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The Art of Monarchy

A collaboration with BBC Radio 4 to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee

Attributed to British School, 18th century

St James's Park and the Mall c. 1745

RCIN 405954

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St James’s Park was laid out by Charles II in the formal French style with avenues of trees and a long rectangular canal. This scene is viewed looking back towards Whitehall Palace down the oblique avenue of trees. Westminster Abbey is visible in the distance including Hawksmoor’s façade towers completed in 1745. To the right of Nickoll’s view is the quadruple avenue of trees with a wide aperture down the middle, containing a surface of crushed cockle-shells. This was originally created (though at this date no longer used) for a game resembling croquet, called pall-mall, which was why this road was called ‘the Mall’, a name it retains today.

This royal park was kept open for the public, though chairs, horses and carriages were forbidden except by special permission of the King. It became a favourite resort for all fashionable (and not so fashionable) society. The purpose of an image like this is people-watching: contemporaries would clearly have recognised familiar scenes (like the milk-bar) and recognisable types, within the extraordinary variety of the London crowd. The low-life characters are kept somewhat to the periphery of the image: the woman pulling up her stocking on the left foreground and the suckling mother on the right. Three different regiments are represented: two soldiers from a ‘Grenadier Company’ of a Guards or Line regiment with their high mitres chat in the centre background; two Hungarian Officers, the one in scarlet probably a Nádasdy Hussar, appear at the lower left — Austria was Britain’s ally during the war of the Austrian Succession (1740-48); two Highland Officers in government tartan stride across the centre just in front of a foot-soldier. Wearing tartan at this time was outlawed for all except men like these, serving in Highland regiments in the British Army, though disgust at the brutality of the Duke of Cumberland, made sporting tartan a fashionable badge of protest at this time. Immediately behind the Scottish soldiers is a sailor, talking to a friend while a well-dressed black woman, presumably his wife walks in front. Two priests in black walk in the centre right, while further to the right an exotic-looking robed and bearded middle-eastern elder instructs a younger man. Otherwise, the Mall itself is given over to the beau monde, dressed in the height of fashion and saluting each other with elaborate grace and courtesy.

This group is dominated by the clearly-identifiable figure of Frederick, Prince of Wales, speaking to a fellow Garter Knight in the centre of the composition. Immediately behind the viewpoint of the picture was the gate leading to the Prince’s garden at Carlton House, so he is literally on his own doorstep. Royalty had mingled with the public in this setting at least since the time of Charles II, but Frederick’s presence here is a perfect expression of his preference for informality.