Our modern world of consumerism, social mobility and a rapidly growing population began 300 years ago this year with the start of the Georgian period, when George I, from Germany, ascended the British throne, the first of four kings in succession to bear the name.
Vibrant and cosmopolitan London was seeing the most rapid change. The Bank of England had been established in 1694, Fortnum & Mason opened in Piccadilly in 1707, and during the century Britain's population trebled to 24 million as industry, revolutionised by steam engines, flourished.
This year the capital celebrates with the glittering restoration of Hampton Court and Kensington Palace, while both these important residences and Kew Palace are running Glorious Georges tricentennial events in the coming months — including exhibitions to bring the Georgians to life — and The First Georgians, a Buckingham Palace exhibition, opens on April 11.
Back in 1714, to the surprise of most Britons, shy, 54-year-old German George, who scarcely spoke English, came from Hanover, Saxony, to sit on the throne, where he and his descendants Georges II, III and IV, would stay until 1830. Newly crowned George I made his home at Hampton Court.
This all happened because, in 1714, Queen Anne died without an heir. A protestant with Stuart blood had to take the throne, and next in line was Sophia of Hanover. However, she had also just died, so her claim passed to her son, George, Elector of Hanover.
George was married to his cousin, Sophia Dorothea, and they had two children but because of Sophia's affair with a Swedish count, she had been imprisoned in Germany since 1694. So George came to England with his 31-year-old son, his daughter, his court, cooks, and mistresses — leaving Sophia to languish in jail until her death in 1726. She never saw her children again.
(Left) The Queen's Drawing Room at Hampton Court Palace, where walls and ceilings were painted in 1705 by Antonio Verrio; (right) one of the palace's Royal State Rooms, restored during the recent £12 million makeover (Image: Corbis)
Hampton Court is a palace of two halves, of which one is Baroque, designed by Christopher Wren, with magnificent panelled rooms, some painted by Antonio Verrio, and with later rooms by William Kent. Since the newly arrived George I and his son, now Prince of Wales, argued violently, the King occupied the King's State Apartments while Prince George and his wife, Caroline, entertained their younger friends in the Queen's. Effectively, they held rival courts.
The state rooms astonish in scale and sumptuousness. The long, panelled Queen's Drawing Room, punctured by full-length wooden shutters, its walls and ceiling painted in 1705 by Verrio with faux-marble columns and ebullient figures, looks out to formal gardens of trees and avenues. This was the hub of life, where a lot of gambling went on. In the long Queen's Gallery, lined with Brussels tapestries, are William Kent stools and huge Delft jardinières. The gallery was used for indoor exercise and dancing.
Newly restored for this anniversary is the Chocolate Kitchen, next to Wren's lovely arcaded Fountain Court. Here, the luxurious drink was prepared by George I's Chocolate Maker, Mrs Tosier. London's oldest club, White's, began as Mrs White's Chocolate House, a notorious haunt where aristocrats drank chocolate and gambled. As well as the kitchen, there is a Chocolate Room, a pantry where shelves held associated paraphernalia. Once, 94 syllabub glasses were kept here.
George I had his own Chocolate Kitchen installed at Hampton Court
KENSINGTON PALACE: TIME TO SHINE
George II and his queen, Caroline, used Hampton Court but soon debunked to more homely Kensington Palace. Built in 1605 as a private country house, it had been bought in 1689 by William III and Mary II. Fast forward to 2012, and after a £12 million restoration, the palace reopened in time for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. A further £1 million has been spent refurbishing key rooms that were occupied by the glittering, intelligent court of George II and Queen Caroline, bringing them much closer to their 18th-century look. Since Caroline was highly educated and interested in many fields, politicians, artists, scientists and poets gathered.
The restoration is beautiful. The best way to the rooms is up the King's Stairs, painted by William Kent with a dazzling trompe l'oeil of contemporary court life. Courtiers then passed through the domed Cupola Room with its ceiling of gold and blue resembling a Fabergé egg, to the state apartments. The Drawing Room ceiling features an oval Kent ceiling painting of Mars, Diana and Pegasus, done in 1725 and still just as it was. This room leads to the Presence Chamber, where, beneath Kent's airy Grotesque ceiling, more than 100 courtiers and hangers-on at a time would mill about, determined to get near the royal couple.
Fifties flock wallpaper has been stripped away, replaced with crimson silk specially woven to a pomegranate pattern by Humphries in Suffolk. The Presence Chamber has a Grinling Gibbons overmantel, while a throne canopy and wide, 18th century-style oak floorboards have been reinstated.
In 1760, his queen long dead, George II died alone in the lavatory. The court swung towards Kew, where the Prince of Wales had grown up. George III promoted arts, architecture, and industry, transforming Britain into a "modern" nation from the place he made his and Queen Charlotte's home: Buckingham House, now Buckingham Palace.
For the full Glorious Georges tricentennial programme, plus entry and ticket details, visit hrp.org.uk.