesses above five and a half feet. He wrote that he had “painted . . . in so tender a light . . . the likenesses and work of the picture will not be seen” at the higher level. If the Academy did not consent, he would “beg the rest of his pictures back.” The Hanging Committee refused the request and had his other pictures removed. Gainsborough did not exhibit again at the Royal Academy. (Jack Lindsay, Thomas Gainsborough, His Life and Art
, N.Y., 1980, p. 162–163;; Christopher Hibbert, George IV, Prince of Wales
, 1762–1811, N.Y., 1972, p. 41, 259; Mary Woodall, Thomas Gainsborough, His Life and Work
, N.Y., 1949, p. 80–81.)
The three sisters were quite close to each other, deeply loyal to their father through all his difficulties to the end of his life, and strongly sympathetic to their eldest brother, George, who was permanently estranged from his father by the mid-1780s. Despite their strong family feelings, they sometimes chaffed under the demands of royal etiquette. Augusta objected at an early age to being so often on display to the British public, the very duty that elicited Abigail Adams' sympathy for Queen Charlotte and her daughters upon her first presentation to them (Stanley Ayling, George III
, N.Y., 1972, p. 222; Abigail Adams to Mary Cranch, 24 June
, and to Charles Williamos, 1 July 1785
, both below).
By the 1790s, the princesses looked to the Prince of Wales for support in achieving a difficult objective: marriage. Their father apparently felt that no British suitor was good enough for them, and he was so attached to them that he resisted the suit of any foreign prince who would take them away. George III did consent to Charlotte's marriage to Frederick I, Duke (and later King) of Würtemberg, in 1797, and his fear of losing a daughter proved justified. Charlotte never saw her father again, and her husband's alliance with Napoleon after 1805 placed her in the camp of Britain's enemies for a decade. Elizabeth did not marry until 1818, after her father had lost his reason. Augusta, along with two of the three younger princesses, remained unmarried.
This portrait and others, along with literary testimony, give a highly favorable impression of the appearance of the three princesses and of their many siblings. Gainsborough was said to be “all but raving mad with ecstacy in beholding such a constellation of youthful beauty” (Ayling, George III
, p. 221; Hibbert, George IV
, p. 259). Abigail Adams was more restrained in her praise of Princesses Charlotte and Augusta upon first meeting them, in June 1785: “They are pretty rather than Beautifull, well shaped with fair complexions and a tincture of the kings countanance. The two sisters look much alike.” But she found both princesses affable, relaxed, and even “compassionate” (to Mary Cranch, 24 June 1785
, below). Abigail Adams 2d also was not greatly impressed with the royal family on this first visit to Court (to John Quincy Adams, 4 July 1785
, below), but by her third visit to St. James's, she came to admire Charlotte, the Princess Royal, finding a “dignity, grace, and
affability, with a certain degree of steadiness which I like, in her manners” (
Journal and Correspondence
, 1:81 [3 November 1785]).
All the Adamses soon liked George III as well. Queen Charlotte was another matter. Both Abigail and Abigail 2d felt that she, alone among the royal family, was embarrassed to meet them, and was hostile to their presence at Court (Abigail Adams to Mary Cranch, 24 June
; Abigail Adams 2d to John Quincy Adams, 4 July
, both below). But when Abigail Adams judged the Queen “not well shaped or handsome” (same), she was simply echoing a view common to many English observers, from the day of Charlotte Sophia's arrival in England for her marriage to George III in 1761, to twentieth-century historians of the Hanoverian monarchy (see Ayling, George III
, p. 83–84).
Courtesy of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.