Last summer I was invited to give a lecture about George IV and the Royal Pavilion at a major exhibition of British royal portraits at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.
As they would fund my trip, I accepted the invitation, but had to ask for the last available lecture slot before the exhibition closed, as there was the small issue getting hold of an up to date passport for crossing the Atlantic. The exhibition Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol, curated by David Bomford – a British curator and conservator who I knew through work on colour – brought together dozens of the best known and most important paintings from the National Portrait Gallery in London, with some superb additions from other collections.
David asked whether I could give an entertaining, informed lecture that would introduce George IV to an American audience, with a particular focus on the Royal Pavilion. How could I say no to a trip to a US city I had never been to, but I knew had some seriously stunning museums and art galleries? It was a long journey from Brighton to Houston, but I decided to embrace this opportunity and see as much of Houston as possible in a few days. I gave myself plenty of time for the visit, and was able to add a few extra days either side of the lecture as, luckily, I have friends in Houston who offered to put me up. That way I was even able to witness the total lunar eclipse that took place on 20 January.
The Museum of Fine Arts is one of a cluster of magnificent museums and art schools in the area, and a 20 minute walk away is another stunning area of museums and public art, the Menil collection, which includes the famous Rothko Chapel. I was in art heaven for a week, and David Bomford and his wife Zahira Veliz Bomford, a renowned conservator, treated me like a royal guest. At first I didn’t know how to pitch the lecture to an American audience and asked David for advice. He explained that I may have to explain a bit more about the line of succession and other British monarchs who had an interest in art and architecture. The exhibition, which was packed with visitors when I went to see it, did not include any Georgian caricatures, so I wondered whether I could show some of the naughtier ones in the lecture. David assured me that they audience would love them, and he was right. I had to pause at times, as the audience were laughing hysterically at the sight of some of the Cruikshanks and Gillrays.
The lecture was titled Talent, Wit, Buffoonery: George IV’s Life, Loves, and Tastes (after a quote by the Duke of Wellington), and it attracted an audience of more than 120 people. I had brought along promotional material about the Pavilion, an offcut of the Saloon silk, and presented a virtual walk through George’s exotic pleasure palace. In the exhibition one of Nash’s Views of the Pavilion was displayed as a gigantic reproduction, filling a whole wall. I was showing a few friends around the exhibition and started talking about the building, and almost immediately dozens of other visitors stopped and started asking me questions. Some of them had not realised that the Pavilion exists and thought it was a fantasy palace, never built.
We should not underestimate the impact of the Royal Pavilion. I suddenly realised how easy it is to forget just what a special historic building it is and how lucky we are that it has survived. I was proud to have been able to represent the Royal Pavilion in Houston, and introduce the curious, creative, strange George to an audience less familiar with him than we are here. And even outside the museum there was a reason to talk about George and the Pavilion: the vibrant yellow of US cabs and school buses is Chrome Yellow, used in large quantities by George in the Yellow Bow Rooms and elsewhere in the building, when the pigment had just become commercially available. Any excuse to chat with some of the incredibly friendly people of Houston. And in case you were wondering, yes, I did buy myself a cowboy hat. I bet George would have done, too.
Alexandra Loske, Royal Pavilion Curator