This important bejewelled locket is a rare survival of King George IV’s intimate personal history: an opulent love token belonging to his secret wife, the Roman Catholic Maria Fitzherbert. This historic jewel shows the relationship between the King and his forbidden wife and their chosen court miniaturist. It was these relationships that were most influential in shaping visual culture during the Georgian period. The locket, which contains a chivalrous image of George IV when Prince of Wales by the most celebrated of all Georgian portrait miniaturists, Richard Cosway, R.A., is known as the pair to the well-documented miniature of Mrs Fitzherbert that the Duke of Wellington and the Bishop of Chichester witnessed around the neck of George IV on his deathbed in 1830 which was buried with him at Windsor Castle. The pair of miniatures were each contained within diamond-set lockets and faced with sections cut from a diamond, known as a ‘portrait diamond’. The surviving jewel, which has descended directly from Maria Fitzherbert, thus offers an important insight into the Royal Family’s personal relationships, the opulence of George IV and the impressive creations fostered by the ongoing relationship between the Crown and the pre-eminent jewellers and artists of the period.
Richard Cosway and George IV
The Prince of Wales was Richard Cosway’s most important patron and his favour won the artist numerous important commissions from both the Royal Family and the British aristocracy. Cosway was held in such high esteem by the Prince that he was granted the title Primarius Pictor Serenissimi Walliae Principis (Principal Painter to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales) in 1785. He was the artistic advisor for the decorative scheme at Carlton House, even painting the ceiling in the Grand Saloon. He was Surveyor of George IV’s picture collection, sourcing paintings from auction houses and dealers. Cosway also contributed to Carlton House, as a gift to his patron, four Gobelins tapestries from Coypel’s Don Quixote series which Cosway had been given by King Louis XVI in 1788, and today hang in the West Gallery, Buckingham Palace.1 Much like the present locket, the relationship between the Prince and Cosway was inspired by the Prince of Wales’s liaison with Maria Fitzherbert and it is alleged that Cosway owed the Prince’s favour to a successful early portrait of Maria Fitzherbert now in the Royal Collection.2 Throughout his lifetime, George IV commissioned almost fifty miniatures from the artist, which he presented as gifts to members of his family, friends and mistresses. He first sat to Cosway in 1780 and portraits by the artist quickly became the favourite gift from the Prince to his various mistresses, to whom he often presented portraits of himself. The combination of artistic bravura and intimate scale achieved in Cosway’s portrait miniatures made them perfectly suited to the Prince of Wales’s double purpose of impressing and strengthening his bonds with the recipients of these works. The present portrait, painted circa 1800, depicting the sitter in plate armour, is a rare image of the Prince as a knightly figure, portrayed as defender of the realm, rather than as the attractive dilettante seen in Cosway’s portraits of the 1780s and 1790s.3
Portrait Miniatures: Love Tokens and Royal Gifts
Of all the Prince’s romantic attachments, it was Maria Fitzherbert whom he chose to gift with images of himself and to have had immortalised in miniature by Cosway most frequently. The artist painted no fewer than eleven works for and of Maria, including at least five portrait miniatures between the years 1784 and 1792.4 The frequency and date of the various commissions correspond to the periods of intense attachment and estrangement that characterized the couple’s tumultuous relationship. The aforementioned Cosway inventory lists all of the artist’s outstanding debts, many of which were owed by George IV. There are two entries for the year 1800 which may refer to the present miniature and its pair, both priced at £26.5.0 - the price of a small format portrait miniature by Cosway.
Following their marriage in 1785, Mrs Fitzherbert was given a luxurious home in Park Lane and was showered with expensive love tokens and diamonds by the Prince of Wales.5 Commissions from Cosway were an important part of the couple’s relationship and Maria first sat to Cosway in 1784. Two further portraits of Maria Fitzherbert were commissioned from Cosway in 1786, including a delicate miniature of her eye in a gold locket, and a larger portrait surrounded by a lock of her hair. Around the same time the Prince of Wales was also painted for a companion miniature, which is similarly framed by a lock of his hair.6 In 1799, during a period of estrangement, the Prince gave Maria a gold bracelet inscribed ‘Rejoindre ou Mourir’ (come together or die) suspended with a locket containing a painting of his right eye.7 In 1804 George IV sent Maria a large-scale portrait of himself in full-dress uniform of Colonel of the 10th Light Dragoons, painted by Mme Vigée Le Brun, now in the Portarlington Collection. Three enamel copies of it by Henry Bone, R.A., dated 1805, are known. One is in the Royal Collection (RCIN 405173); another is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (inv. 87/50) and the other, from the Greta Shield Heckett collection, was sold Sotheby’s, London, 13 October 1975, lot 46.
The private nature of these portrait exchanges is perhaps nowhere better represented than in the present diamond-set locket which is centred with a large portrait diamond, thought to have been cut down from a larger stone presented by George IV to Maria earlier in their relationship. Dating back to the Renaissance, the portrait diamond is one of the earliest diamond cuts. The diamond was polished in a flat plane with a large table (top) and simple facets on the sides. This cut received its name as it was typically used to cover a portrait miniature. Following the tradition of royal gifts, George IV showered his family and the women in his life with jewels, particularly at Christmas and the New Year. His patronage of the goldsmiths and jewellers Rundell, Bridge & Rundell (who specialised in portrait diamonds) led to the creation of a number of important royal gifts similar to the present example. According to his accounts with the firm, George IV acquired in 1800 ‘A brilliant locket with picture diamond in the centre with secret spring to hair plait and 16 brilliants for the loop and 8 rose diamonds’,8 as well as two rings set with portrait diamonds.
Portrait miniatures were worn both publicly and privately. A drawing by Richard Cosway of Maria Fitzherbert (illustrated) shows the sitter proudly wearing a pearl necklace suspended with a profile portrait of George IV. When worn privately, they were sometimes mounted in a way which would disguise the true nature of the object, such as a fausse montre frame or a locket with hinged cover. An enamel of George IV by Henry Bone, R.A., hidden in a gold locket suspended from a gold chain (along with a small locket containing a lock of hair under a portrait diamond) is in the Royal Collection (RCIN 52293). George IV’s habit of wearing a portrait miniature of Mrs Fitzherbert around his neck is known from his will, written on 10 January 1796, which stipulates ‘that my constant companion, the picture of my beloved wife, my Maria Fitzherbert may be inter’d with me suspended round my neck by a ribbon as I used to wear in when I lived & placed right upon my heart’.9 The fulfilment of George IV’s instructions was confirmed by his executor, the Duke of Wellington, who inspected the late King’s body and saw a portrait miniature set with diamonds around his neck. It is believed to be the pair to the present lot. Further confirmation that George IV wore a portrait miniature around his neck in his coffin was provided by Dr Carr, later Bishop of Chichester; Sir Frederick Watson, Master of the Household, and Sir Wathen Waller.10
Following the death of George IV in 1830, his successor, William IV, instructed Sir George Seymour, Master of the Robes, to return to Maria Fitzherbert a number of personal items such as the late King’s portrait miniatures. In turn, she had to hand over the letters she received from him which were immediately destroyed by the Duke of Wellington. Maria retained the letters she wrote to her husband, their marriage certificate, the mortgage on the palace at Brighton, his 42-page love letter of 1785, his will of 1796, and a memorandum written by her attached to a letter written by the clergyman who performed their marriage ceremony. On her death in 1837 the documents were sent to Coutts bank under the seals of the Duke of Wellington, Lord Stourton and the Duke of Albemarle carrying the instruction that they remain sealed for fifty years. A long silence about the true nature of the relationship ensued. In 1905 the documents were presented to King Edward VII and were moved to the Royal Archives, where they remain.
Maria queried the absence of one of the portraits from the group returned to her. Sir George Seymour’s diary describes the visit: ‘December 5. The King sent for me to take some miniatures to Mrs Fitzherbert. Paid Mrs Fitzherbert a long visit on the subject principally of the King’s message. She said a small picture the late King had was missing still. It was buried with the King on his neck’. It seems that Maria also wrote to the King about the missing miniature and received a reply from Sir George Seymour ‘The King sent for me yesterday evening to desire I would tell you that he had caused inquiries to be made about the little picture of yourself in a gold case, and that he had every reason to believe it was not removed from the late King’s neck. Sir Frederick Watson confirms this circumstance, which must afford you some satisfaction, however melancholy it will be, and I believe that they are right, as it was seen on his neck a twelvemonth back also’.11
Lord Stourton also discussed the missing miniature with Maria Fitzherbert and describes this in his diary: ‘I have evident proof that the belief expressed by her, that a miniature picture was suspended round the neck of the King and buried with him, was correct. The King appeared to have been possessed of three portraits of Mrs Fitzherbert. At his death, only two portraits of these could be found; and though his gracious successor on the throne, King William the Fourth, promised his best exertions to restore the third, as well as the two others to Mrs Fitzherbert, it never was found. I have this well-founded account, that the third resemblance of her, to whom George the Fourth had, in his early years, been so devotedly attached was, in fact, suspended from his neck at his death, and with him committed to the grave’.12
Despite the explanation behind the missing miniature, it seems that Maria Fitzherbert continued to worry about its fate. Mary Frampton recorded in her diary that the Duke of Wellington talked about the missing portrait miniature with Minney Dawson-Damer, née Seymour, at a dinner they both attended. Minney was the daughter of Lord Hugh and Lady Horatia Seymour and, on their death, Maria adopted her and both she and George IV raised her as though she was their own daughter. Minney called her adopted parents ‘Mama’ and ‘Prinny’.13 Once, when dining with the Duke, Minney mentioned that she could not open the locket and the Duke showed her how to work the secret spring.14 The diarist Mary Frampton had dined with Minney and made the following entry in her journal: ‘1845 – March 4 – The following curious anecdote was related to me by the Honourable Mrs George Dawson Damer, née Seymour […]. On the death of George IV in 1830, some jewels and trinkets were directed to be given to Miss Seymour (then Mrs Damer); amongst others was the counterpart of a kind of brooch, containing a miniature of George IV, set with a diamond instead of a glass. The diamond had been cut in half, and the other part, set in the same way, contained a miniature of Mrs Fitzherbert herself. Great search was made at Windsor for this valuable jewel, but without success. Rundell and Bridge, who had the setting of the two articles, were employed with others to examine, but in vain, and all hope of regaining the lost treasure was at an end. Sometime afterwards the Duke of Wellington when one evening sitting next to Mrs Damer said to her with some hesitation: “I daresay you may like to know something of the lost jewel, but added, perhaps I had better not tell you.” She pressed him however to continue when the Duke proceeded to state with some confusion that in his office as First Lord of the Treasury it had been his duty to remain till the very last with the body of the King, which had given him strict injunctions not to leave it and had desired to be buried with whatever ornaments might be upon his person at the time of his death. The Duke was quite alone with the body then lying in an open coffin and his curiosity being excited by seeing a small jewel hanging round the neck of the King he was tempted to look at it, when he found it was the identical portrait of Mrs Fitzherbert covered with the diamond, for which the unsuccessful search had been made.’ Minney subsequently told her mother the Duke’s story and, according to the diary, she ‘made no observation but soon large tears fell from her eyes’.15
The Greville Memoirs imply that the Duke of Wellington had already shared this information with Maria Fitzherbert: ‘It is true, she observed, that she had been informed by the Duke of Wellington, that he [George IV] more than once expressed his anxiety that a particular picture should be hung round his neck and deposited with him in the grave, and it seemed to be the opinion of his Grace that this portrait was one which had been taken of her in early life, and was set round with brilliants. It appeared the more likely, as this portrait was afterwards missing with then others were returned to her’.16
George IV and Mrs Fitzherbert
Born into a Roman Catholic family, Maria Anne Fitzherbert (1756-1837) was the eldest child of Walter Smythe of Brambridge, Hampshire, younger son of Sir John Smythe, Bt., of Acton Burnell, Shropshire. She was educated in Paris at an English convent run by Conceptionist nuns. She married, first in 1775, the Catholic Edward Weld (1741-1775) of Lulworth Castle who died intestate three months later. His estate passed to his younger brother and Maria was obliged to re-marry. In 1778 she married Thomas Fitzherbert (1746-1781), a Catholic landowner of Swynnerton, Staffordshire. On his death she inherited their residence in Park Lane and she entered London society.
There are several versions of the first encounter between Maria, or ‘Mrs’, Fitzherbert and the Prince of Wales. According to her own account, it was around 1780 near Corney House in Chiswick when she was driving with her second husband, Thomas Fitzherbert. The Prince stopped his carriage to look at her but they did not exchange words. It was not until 1784 that he began to pursue her in earnest following a chance encounter at the opera house, where they were introduced by her uncle Henry Errington.17
The Prince of Wales became frustrated in his pursuit of her, realising that she was unwilling to enter into a liaison with him, and knowing that she had plans to leave the country for a trip to the Continent. On 8 July 1784, in a desperate attempt to secure a meeting with her, the Prince of Wales took the drastic decision to stab himself in the chest with a sword and sent his surgeon, Thomas Keate, to tell Maria that he would tear open his bandages unless she came to his side. She obliged and visited him at Carlton House alongside Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. She recounted this story to her distant cousin and close friend and confidante, William Stourton, 18th Baron Stourton (1776-1846). According to his published narrative, ‘she found the Prince pale and covered with blood. The sight so overpowered her faculties that she was deprived almost of all consciousness. The Prince told her, that nothing would induce him to live unless she promised to become his wife, and permitted him to put a ring around her finger. I believe a ring from the hand of the Duchess of Devonshire was used upon the occasion and not one of his own.’ On their return to Devonshire House Maria signed a deposition drawn up by the Duchess of Devonshire. The document still survives at Chatsworth and includes the declaration by the Duchess of Devonshire: ‘On Tuesday 8th of July 1784 Mr Bouverie and Mr Onslow came to me & told me the Prince of Wales had run himself thro’ the body & declar’d he wd tear open his bandages unless I wd accompany Mrs Fitzherbert to him. We went there & she promis’d to marry him at her return but she conceives as well as myself that promises obtain’d in such a manner are entirely void’. The following day Maria left the country in an attempt to escape the trap set by the Prince of Wales. She left having written to Lord Southampton protesting against what had taken place as not being then a ‘free agent’. The same day the Duchess of Devonshire wrote to the Prince of Wales urging him to delay any decision to marry her and first consult his friend Charles James Fox, or allow her to do so on his behalf. She expressed a great fear of what might become of the couple if they were to proceed with marriage.18
Three Acts of Parliament prevented a legitimate marriage between the Prince of Wales and Mrs Fitzherbert: The Act of Settlement, the Act of Union (both of which prevented a prince or princess married to a Catholic from succeeding to the throne) and the Royal Marriages Act, an act created in 1772 by King George III requiring his consent for any members of the royal family to marry. This act was intended to protect the status of the royal house from being diminished by marriages to non-royals. Despite the illegality of a marriage between the Prince of Wales and Maria Fitzherbert, he wrote numerous long, impassioned letters begging her to return to England and in his longest letter he even tried to convince her that the King would secretly permit the union. This 42-page love letter, which was sent to her with a portrait miniature of his eye by Richard Cosway, and is the only love letter from George IV to Maria Fitzherbert to have survived, is now in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle and is published in S. Leslie, Mrs Fitzherbert. A Life chiefly from unpublished sources, 1939, London, Appendix I, pp. 353-370.
Maria Fitzherbert’s exile eventually came to an end following the Prince of Wales’s persistence and several attempts to track her down in Europe. She reluctantly consented to the marriage which, despite his indiscretion on the subject, the Prince of Wales demanded she keep secret. The couple married in secret in December 1785 in a ceremony conducted by the Rev. Robert Burt, a chaplain whose release from Fleet Prison had been arranged by the Prince, and who committed an act of high treason in marrying the couple. The union was witnessed by a few individuals including Maria’s brother Jack Smythe and uncle, Henry Errington. The marriage certificate, which was drawn up by the Prince of Wales in his own hand, is now in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle (RA GEO/MAIN/50210) and is published in P. Clark et al, Treasures from the Royal Archives, London, 2014, p. 239. The names of the witnesses were cut out by Maria in 1820 for fear the certificate would be used in the adultery trial of Queen Caroline. The marriage remained a secret and their mysterious relationship generated a huge amount of intrigue, speculation and distrust at court, leading to string of correspondence between the ladies of the aristocracy about how to avoid social events with Maria Fitzherbert, as well as a wave of satirical cartoons by Gillray. Rumours about the couple even made their way into Horace Walpole’s letters. The key criticism was not the liaison itself (as it was generally accepted that the Prince of Wales would have affairs with mistresses) but the marriage, which was highly controversial, for Maria was both a commoner and a Catholic. When the Prince of Wales’s debts were revealed to Parliament, and the sum of £50,000 was discovered to have been devoted to Mrs Fitzherbert’s establishment, the Prince of Wales was forced to leave Carlton House and resided with Maria in his Brighton lodging house which was to be transformed by Henry Holland into Marine Pavillion, and later by John Nash into the Oriental Palace known as Brighton Pavillion. Their life was no less extravagant and, for the first time, Maria was able to adopt a more prominent position away from the scrutiny of the court in London. She hosted many literary and political figures on the Whig side and most treated her as the Prince of Wales had wished, though this may have been due to their assumption that she was simply the King’s mistress and not his wife.
The Prince of Wales’s debts became the subject of a debate in the House of Commons in April 1787 during which Fox, in an attempt to set the record straight (as he saw it) about the relationship between the Prince of Wales and Maria Fitzherbert, described the rumour of their marriage ‘so base and scandalous a calumny’ and something ‘which never had and, common sense must see, never could have happened’. Maria felt humiliated by such a public degradation and decided to end the relationship with her husband. He once again threatened suicide and she reconsidered, though she suffered further humiliation by the Prince’s philandering. In the ensuing years he had a series of affairs including one with Lady Jersey and by 8 April 1795 he had found a new wife and married Caroline of Brunswick. Upon his marriage his alarming debt of around £600,000 was paid off by Parliament. After the birth of a daughter, Charlotte, in 1796 the couple lived apart and he shifted his affections back to Maria, and he genuinely appeared to have deep remorse for his marriage to Princess Caroline. In 1796 he wrote his will, naming Maria as primary beneficiary ‘By this, my last Will and Testament, I now bequeathe, give and settle at my death all my worldly property of every description, denomination and sort, personal and other, as shall be hereafter described, to my Maria Fitzherbert, my Wife, the wife of my heart and soul. Although by the laws of this Country she could not avail herself publicly of that name, still such she is in the eyes of Heaven, was, is, and ever will be such in mine’.19 By 1799 they were reunited, following approval from Pope Pius VII, and they shared a number of happy years in Brighton. According to Lord Stourton, ‘The next eight years were, she said, the happiest of her connection with the Prince. She used to say that they were extremely poor, but as merry as crickets’.20 By 1807 the relationship was in trouble again, when the Prince had an affair with Lord Hertford’s wife, Isabella. Maria Fitzherbert and the Prince formally separated in 1811 but she continued to receive an annual allowance of £3,000 from the Prince, who by this time had become Regent, and £10,000 when he became King.
Maria spent the last few years of her life in London and at Steine House, Brighton and is buried at St John the Baptist church nearby. Her marble memorial designed by the sculptor John Edward Carew (c. 1785-1868), shows her kneeling as a widow with the Lamp of Memory and wearing three wedding rings on her ring finger that have been gilded to contrast with the low relief sculpture.
Despite the tumultuous nature of their relationship, Maria Fitzherbert is considered the only woman George IV ever truly loved, admired and respected. Favouring love over convention, tradition, and the law, the Prince of Wales demonstrated a more modern-day approach to his relationship with Maria. The strength of their bond, encapsulated in the present portrait and its now buried pair, is further supported by the account of Maria having died with a portrait miniature by Cosway of her beloved George IV, possibly the present lot, in her hand.21
We are indebted to Dr Stephen Lloyd and to Diana Scarisbrick for their assistance with this catalogue entry.
1 - S. Lloyd, Richard and Maria Cosway, London & Italy, 1995, pp. 73-82.
2 - R. Walker, The Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century Miniatures in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen, Cambridge, 1992, p. 98.
3 - S. Lloyd, op. cit. plates 47-51.
4 - S. Lloyd, ‘The Cosway Inventory of 1820’, in The Walpole Society, LVI, London, 2004, p. 170.
5 - D. Scarisbrick, Jewellery in Britain 1066-1837, Norwich, 1994, p. 303.
6 - S. Lloyd, Richard and Maria Cosway, London & Italy, 1995, plates 52-54.
7 - D. Scarisbrick, Portrait Jewels. Opulence & Intimacy from the Medici to the Romanovs, London, 2011, p. 211.
8 - D. Scarisbrick, op. cit., p. 327.
9 - S. Leslie, Mrs Fitzherbert. A Life chiefly from unpublished sources, London, 1939, Appendix II, p. 378.
10 - S. Leslie, op. cit., pp. 278-281 – Lord Stourton’s narrative.
11 - S. Leslie, op. cit., pp. 279-281 – Lord Stourton’s narrative.
12 - S. Leslie, op. cit., p. 280 – Lord Stourton’s narrative.
13 - S. Leslie, op. cit., p. 161.
14 - J. Munson, Maria Fitzherbert. The Secret Wife of George IV, London, 2001, p. 351.
15 - M. Frampton, The Journal of Mary Frampton: From the Year 1779, Until the Year of 1846, London, 1886, pp. 12-13.
16 - S. Leslie, op. cit., p. 277-278 – the Greville Memoirs.
17 - A. Leslie, Mrs Fitzherbert, London, 1960, p. 21.
18 - S. Leslie, op. cit., 1939, pp. 19-21 – Lord Stourton’s narrative and the Chatsworth Archives.
19 - S. Leslie, op. cit., p. 372 – the will of King George IV.
20 - S. Leslie, op. cit., p. 131 – Lord Stourton’s narrative.
21 - G. C. Williamson, Richard Cosway, R.A. and his Wife and Pupils, Miniaturists of the Eighteenth Century, London, 1897, p. 87.