LONDON — History remembers him as a mentally unstable monarch who lost the American colonies. But a major exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery here shows there was a lot more to King George III than what’s found in the average history book.

“George III & Queen Charlotte: Patronage, Collecting and Court Taste,” which opened last week and runs until Jan. 9, 2005, showcases part of the couple’s extensive collection of art and decorative pieces. It also tells the story of George III’s long and happy marriage to Queen Charlotte, the former Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

Opened by Prince Charles, the exhibition displays nearly 500 items, including paintings, jewelry, furniture, clocks, fans, porcelain and china, throughout six rooms of The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, which was rebuilt two years ago to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee. All of the items were purchased, commissioned or reacquired by the Royal Collection.

A state portrait of George III by Allan Ramsay hangs on the green damask-covered walls of the Pennethorne Gallery, opposite Gainsborough’s portrait of Queen Charlotte. In the center of the green room is Queen Charlotte’s red, ornate sedan chair.

“Of all the hundreds of paintings we have from their lives, we could only display 40,” said Christopher Lloyd, surveyor of the Queen’s pictures, during a tour of the show last week. “They have all been specially cleaned for the exhibition, and most remain in their original frames.”

The paintings are by Van Dyck, Reni and Annibale Carracci, and are set against the red brocade of the Nash Gallery. The two Cabinet rooms contain small personal items belonging to the late king and queen, including portrait miniatures of the couple and their children.

Displayed in chronological order, the small portraits trace the couple’s changing appearances over time. The entire collection of miniatures resembles a family photo album.

“The display begins with the miniatures the couple would have seen of each other before they met,” said Lloyd. “By the time they met, George would already have agreed to marry Charlotte, although she would have had no choice in the matter.”Queen Charlotte was not considered a beauty. However, she was pretty and shared George III’s interests in music (which he inherited from his grandfather, George II), art and the desire to create a comfortable home. The king bought Buckingham House, which is now part of Buckingham Palace, as a private home for the couple to live in with their 15 children — nine sons and six daughters. Until then, most kings and their families had lived in state palaces.

“This exhibition shows the many interests that bound them together and must have made for a satisfactory marriage,” said royal author Leslie Field.

Beyond satisfactory was the couple’s jewelry collection — another mutual interest. Considering that Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz arrived on English soil with no jewelry and only one dress, her collection was impressive.

Prior to their wedding on Sept. 8, 1761, the 22-year-old George gave his 16-year-old future consort hereditary jewels from his grandfather George II’s collection. The jewels, shown in portraits of Queen Charlotte or on display in cases, include diamond earrings and necklaces, a diamond crown and a large diamond bouquet of flowers. Queen Charlotte’s collection increased in 1767 when Nawab Azim-ud-daula, an Indian ruler, presented the couple with a gift of jewels including seven large diamonds, later known as the Arcot diamonds, named after the Indian city.

However, the most brilliant item on display is the king’s garter star badge, made of diamonds, rubies, enamel silver and gold. The king also chose the queen’s wedding dress: a silver gown, worn with a diamond-encrusted purple velvet cap and matching cape.

George III, who succeeded his grandfather to the throne in 1760, died 60 years later, broken, demented, blind and deaf — and without the solace of his wife, who predeceased him by two years.

But his reign was among the longest in British history and was clearly marked by his love of music, science, painting and architecture — not simply the madness that would be immortalized on the stage and screen 234 years later in “The Madness of King George.”

— Ellen Burney

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