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5 April 2011

Art review: The madness of King George

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

By Aime Williams

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”.

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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