Friday, September 7, 2012

A First Introduction

I was recently browsing the 1807 edition of La Belle Assemblee and encountered this Plate which immediately captured my attention and imagination:

I was struck by its formality, its obviously eminent subject matter, and the detail of its presentation. I hope you will click on the picture to view it in a larger format--this small version does not do it justice.

The picture was included in La Belle Assemblee as "Frontispiece to Number Nineteen being the Supplement to the Second Volume". A long-winded title to a Plate that was included as an historical item of interest. The event it commemorates took place in 1802 and is described as:
...the first introduction of the Emperor Alexander of Russia to the Queen of the King of Prussia...
...the first germ of a political connection between two illustrious Princes...
The Queen Consort of Prussia was Duchess Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (born Luise Auguste Wilhelmine Amalie 10 March 1776). She married Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia in 1793 and born him nine children until her early death in 1810. She was a politically active consort after the Crown Prince succeeded as King of Prussia, a beautiful and intelligent woman of, by all accounts, great ability.

I believe she is wearing the same diadem in the picture above as in the large Plate.

The King of Prussia Frederick William III was, it seems an ineffectual ruler. The Explanation accompanying the Plate, describes him as "...decidedly in favour of of a pacific system, in other words, of a system of compromise and expediency..."

He is, I believe, the right-hand figure of the two central men.

Emperor Alexander of Russia had succeeded only a year before to his throne, on the death of his father by assassination. He was only 24 at the time of his coronation, full of enthusiasm, and a mass of contradictions. Metternich thought him a madman, Jefferson believed him a 'man of estimable character' and Castlereagh thought him 'suspicious and undecided'. Bonaparte called him "a shifty Byzantine".

And Napoleon Bonaparte was what this meeting was all about. The Prussians and the Russians entered into an alliance intended to deal with Bonaparte. In a staggeringly inept fashion, first supporting France, then opposing Napoleon's aims, occasionally protected by the French dictator then oppressed and conquered by him, the two countries reeled through the next twelve years, sometimes in concert, sometimes in opposition.

I must admit that the politics of the meeting are not of paramount interest to me. The representation of the encounter and the additional characters are. The elder lady on the far left of the Plate is noted as Countess Vonness. I have been unable to find any information about her; presumably she was a sort of lady-in-waiting. The two uniformed gentlemen on the far right are listed as Prince William and Prince Henry of Prussia, brothers of the King. Their anglicized names are more correctly Prince Wilhelm who lived from 1783 to 1851 and Prince Heinrich Friedrich Karl, 1781-1846. They both served their country ably and resolutely until their deaths.

I was struck by how closely the prince on the left in the Plate resembled George Prince of Wales. Of course, the German family history was nearly connected, and the nose, chin, and mouth display a shared lineage.
George, Prince of Wales
The artist of the portrait from which the Plate was made (which was commissioned by the King of Prussia) is not disclosed, unfortunately. He is merely noted as "celebrated" and "eminent". The engraver, on the other hand, is listed as Bolt, a name unknown to me. The group portrait was an amalgamation of individual portraits done for this specific purpose.

The Plate is so evocative of its era, and offers so much history and personality in a single picture. I feel so fortunate to have found it.

'Til next time,



Anne Gallagher said...

Great stuff here, Lesley-Anne. I wrote a short story involving the Russians and Bonaparte recently. So far it's been very well received.

Researching history is fascinating, even if you never use half of it.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thanks, Anne! Where is your story available? I'd like to read it.