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The bust figurehead of George III from the Royal Yacht 'Royal George' (1817)

FHD0099
Figureheads

Object connections:

Collection Figureheads
ExhibitionsThe Atlantic: Slavery, Trade, Empire, Enslavement and Resistance
Gallery locationNot on display
PeopleDepiction: King George III
VesselsRoyal George 1817 (HMY)

Object details:

Object ID FHD0099
Description The figurehead of the Royal Yacht ‘Royal George’ shows George III in the guise of a Roman emperor, wearing a laurel wreath, a signifier of victory. On either side are two kneeling African men with hands clasped (although the arms of the figure on the king’s right have been damaged). The yacht was built at Deptford Dockyard and launched in 1817, just two years after the final defeat of France at the Battle of Waterloo. The iconography of the figurehead has been the subject of some debate, but it almost certainly celebrates Britain’s ultimate success in the long Napoleonic Wars, hence the victor’s laurel worn by the king. The status and purpose of the two attending figures are unclear. While they may represent vanquished foes begging for mercy from the victor, it is more likely that they are ‘supporters’ in the heraldic sense, with their supplicant pose designed further to elevate the monarch’s regal status. The stance of the African men has drawn obvious comparison with the famous kneeling figure on Wedgwood’s anti-slavery plague, which was produced in the late 1780s with the motto ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ This powerful and highly adaptable piece of abolitionist propaganda became the symbol of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The yacht was launched a decade after parliamentary legislation abolished the British slave trade in 1807. It is tempting to suppose that the imagery of the figurehead might allude to the abolition campaign or be a commentary on the fact that the British trade ended during George III’s reign. But it is very unlikely indeed that such an overt political statement, seemingly a direct alignment of the monarch with the abolitionist cause, would be incorporated into the iconography of a royal yacht. Moreover, although the figures kneel in a similar imploring gesture, they are not a direct copy of the Wedgwood design, where the beseeching African is clearly enslaved and bound in chains. However, given their immediate proximity to the king, it would be perfectly appropriate for any figure – human, animal or mythological – to be depicted in a deferential stance. It is, therefore, a distinct probability that any resemblance to the abolitionist emblem is coincidental. All of this makes the celebration of national victory a far more plausible interpretation. The ‘Royal George’ was used by George IV for his tour of Scotland in 1822. Twenty years later, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert employed the yacht for their first visit to Scotland. However, the queen thought the sailing vessel outdated and a new steam yacht, ‘Victoria and Albert’, was launched in 1843. Eventually converted into an accommodation vessel, the ‘Royal George’ was finally broken up in 1905.
Date made 1817

Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Royal United Service Institution Collection
Materials mahogany; lead paint
Measurements Overall: 1930 mm x 914 mm x 1016 mm x .2096 ton
Parts
  • The bust figurehead of George III from the Royal Yacht 'Royal George' (1817) (FHD0099)
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