We’ve recently been chatting quite a bit about royal family orders, the bejeweled portrait badges worn by ladies from royal families in Britain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and a few other nations. The conversation has often been sparked lately by questions about a future royal family order for King Charles III, but today, it’s an auction that brings us back to this particular topic.
On Wednesday, Sotheby’s will auction a royal family order badge from the reign of King George IV of the United Kingdom. The glittering badge features a miniature portrait of George IV set in an elaborate frame of diamonds and gold and topped by a crown. George gifted this particular family order to his sister, Princess Elizabeth, who was the wife of the Landgrave of Hesse-Homburg.
In the lot notes from the auction, Sotheby’s describes the badge as being “decorated at the centre with an enamel portrait miniature of King George IV when Prince Regent by Henry Bone, framed with single-cut diamonds, within a rose diamond wreath mounted in yellow gold, further embellished with circular-cut diamonds, the Royal Crown surmount applied with red enamel set with circular-, single-cut and rose diamonds, the reverse enhanced with a rose diamond monogram GR IV for Georgius Rex IV, surmounted by a similarly designed Royal Crown.”
George IV was the first British monarch to distribute the kinds of royal family order badges that have become a standard part of gala dress for royal ladies over the past two centuries. The orders are worn pinned at the shoulder on formal occasions. The badges regularly feature a miniature portrait of the monarch, surrounded by diamonds, and suspended from ribbons. George IV’s ribbon was ivory-colored, and most subsequent monarchs have chosen different signature colors. The portrait of King George on his family order was based on this famous state portrait painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence around 1814-15, while George was still the Prince Regent.
The version of the portrait featured on the family order badges was painted by Henry Bone, George IV’s favorite painter of enamel miniatures. Even before he became king, George liked to distribute miniature versions of this portrait to ladies as gifts and favors.
Currently, the Royal Collection holds three of the Royal Family Orders distributed to relatives by King George IV. As you’ll note in this picture, the miniature portraits are almost identical (even though they’re all hand-painted), but the diamond borders surrounding each portrait are different, befitting the various royal titles held by the ladies who wore them.
The grandest of the George IV family orders in the Royal Collection is this one, which was given by George to the eldest of his six sisters, Queen Charlotte of Württemberg. As the wife of a reigning monarch, Charlotte’s order features the grandest gold and diamond border.
Here’s a portrait of Queen Charlotte, painted by the German artist Franz Seraph Stirnbrand in 1827. You’ll note that Charlotte wears a miniature portrait in the painting, but it’s not the elaborate royal family order she received from her brother. (It’s a miniature of her late husband, King Friedrich I of Württemberg, who died in 1816.) Queen Charlotte died in 1828, the year after the painting was made. She bequeathed her George IV order badge to her niece, Princess Victoria—who later became Queen Victoria and subsequently left the order badge to the crown in her own will.
The second George IV order badge in the Royal Collection is this one, which was given by the monarch to his sister-in-law, Princess Augusta, Duchess of Cambridge. It’s still a grand order fit for a royal princess, but not quite so grand as the one made for a queen consort to wear. (The ribbon that was worn with this badge does not appear to have survived.)
The Duchess of Cambridge, born Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel, was the wife of George’s younger brother, Prince Adolphus. Although they spent much of their time in Germany—Adolphus was his brother’s viceroy in Hanover—they still returned to England at times to support the monarch at state events. The order badge would have glittered on Augusta’s shoulder at these drawing rooms and banquets. Augusta left her order badge to her younger daughter, the Duchess of Teck, who in turn bequeathed it to her daughter, Queen Mary.
The third George IV family order in the Royal Collection also belonged to a member of the Cambridge family. The smallest of the three, this one was given by George to Adolphus and Augusta’s elder daughter, who was named Princess Augusta after her mother. Note how much simpler the diamond border is on this particular badge.
Several years after King George’s death, Princess Augusta married the Hereditary Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and she eventually rose to the role of Grand Duchess. She wears the George IV badge on her left shoulder (along with other decorations, including the Order of the Crown of India) in this formal portrait, which dates to the late 1880s. You’ll note that she’s also wearing the original Cambridge Lover’s Knot Tiara and the Cambridge Sapphire Necklace, two famous pieces of jewelry that she inherited from her mother. The George IV order badge stayed with Grand Duchess Augusta’s descendants when she passed away in 1916, but in 1922, Queen Mary (her niece) purchased the badge from them. It’s been part of the Royal Collection ever since.
Intriguingly, the Royal Collection also holds several other miniature portraits of King George IV, some of which were also distributed as gifts to favored ladies. This one, for example, is also ringed in diamonds, but the lack of a crown at the top of the badge signals that it was not given to a royal recipient. Instead, the Royal Collection believes that this badge was presented by George to one of his mistresses, Lady Conyngham.
Lady Conyngham, born Elizabeth Denison, was the daughter of a banker who had married an Irish aristocrat. After her marriage, she courted a string of prominent lovers, including the future Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. She became George’s final “official” mistress in 1820, remaining in the role until his death in 1830. Her descendants remained courtiers in royal service as prominent attendants to King William IV and Queen Victoria. As for the order badge, it ended up in the collection of Lord and Lady Granard, who gave it to Queen Mary as a birthday present in 1926.
But back to the order badge being auctioned this week at Sotheby’s in Geneva! You can tell that this one belonged to a member of the royal family because it’s topped by a crown. King George gave this particular badge to his third sister, Princess Elizabeth, who married the Landgrave of Hesse-Homburg in 1818.
Elizabeth and her sisters remained single until late in life, held back by their parents, King George III and Queen Charlotte, who tried to shelter their daughters rather than promoting marriages for them. (If you’re interested in the lives of the six princesses and their royal brothers, I’d highly recommend two books: Flora Fraser’s Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III and Janice Hadlow’s A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III.) When Elizabeth finally married in her late 40s, she was able to escape her restrictive life in Britain for a freer existence in her husband’s home in Germany.
The photographs of Elizabeth’s order badge from Sotheby’s give us an excellent view of the back of the ornament, which features George IV’s monogram rendered in gems. Elizabeth had no children, and the badge was inherited by her husband’s niece, Princess Caroline, Princess of Reuss of Greiz. From her, the badge descended through the family, to the anonymous descendant who is now selling it through Sotheby’s.
Princess Elizabeth’s royal family order badge will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in Geneva as part of their Magnificent Jewels and Nobel Jewels sale on Wednesday, November 9. Hopes are high for the outcome of this sale: the auction estimate is set at between 150,000-250,000 Swiss francs (about £132,000-220,000 GBP or $151,500-252,500 USD at today’s exchange rates).