Oct 282019

It is interesting to see how the weight and girth of the heir to the throne fascinated onlookers in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. To start with, a silhouette from 1781 showing the outline of George, Prince of Wales, shown courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library site at Yale University. So far so good.

Shortly afterwards we have a sketch of the rear view of the Prince astride his horse. Not too bad…

But we then move on to a rear view drawn by James Gillray, in 1800.

The Lewis Walpole site quotes from the British Museum online description:

The Prince stands in back view, his head turned to the left. His heels are together. His powdered hair or wig has a cockatoo-like crest, worn with a very small queue, round which his coat is thickly frosted with powder. His neck, as indicated by his coat-collar, is grotesquely thick, his coat has the bulky sleeves associated with Jean de Bry, with pointed coat-tails. Under his left arm is a cocked hat. The word ‘Honi . . .’ appears on his garter.’

It is dated 1800 – twenty years before his father died and he was finally able to  claim the crown in his own right, as George IV. By then he was grossly overweight, with hugely swollen limbs, and suffering from a variety of complaints. Most particularly these ‘complaints’ included the fact that the public pointed  him out and poked fun at his figure if he set foot outdoors. Such was the loathing of the British public, who despised their hypocritical, venal, extravagant new ruler, that he became a virtual recluse, imbibing increasingly large quantities of laudanum.

George IV famously banned his wife from attending his own coronation in Westminster Abbey – he was haunted by the horrors of the very thought of her. This gave rise to the final bum-shot, with the King looking at his own reflection but seeing only the queen looking back at him.

‘Reflection: To be or not to be’ courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

As the British Museum site says:

‘George IV, looking at himself in a pier-glass, starts back at the sight of his wife, crowned, looking over the shoulder of his own reflection, of which a cheek, whisker, and startled eye are visible. The crown, which he is trying on, is on his head; on the floor beside him lie his discarded coronet and feathers. He wears a sword, and a sceptre projects from his coat-pocket. The Queen is very stout, and seems taller than the King, looking down on him with a contemptuous half-smile. She wears a necklace centred by two hearts. On a table (left) is a decanter of ‘Noyau’, with a glass. Carpet, chair, and table-cloth are decorated with the Royal Arms or (Garter) stars. The mirror is surmounted by a crown.’
It appeared on 11 February 1820 and was drawn by Isaac Robert Cruikshank and published by SW Fores – and here he is shown as a right royal porker.

A hint of the size of the Prince was shown by his choice of wearing apparel on his visit to Scotland in 1822. Apparently his kilt was so short that he was forced to wear a pair of pink tights underneath his ensemble in order to preserve his modesty and to hide his massive thighs. The official portrait omitted the pink tights – but this caricature form the time shows the Prince with his somewhat meaty thighs.

Not that the caricaturists were any nicer to Queen Caroline of Brunswick, his long suffering wife. To end with, a Gillray picture showing that whatever she was, she was no oil painting. Who says that our generation is the one which is pre-occupied with beauty? Poor Caroline was constantly ridiculed – largely because she was somewhat less than beautiful. OK, she was ridiculed for many other reasons as well, but in general if they couldn’t find anything nasty to say about what she was doing, caricaturists made do with describing what she was looking like…

‘Monimia – Why was I born, with all my Sexes softness!!’  by James Gillray, from 1798. The irony would not have been lost on the audience: here was a woman who was largely devoid of the softness normally associated with her sex; not only that, she was positively repulsive, ugly and definitely NOT one of the beautiful people.

Oct 152019

Here is a nice caricature showing the artist’s view of the scandalous behaviour of the Prince of Wales in cavorting with Maria Fitzherbert. Entitled ‘The Prince’s Disaster, or a Fall in Fitz’, it followed an incident on 1st July 1788 when the Prince went out for a drive in his phaeton, and the vehicle over-turned, throwing both occupants to the ground. Neither appears to have been seriously injured – because the Morning Post of 5th July  reported that the Prince had come to town the previous day and that ‘Mrs Fitzherbert is totally recovered from the effects of her accident.’ The upshot was this caricature, published by James Aitken – described as being of Little Russell Court Drury Lane. It appears on the British Museum site and they describe it in the following manner:

‘The Prince of Wales falls from an overturning phaeton or curricle. He is about to fall on the prostrate body of Mrs. Fitzherbert (left), who lies on her back, her breasts exposed, in an attitude intended to be indecorous. She lies under a steep bank or rock beside a country road. The horse rears behind the Prince.’

Poor Maria – she was always the subject of nudge-nudge, wink-wink caricatures. As for James Aitken, the publisher, he was responsible for around a hundred prints  between 1788 and 1801. His early prints were often engraved by James Gillray and Isaac Cruikshank, but he drifted down to ‘the lower end’ of the print market ie selling erotica and salacious material. He ended up in the dock charged with obscene libel – i.e. selling indecent material. He had apparently been part of a consortium of printers responsible for such masterpieces as Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. He was sentenced to a year in prison with a fine of £200, so goodness knows what happened to his wife and six young children. Eventually Aitken was declared bankrupt (in early 1801) and in all probability died in extreme poverty some time towards the end of the Regency period. More about Aitken can be found on the ever-interesting Print Shop Window site here and there is an etching of ‘John Aitken/ Alias John the Painter’, showing Aitken in the dock at his trial, on the British Museum site.

To end with, a print entitled  ‘The Royal Toast – Fat Fair and Forty’ which appeared in March 1786. It shows Maria Fitzherbert dressed in her fashionable finery – and demonstrates just how uncomplimentary the satirists could be!

Shown courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University.

Oct 052019

New blogs have been conspicuous by their absence during the past two or three months – I have been finishing off two books for Pen & Sword, both of which are due out in 2020. One will be on the great Georgian inventors, artists, thinkers and industrialists whose achievements are so often overlooked – we concentrate on one or two big names and forget the army of other ‘greats’ who equally deserve their place in the lime-light.

The other book is part of the series on Sex and Sexuality through history – my contribution will be a book on the Georgian era. Good fun doing the research – and after my wife had finished reading the proofs she admitted that she had learned a lot!

The next six months or so will be quiet on the blogging front – numerous trips abroad (South America, India and Thailand, the Caribbean and Tahiti/Hawaii) will see to that. Some of these breaks involve lecture cruises with Celebrity, which I am greatly looking forward to. So, I will concentrate on preparing and polishing talks which are destination and itinerary relevant – always a challenge!

But ahead of the 200th anniversary of the death of George III I had been asked to write an article for the excellent magazine Jane Austen’s Regency World, about the king’s funeral at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. I must admit I had never given much thought to the role of the funeral director, but it turns out that there was one family of funeral undertakers who were closely connected with almost every one of the royal funerals in the 19th Century. That firm was Bantings, operating from premises at St James’s Street in London and they were appointed to their role by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. They carried out the funeral arrangements for George III, in 1820, his brother William IV in 1830, and the Duke of Gloucester four years later. In addition, they dealt with the funerals of both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – as well as for many other members of the royal family. They also saw off the Duke of Wellington on his final journey and the company continued to hold the Royal Warrant until 1928 when William Westport Banning retired from the business.

But the odd ‘factoid’ I enjoyed finding out was that back in 1796 William Banting had been born – growing up to become an excellent carpenter and funeral director, a good organizer – and a pioneer of a diet which we would now recognize as the Atkins Diet. In his thirties he started to put on weight and his corpulence led him to try exercise – but he found that this just led him to eat more and put on weight. As he himself remarked: ‘It is true I gained muscular vigour, but with it a prodigious appetite, which I was compelled to indulge, and consequently increased in weight, until my kind old friend advised me to forsake the exercise.’
He tried a starvation diet. He tried taking baths and drinking medicinal waters but to no avail. He experimented with sea air, and all manner of tinctures unguents and potions – even special shampoos. He could not stoop to tie his shoes, nor walk upstairs easily. His weight went up to 202 pounds – high for a man who was only five feet five inches tall and therefore with a BMI of over 33. He was going deaf, his eyesight was failing and he was becoming less and less mobile.

Enter the Ear, Nose and Throat specialist Dr William Harvey, freshly returned for a trip to Paris where he had met the Frenchman Claude Bernard. Barnard was promoting a low-carb, low sugar diet as being beneficial to good health, and Harvey saw Banting as an ideal test case. He persuaded Banting to give up all of his sugar- and starch-rich foods – things like bread butter, milk, sugar, beer and potatoes and to replace them with fruit and green vegetables. He was allowed meat and dry wine, and was encouraged to eat meals four times a day. It worked – Banting’s weight plummeted to 156 pounds within the year – a weight loss of three and a half stone. More to the point, his hearing and eyesight were restored. His girth reduced by over twelve inches and the poor blighter had to get new clothes made by his tailor or he would have been a laughing stock at all those royal funerals….

He lived until the ripe age of 81, a living testament to his dietary ideas.

Shown courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

He didn’t keep the success to himself – he felt that his experience could improve the lives of the working poor, recognizing that their diet tended to be heavy on carbs, with starchy potatoes and bulky foods like bread, and drinks such as beer. So, Banting published his views in a pamphlet entitled ‘A Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public’. It ran to numerous editions and in many ways led on to modern views on obesity, the link to diabetes and so on. But for the first half-century the Banting Diet was dismissed as nonsense by scientists and dietitians and it wasn’t until the 1920’s that Banting’s ideas were fully vindicated. Banting felt that the medical profession would never take him seriously, observing: ‘At one time I thought the Editor of the Lancet would kindly publish a letter from me on the subject, but further reflection led me to doubt whether so insignificant an individual would be noticed without some special introduction’.

It was in the 1960’s that cardiologist Robert C. Atkins put forward his ideas on restricting carbs while emphasizing protein and fats. Poor old Dr Atkins – he had a history of heart attacks, congestive heart failure and hypertension and died nine days after slipping on an icy pavement, hitting his head. He was 72 – and intriguingly weighed 258 pounds when he died, far, far more than Banting in his most obese period. I think you can say that Banting believed in practising what he preached – I am not quite so sure about Dr Atkins!

Whereas Dr Atkins no doubt made a fortune publicizing his diet, well, really, it’s little different from the diet proposed by Banting, and from which Banting made not one penny.

By the end of the nineteenth century the word ‘banting’ was synonymous with ‘dieting’  – as in ‘I need to go on a banting’. Here a cartoon from the Spectator Magazine


And if you want to see what Banting recommended – no exotic superfoods, no weird and wonderful ingredients brought in to the country from foreign climes, just this:

For breakfast, I take four or five ounces of beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon, or cold meat of any kind except pork; a large cup of tea (without milk or sugar), a little biscuit, or one ounce of dry toast.

For dinner, five or six ounces of any fish, except salmon, any meat except pork, any vegetable except potato, one ounce of dry toast, fruit, any kind of poultry of game, and two or three glasses of good claret, sherry or Madeira — Champagne, port and beer forbidden.

For tea, two or three ounces of fruit, a rusk or two, and a cup of tea without milk or sugar.

For supper, three or four ounces of meat or fish, similar to dinner, with a glass or two of claret.

For nightcap, if required, a tumbler of grog — (gin, whisky, or brandy, without sugar) — or a glass or two of claret or sherry.

It may be Aldi – but it is champagne…!

I must say I warm to anyone who recommends a diet with plenty of beef and chicken, washed down with good claret and brandy – but I think I will pass on the idea of kidneys for breakfast, if you don’t mind! And I am sorry, but a diet without champagne is a complete no-no…..