23. Portrait of Queen Charlotte Sophia, by Allan Ramsay

by Dr Georgy Kantor – 28 January 2021
Dr Georgy Kantor gives an insight into an intriguing painting of Queen Charlotte Sophia - is this a portrait of the UK's first black queen?
Queen Charlotte Sophia.jpg Portrait of Queen Charlotte Sophia, by Allan Ramsay, H 74.9 x W 62.2 cm, oil on canvas

The art collections of Oxbridge colleges are strange creations, growing slowly over centuries, to no consistent plan. Often, the more interesting pieces end up in our possession by an accident of history. Allan Ramsay’s portrait of Queen Charlotte Sophia, painted soon after her marriage to George III in 1761, is a case in point. Along with Ramsay’s portrait of George III himself, it was a present from the royals to Samuel Dennis, the then President of St John’s, soon after their visit to Oxford in 1785 to attend St Giles’ Fair right in front of the college. Dennis seems to have been quite a courtier: in 1763, for example, he wrote a rather indifferent poem for the birth of the Prince of Wales, the future George IV.

The portrait was admired at the time as an example of Ramsay’s ability to convey the ‘mental part’, and particularly of his mastery of female portrait. ‘Mr. [Joshua] Reynolds seldom succeeds with women, Mr. Ramsay is formed to paint them’, was the opinion of Horace Walpole. A pupil of Reynolds, James Northcote, is recorded by Hazlitt to say (not without a barb at Ramsay): ‘I have seen a picture of his of the Queen soon after she was married—a profile, and slightly done: but it was a paragon of elegance. She had a fan in her hand; Lord how she held that fan! It was weak in execution and ordinary in features, but the farthest possible from anything like vulgarity. A professor might despise it, but in the mental part I have never seen anything of Vandyke’s equal to it. I could have looked at it for ever. I don’t know where it is now: but I saw enough in it to convince me that Sir Joshua was right in what he said of Ramsay’s great superiority.’

It is also part of the story of how a German princely family (and the Queen, an immigrant in Georgian England, remained very German), reinvented itself as quintessentially British. The book under her elbow is a ‘History of Britain’, and there are unmistakable echoes of George III’s famous words in his accession speech to Parliament: ‘Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain.’

This is on the surface, but there is more. The interest in this German-born Queen has recently reached fever pitch with Netflix’s Bridgerton, in which she is portrayed with the perfect amount of aristocratic charm and general disdain by Guyanese-British actor Golda Rosheuvel. Can this portrait help uncover the mystery of whether she was the UK’s first black queen?

A theory gaining currency recently, but first advanced by the Jamaican-American author J.A. Rogers in 1940, suggests that Queen Charlotte’s distant ancestry through the Portuguese royal dynasty included Black Africans. ‘Ordinary in features’: does this convey more? Is this veiled, arguably subconscious, racial prejudice? ‘The nostrils spreading too wide; the mouth has the same fault’, was Horace Walpole’s sneering assessment of the queen when he first saw her. ‘The English people did not like me much, because I was not pretty’, remarked the Queen herself. Opinion is divided; the same Walpole, after all, stressed how pale the Queen was, and his overall description was not unfriendly. Ramsay’s portraits, known for their fidelity to the original, are at the centre of this debate. You can form your opinion for yourself, but it is not difficult to see how Rogers could know ‘a little [Black] musician, whose features, especially the mouth, is strikingly like hers’. Whatever Walpole’s impression and the truth of her ancestry, Queen Charlotte definitely does not look pale in Ramsay’s portrait.

An abridged version of this blog has been published as part of the Guardian’s Great British Art Tour series here.

View the painting on Art UK here.

Georgy KantorDr Georgy Kantor, Tutorial Fellow in Ancient History and Keeper of the Pictures