On 27 June 1866, King George V of Hanover led his troops into combat against the mighty Prussians at the Battle of Langensalza. Against the odds, he emerged victorious — a feat impressive not just because the Prussian army was greater in size and resources, but because George was completely blind.
He was proudly accompanied on the battlefield by his son, Ernest Augustus, but their celebrations were short-lived: enemy reinforcements would surround the Hanoverians and force George V to surrender two days later.
The Prussian prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, duly annexed Hanover — as he did the other kingdoms that had unsuccessfully sided with Austria in the Austro-Prussian War (of which the Battle of Langensalza was part).
Deposed from his throne, George V settled with Ernest Augustus and the rest of his family on the outskirts of Vienna. He’d never see Hanover again, remaining in exile until his death in 1878, aged 59.
In tribute to his late father, Ernest Augustus commissioned a marble bust of him 13 years later. A renowned aesthete, he chose one of the great sculptors of the day, Jean-Baptiste Claude Eugène Guillaume, for the task.
The Frenchman, who counted Napoleon and Beethoven among his previous subjects, was director of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and would go on to earn the highest rank in his country’s Legion of Honour, the Grand Croix.
Guillaume invested George with an unmistakable sense of nobility: from the tilt of his head, and high-collared tunic, to the ermine robe over his slightly off-set shoulders. And then, of course, there’s the Order of the Garter chain, featuring an exquisitely carved figure of St George at the bottom.
Viewers are left in no doubt of the subject’s majesty. However, there’s also much pathos in his eyes. They’re all but shut, reflecting not just the blindness that afflicted George from childhood but, more figuratively, the fact that in his final years the light of Hanover didn’t shine upon him.
The future Queen Victoria was born three days before George, and the pair enjoyed much time together growing up. As a young prince George had his portrait painted at Windsor Castle
It’s a portrait of great poignancy. Of a man who met a tragic end, but whose beginnings had seemed so auspicious. The House of Hanover had been providing Great Britain and Ireland with monarchs since 1714. George — like his cousin, the future Queen Victoria — was a grandchild of King George III.
She was born three days before him, in May 1819, and the pair enjoyed much time together growing up. George spent his youth between Germany and England, and as a young prince had his portrait painted at Windsor Castle by Sir Thomas Lawrence (a work that today hangs on the Grand Staircase at Buckingham Palace).
Victoria assumed the British throne ahead of George upon the death of their uncle, William IV, in 1837. However, a Salic law of succession (prohibiting female rulers) meant that she couldn’t assume the Hanoverian throne from William IV as well. George would thus become King of Hanover, the two crowns being split for good.
Relations between the cousins grew strained after the Austro-Prussian War. Till his dying day, George refused to accept his loss of sovereignty, and took any chance to stir up anti-Prussian sentiment in Hanover from afar — launching two daily newspapers and a military unit.
He lamented that the British hadn’t intervened on his behalf in 1866. Likewise, that Victoria had discouraged him from taking up exile in the UK. (The Queen’s stance was presumably one of geopolitical diplomacy, her eldest daughter being married to Prince Frederick William of Prussia.)
As much as anything, then, Guillaume’s bust evokes a lost age when royal houses across Europe were part of an intricate web of personal connections — while recalling, at the same time, an early fray in that web, which would unravel for ever in the First World War.
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Ernest Augustus installed the bust, with pride of place, in the Great Hall at Schloss Cumberland, the palace he’d built for his family in Upper Austria in the 1880s.
As for its subject, he is buried in the royal vault of St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle — alongside George III, William IV and a host of the other British royals he called relatives.