On 15 December 1785, the Prince of Wales — the future George IV — secretly married the love of his life, the Catholic Maria Fitzherbert, in the drawing room of her Park Street townhouse in Mayfair. The only two witnesses were her brother and uncle, the service being conducted by the Reverend Robert Burt, whose release from Fleet Prison was orchestrated by the Prince of Wales so that he could marry the pair. No other chaplain would dare marry the couple, for fear of committing an act of treason.
George and Maria had met at the opera a year earlier, and although she took some winning over, in his case it seems to have been love at first sight. The trouble was that Maria was both Roman Catholic and lacking a drop of royal blood. ‘There were at least three acts of parliament that forbade a marriage such as theirs,’ says Jo Langston, Head of Miniature Portraits at Christie’s, where one of the most striking tokens of their affection appears at auction, offered in The Exceptional Sale on 6 July.
The Maria Fitzherbert jewel. A diamond-glazed gold locket containing a portrait miniature of King George IV when Prince of Wales (1762-1830). The portrait miniature, on ivory, by Richard Cosway, R.A. (British, 1742-1821), the locket almost certainly supplied by Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, London, circa 1800. Oval, 37 mm high, including the suspension loop, the locket's cover centred with a portrait diamond measuring approx. 17 x 15 x 0.9 mm, surrounded by 24 rose-cut diamonds, diamond-set suspension loop, gold push-pin to release a spring mechanism. Estimate: £80,000-120,000 / $110,000-150,000. This lot is offered in The Exceptional Sale on 6 July 2017 at Christie’s in London
The token in question is a gold locket, set with 24 rose-cut diamonds. It contains a tiny portrait of George and boasts another larger, completely transparent diamond — known as a portrait diamond — as its cover. It was probably commissioned by the Prince of Wales, as part of a ‘his-and-hers’ pair, from London jewellers and silversmiths Rundell, Bridge & Rundell in about 1800. The corresponding locket contained a picture of Maria, and George cherished it so dearly that he was wearing it on his deathbed 30 years later. The portraits in both were by Richard Cosway, his official miniature painter.
The Maria Fitzherbert jewel. Estimate: £80,000-120,000 / $110,000-150,000. This lot is offered in The Exceptional Sale on 6 July 2017 at Christie’s in London
‘Miniature portraits by Cosway were common gifts from George IV to those close to him,’ explains the specialist. ‘He commissioned around 50 in total, 11 of those either for or of Maria.’ By far the most opulent were the diamond-laden portrait of himself now heading for auction, which has remained in Fitzherbert’s family ever since, and the counterpart portrait of her, which he wore himself.
At the time the lockets would have been exchanged, the Prince of Wales was married to someone else: his cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. He had been pressured to marry Caroline in an effort to secure an heir and legitimate successor for the House of Hanover. After initial reluctance, the Prince of Wales, who led an extravagant existence, was ultimately swayed by Parliament’s promise to write off his vast debts of around £600,000 — tens of million of pounds in today’s terms — if he did so.
James Gillray (1756-1815), Wife & No Wife, or, A Trip to the Continent, 1786 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Rumours of the secret marriage of George IV led to speculation and a wave of satirical images. Here, the couple is seen in an imagined elopement in a Catholic church somewhere on the Continent. Charles James Fox (1749-1806) gives Maria Fitzherbert away, in loco parentis, while the Whig MP, Edmund Burke (1729-1797), conducts the ceremony dressed as a Jesuit. The sleeping figure is Frederick, Lord North (1732-1792), and he is portrayed as the coachman who drove the wedding party to the secret wedding location.
‘It was a joyless marriage to Caroline,’ Langston explains. ‘Maria Fitzherbert was the love of his life.’ Indeed, his reaction to setting eyes on Caroline for the first time, on their wedding day in 1795, had hardly boded well, George reportedly exclaimimg, ‘I’m not well. Pray, get me a glass of brandy.’
Husband and wife soon separated, and the Prince — reunited with Maria — spent a number of happy years with her in the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.
As Prince Regent — a role he assumed in 1811 due to his father George III’s descent into madness — however, George became increasingly interested in other women. Maria, in turn, devoted more and more time to bringing up Minney Seymour, the orphan daughter of two friends of hers, whom she adopted.
The Prince Regent became King George IV in 1820 and ruled for 10 years. George IV’s will of 1796 specified that he was to be buried wearing a portrait miniature of Maria Fitzherbert, whom he described as ‘my wife, the wife of my heart and soul’. On the King’s death, the Duke of Wellington (the King’s executor) witnessed a portrait miniature set with diamonds around his neck.
Richard Cosway, R.A. (1742-1821). A drawing of Maria Fitzherbert wearing a portrait miniature of George IV when Prince of Wales around her neck, 1789
Some years later, when dining with Minney Seymour, the Duke identified the pendant as the pair to the one he had seen around the late King’s neck, which had been buried with him at Windsor Castle. Minney subsequently told her mother the Duke’s story and ‘large tears fell from Maria’s eyes’.
‘It is highly likely,’ says the specialist, ‘that the pendant identified by the Duke of Wellington on that occasion is the diamond-set example that we see before us today.’