Queen Caroline and the Power of Caricature in Georgian England
By Professor Ian Haywood
This lecture will explore the remarkable role of Georgian caricature in the equally remarkable Queen Caroline controversy of 1820–21. When the newly crowned George IV, formerly the Prince of Wales, refused to recognise his estranged wife Caroline as the rightful queen of Britain, her refusal to rescind her claim to the throne provoked a huge campaign of sympathy and support that almost toppled the government. When Caroline was put on trial for adultery, the British people rallied round the ‘injured’ queen in their hundreds of thousands, and massed rallies, processions, protests and petitioning became daily news.
The Queen Caroline scandal was the zenith of the ‘Golden Age’ of caricature, a tour-de-force of imagination, wit, inventiveness and sheer political mischief. In image after image, Caroline triumphs over her cowardly and conniving enemies, subverting gender and political hierarchies, and giving a presence and voice to her unenfranchised followers.
Based on recently his published book Queen Caroline and the Power of Caricature in Georgian England (Palgrave, December 2023), the lecture will illuminate the unique artistic and political freedom which caricature enjoyed. The lecture will give a brief overview of the origins and development of this extraordinary cultural art form, before focussing on its role in the greatest royal scandal of the 19th century. Unlike paintings, caricatures were designed to have an immediate effect on public opinion by grabbing the viewer’s attention with arresting, often sensational imagery which transformed reportage into fantastical encounters between public figures. Caricatures also reached a wide audience as they could be viewed in the shop windows of the publishers and were reproduced in satirical pamphlets. Satirical prints were so prolific that Caroline’s enemies had to respond in kind, resulting in the publication of over 400 caricatures on this theme in just one year. At the centre of this media blitz was the remarkable collaboration between George Cruikshank and the antiquarian publisher and bookseller William Hone. Their satirical attacks on the king were so successful that Cruikshank was given a huge bribe to desist.
The topic of royal scandal still has the power to fascinate and entertain the public. This lecture will illuminate an earlier constitutional crisis in which visual culture played a vital role in exposing the complex relationship between monarchy, state power, and public opinion.