This fine portrait miniature, painted by William Grimaldi in 1800, depicts his royal patron Frederica, Duchess of York, and derives from a portrait in oils by Sir William Beechey.
Some of Grimaldi’s most striking portraits are those based on the work of his contemporaries. He reproduced ‘in little’ the work of artists including Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Hoppner and Sir William Beechey, although would not shy away from making subtle compositional changes. In the present work, for example, Grimaldi has omitted the letter Frederica is shown holding in the oil portrait, and has also replaced Beechey’s rather unexciting interior backdrop with an atmospheric sky background.
A great niece of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, Frederica was the only child of King Frederick William II and his wife Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Lüneburg. Her entry into the British royal family was supposed to be a shrewd pairing that solved a complicated dynastic mess in Britain. In 1785, the ever-rebellious Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent and King George IV), had clandestinely married Maria Fitzherbert, a handsome Roman Catholic widow. This marriage was, however, forbidden on two counts: the first was that the heir to the throne was forbidden to marry a Catholic under the Acts of Settlement and of Union of 1701 and 1707 respectively. The first hindrance led to the second: namely, that the king, George III, had not given his consent to the match and certainly would not have given it had he known, making the marriage unconstitutional by the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 – an act that had designed to prevent such embarrassing royal dalliances. As a result, the duty of the siring of an heir to the Hanoverian dynasty rested in George III’s second son, Prince Frederick, Duke of York.
Frederick, perhaps due to his less unruly temperament and his dutiful pursuit of a military career, had long been George III’s favourite son, and so the king was no doubt delighted that the prospects of the family rested in him. Already the titular Bishop of Osnabrück via his family’s connection to Hanover (he had been appointed at the age of only six months), Frederick’s connections to the German lands were already strong; further, as a man of stout martial virtue, Frederick had much in common with the ethos of the militaristic Prussians. As a result, it made sense that he should be betrothed to the great niece of that great warrior, Frederick II. In 1791 Frederick was married to Frederica and later that year the pair moved to London.
The sweet and humble Frederica endeared herself quickly to her new in-laws. Queen Charlotte promised her friendship to the new wife of her son, a promise which she faithfully kept, and the king was charmed by her unassuming personality. Even the notoriously partisan London press was won over, although their attempts to flatter the new Princess were somewhat misplaced. Finding it hard to circumvent Frederica’s disappointingly plain appearance, the press heaped praise on the Princess’s most remarkable physical attribute – her minute feet. It took the clinical eye of the satirist James Gillray to cut through the increasing absurdity of this pedal panegyric on the part of the press, with his 1792 caricature Fashionable contrasts; -or- the duchess’s little shoe yielding to the magnitude of the duke’s foot mocking the press coverage by suggestively alluding to the realities of royal intimacy. Despite the Princess’s dainty feet, the marriage amounted to a failure – the couple were unable to produce children and separated in 1794, after only three years of marriage.
Frederica retired with characteristic dignity, moving to Oatlands Park in Weybridge where she lived until her death. A lover of dogs and other animals, she devoted her later years to their care and kept aloof from the increasingly scandalous affairs of her erstwhile husband. For his part, Frederick led a considerably less dignified retirement, resigning his commission as Commander in Chief of the Army in 1809 when it emerged that his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, had been selling army commissions under his aegis.