'A family on the throne,' observed Walter Bagehot, in one of those honeyed phrases which may mean more or less than they seem to, 'is an interesting idea.' Indeed, it is. But during the past two hundred years of British royal history, it is an idea which has embodied itself in two very different human forms. The first version, which has generally been preponderant, has been the 'happy family on the throne'. Think of George III and Charlotte, with their large, playful, gurgling brood, immortalised in Zoffany's delightful conversation pieces. Think of Victoria and Albert, happily ensconced at Osborne, all Gemütlichkeit and Christmas trees, with Landseer and Winterhalter conveniently to hand to paint them. Think of George V and Queen Mary, an inseparable couple, who did so much to uphold decent family values in the rackety era of the Bright Young Things. Think of George VI, Elizabeth and the two young princesses, 'we four', as the King observed with characteristic precision, 'the royal family.' And think of Elizabeth and Philip, whose domestic felicity was proclaimed to the world in the BBC documentary which was inevitably entitled Royal Family.
LRB 16 October 1997 | PDF Download