Happy Birthday, Eliza!
The exhibition “Princess Eliza – English Impulses for Hesse-Homburg” tells the fascinating story of the married English princess on the 250th birthday of landgravine Elizabeth of Hessen-Homburg (London 1770 – Frankfurt 1840). In her new home, the probably most important landgravine of Hessen-Homburg unfolded a firework display of activities to support the impoverished landgraviate. She came from Great Britain with modern ideas, loved her new duties and wanted to be useful.
For the first time, the exhibition spans all of Elizabeth's important areas of influence. Together with her husband Friedrich VI Joseph of Hessen-Homburg, the multi-talented princess successfully promoted the upswing of the then impoverished landgraviate. Administrative reforms, charitable projects and vaccination measures accompanied the modernisation of the infrastructure. Eliza was one of the builders of Homburg Castle. With great passion she expanded the Homburg garden landscape. The artist and collector also owned a wide-ranging library and ensured British-German cultural transfer in Hesse.
Various themes are presented in two separate areas of the castle and its immediate surroundings. They are authentic places and as such are exhibits in themselves: The English Wing stands for Eliza's Homburg world. For the first time since her death, furniture, graphics, cutlery, and even a perfume bottle are returning to Homburg Castle. In the Historical Library, which was commissioned by Eliza, and in the Hall of Ancestors, the biography as well as artistic, architectural and garden design activities of the fun-loving landgravine are presented: Caricatures of the couple's marriage at an advanced age show the biting mockery of British caricaturists. Lacquer paintings, graphics and paintings illustrate the variety of her artistic techniques. A butter stamp from Elizabeth's dairy shows the Countess's closeness to agriculture. Thanks to new research in English archives we learn how Princess Eliza had hundreds of plants delivered to Homburg from Kew near London. These green imports made an effective contribution to Homburg's gardening art to this day.
Eliza is born as the seventh of 15 children of the British King George III and his wife Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The spirited and musically highly talented princess spends her first 48 years at her parents' court, but her life is increasingly marked by her father's mental illness and the massive control by her mother. Eliza therefore tries more and more to escape the oppressive court life and to build up her own existence. However, to this day it is not possible to prove with certainty whether the love affairs and the birth of at least one illegitimate child, which are repeatedly attributed to her, actually took place.
A exhibition film shows Eliza's "first life" in London - with its sunny and shady sides.
As the daughter of the English royal couple, Elizabeth – like her sisters – undoubtedly had instruction with the prominent painters of her time. Not only Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and Benjamin West but also Francesco Bartolozzi and Paul Sandby were among the masters who influenced her aesthetic perception and artistic works. Regular visits to academy exhibitions and the extensive art collections of the British royal house moreover acquainted her with major artists.
All her life, Elizabeth pursued various art genres and mediums. She carried out copies of famous works of painting and printmaking, learned different printing techniques, produced book illustrations, painted fabrics, cut silhouettes, designed the interior decoration of the royal and landgraviate residences and planned gardens. She enthusiastically collected Asian lacquerware and made various pieces of lacquerwork herself, which have survived at Homburg Castle.
Inspired by her parents King George III and Queen Charlotte, Princess Elizabeth began to build up her own collections from the last decade of the 18th century. She was particularly interested in mezzotint, a gravure printing technique popular in England at the time. Mezzotint leaves were a popular substitute for original oil paintings. Eliza brought her precious collection of prints, which consisted of about 20,000 sheets, and an extensive library from London to Homburg. For the systematic cataloguing of her prints and books, she set up a scientific index.
Elizabeth was also a passionate collector of handicraft objects, including earthenware and Chinese porcelain. Personal gifts expanded the her collection. Also surviving are her own designs for porcelain, which were demonstrably made by the KPM manufactory in Berlin.
Woman of Action
Eliza’s arrival in Homburg led to a major phase of innovation in her adopted home. It was primarily with her financial means that Homburg Castle was modernized according to English taste. Georg Moller (1784-1852), the senior building director of Darmstadt, supplied the plans. As a widow, Eliza hosted her guests in the dining hall in the English Wing, a room decorated with rich arabesques:
In the outdoor areas the landgravine extended and modernised the existing gardens along the fir forest avenue, which was laid out in 1770; here she combined the "beautiful with the useful" and a dairy following the English model was established. The yields not only went to the court kitchen, but also benefited the poor and orphans.
The construction of the Gothic House according to English models outside the royal city was part of the landgrave couple's extensive building and renovation programme: streets were newly laid out, including Elisabethenstraße, the Amtshaus and the Rindsche Stiftshaus. The old town hall was demolished, its surroundings were redesigned and the lower gate was rebuilt in neo-Gothic style.
Eliza's Garden Kingdom
In faraway Homburg, Eliza encountered a distinctive feature of her native England – garden art. The reputation of English landscape gardens had already spread throughout Europe by the time she arrived. Her parents-in-law, Landgrave Friedrich V Ludwig and his wife Caroline, had introduced the principles of the English landscape garden to the landgraviate of Homburg in the 1770s, having the castle park redesigned in that mode and a new garden landscape planned and laid out accordingly.
With her extensive knowledge, collecting activities, passion for plants and gardens and, not least importantly, her contacts in England, Eliza further enriched the garden landscape of the landgraviate. Under her supervision, the gardens reached a new prime starting in the 1820s. Today the mighty cedars in the castle park – among other vegetation – testify to the plant transports Eliza arranged from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew.
In the exhibition, various watercolours, drawings and garden plans pay tribute to Eliza’s comprehensive garden art activities.