I’ve just come away from watching the second of the BBC’s three-parter about the Regency.
(Okay, yes, I’ve stopped to triple check a couple of facts, because if I’m going to throw stones, I like to use a class-a catapult to ensure maximum effect.)
And may I say, with the BBC’s level of resources and their access to expertise, there’s simply no excuse for some of the lazy errors made in this series.
The most glaring came in the first four minutes when the presenter told us that three million people died in the Napoleonic Wars. Er…at the very least five million, though historians from Adam Zamoyski to David A. Bell to Robert Harvey have all raised that estimate upward toward six million and beyond as more and more information is found in Russia and eastern Europe confirming higher civilian losses than anyone previously guessed (or the French admitted to).
Another corker for me–again because this information isn’t hard to come by–is when the waltz was introduced to British Society. Our BBC presenter says 1816.
Except that the waltz appeared in London, or came to be championed in London, courtesy of Dorothea, the Countess Lieven, the wife of the Russian ambassador, one of the patronesses of Almack’s, who arrived in London with her husband in December 1812. By early 1813 there were waltzing parties taking place at Devonshire House–since it was a ‘new’ dance, plenty of practice was needed before one performed at Almack’s, it seems.
I know that’s a little thing. And of pretty much no significance whatsoever.
Except that the difficulty with all of this is that if they’re getting wrong the simple stuff, the easy-to-look-up information, the stuff about which there’s no mystery, then how much of the other stuff they’re spouting is inaccurate or just plain wrong?
And the difference between three million and six million casualties is not insignificant. Especially when you consider that the population of Britain, for example, was just eleven million in 1800…
So onto the architecture…Grrr. Because it’s all about context again. Or the lack of it.
Much is made of the Prince Regent’s building mania. And rightly so. I mean, the chap was crazy about stones and mortar. That’s undeniable.
But what isn’t ever mentioned–particularly not when we’re talking about the Brighton Pavilion–is how much a man of his era he was.
Nor is it ever mentioned that world leaders from time immemorial–that is, kings, emperors, empresses and their ilk–built big houses to impress. It was part of the deal of being king. Or Emperor. It’s a declaration of power and prestige and a country’s wealth. And in this context wealth, lots of it, equals more power.
Louis XIV built Versailles–he turned a nifty little hunting lodge into…well, Versailles, complete with the wonder of their world, the Hall of Mirrors, and the gardens which are beyond anything.
Not to be left in the shade, Catherine the Great of Russia had the Winter Palace constructed–which apparently made Versailles look dinky. (She was an Empress–in this game, Empress has to outrank King.)
So back to our story.
In the late 18th century, dreams of the Orient–which to their minds included India–were all the rage. I mean, they were it. It wasn’t just a matter of Coleridge’s opium-induced poem, Kubla Khan; Britain had been trading with India and China for some time and those who’d travelled there brought back such fascinating stories. And across Europe, everyone was caught up in the fascination.
When Napoleon took a French invasion force to conquer Egypt in 1798–as a first step in following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great–he also took with him a contingent of Orientalists, scholars, artists and engineers–les savants as they were known–men like Monge, Denon, Dolomieu, Berthollet, Conte and Fourier.
Napoleon was fascinated by the ancient world and with the Orient and with the savants, daily discussing such things: “His imagination became exulted as he expounded with enthusiasm on ancient Crete…He spoke of the decadence of the Ottoman Empire which so little resembled the fabulous land of history, a country so many times bathed in the blood of men. He began thinking of the ingenious fables of mythology, giving his words a poetic quality, which became further inspired…” (Even discounting Bourrienne’s partiality for his master, you get the drift…)
(And it’s after this little Egyptian voyage of discovery that all the gilded Egyptian exotica start popping up on the trendy furniture of the period–all those tables with gilded sphinx’s heads for example.)
So, you see, Prinny wasn’t alone in his Oriental fancies and fantasies. Not at all. But unless he built his own, he was never going to see one of those places. Not the Great Wall of China, not the Taj Mahal, not the Pyramids. None of it.
Not least because it would require an Act of Parliament for him to even be allowed to travel outside Britain. As the historian Gregor Dallas wrote of him and his interest in the proceedings of the Peace following Napoleon’s fall from power: “He got long reports from his own Hanoverian minister, Count Munster, and was probably one of the best informed inhabitants of the Kingdom. How this bedecked and spangled European Prince longed to be with his fellow Sovereigns in Vienna, how he yearned to lead all Congress in a polonaise, to dance a cotillion with his Austrian hosts, to attend the feasts and put on a royal face for Britain. But government and parliament would never allow him further south than his pavilion on the coast of Sussex.” Hence the splendid exoticism of the Brighton Pavilion–his own Oriental adventure park.
Then there’s the small matter of upkeep–which nobody ever bothers to mention. When the Allied rulers, the Tsar and King Frederick William and their entourages visited England in June 1814 to celebrate the Peace, following their successful campaign against Napoleon–there really was nowhere for them to stay. I know it sounds a bit odd, but it’s true.
Today, visiting heads of state stay at Buckingham Palace. But there was no Buckingham Palace in 1814. Indeed, there was no court and no court culture, and there hadn’t been a state visit to London of any kind since the days of Tudors.
So, in May 1814, preceeding these visits, they hastily tried to redecorate some of the apartments of the Prince Regent’s brothers to accomodate the visiting royals. That’s how bad it was. Though in the end, the Tsar stayed with his sister at the Pulteney Hotel on Piccadilly, renting out the whole of it.
And the Prince Regent’s transformation of Windsor Castle in the 1820’s? Well, in 1814, the mad, old King was still living there with his wife, the Queen, and his keepers; under-financed to say the least, the masonry was crumbling, the plaster was cracked and falling down, there were no carpets, and the whole place whiffed of the 300-year-old drains.
And suddenly the Prince’s building plans seems a little more sensible, don’t they? If he was to be a King of a modern wealthy nation, engaged in the business of being a head of state, entertaining royal visitors from other countries, the First Gentleman of Europe, as he liked to call himself, had to provide more appropriate venues…
As I say…often it’s just a matter of context.