Art review: The madness of King George

An exhibition remembers a time when England was ruled not from London but from Dorset.

Dorset County Museum's current exhibition, Georgian Faces: Portrait of a County, seeks to display the figures that shaped the history of the county. The pictures, all painted between 1725 and 1800, are rooted in a particularly fertile area of Dorset's long history -- it was a time during which it feared invasion by France, yet, along with other counties in England, moved through an intense period of unrest among the agricultural labourers who formed the economic backbone of the region.

At the other end of the social spectrum dwelled a local aristocracy who, almost without exception, owned houses in London, as well as in Dorset. By the mid 18th century, London could be reached in a day and, as the exhibition's curator Gwen Yarker observes, "fashions, ideas and intellectual currents which shaped 18th-century London quickly percolated into the county." Dorset was not an isolated rural county.

A county-bred based military officer, James Frampton, brought back to Dorset an eye-witness account of the suppression of the crowd by French troops in Paris in 1791, prompting the painting of the military officers who were therefore henceforth to be responsible for, as Frampton put it, defending the county against "all innovations the followers of the French system might try to introduce". Between 1794 and 1799, 13 of the Militia's officers sat for portraits by Thomas Beach. These canvasses survive in a private collection and four of them -- including those of Lord Milton and James Frampton -- are on display in the exhibition.

Dorset has quirky relevance to the reign of King George III, who visited the county quite frequently to drink its water -- which, it was believed, would cure his madness. The defeat of revolutionary France was work that was punctuated by courtly visits to Weymouth, and as Yarker amusedly notes: "from 1795 he and his court effectively ruled the British Empire not from a city the size of Rome or Vienna . . . but from Weymouth".

It perhaps goes without saying that George's portrait, from the studio of Sir William Beechey, is in the exhibition too.

"Georgian Faces: Portrait of a County", at Dorset County Museum, High West Street, Dorchester, closes on 30 April

 

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge