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In the late eighteenth century, popular political resistance to the old order was rolling across continental Europe. England came far closer herself to revolution than many people now realise. There was much dissent and political intrigue, and arrests and imprisonment for alleged sedition were common. The Enclosure Acts had recently disenfranchised many in the country from their own livelihoods, and the growth of cities and early industrialisation created new forms of political organisation.

In late 1788, King George III became ill and incapacitated. Parliament debated for the first time the idea of a Regency, that is, having the Prince of Wales rule in his place, with the Lords Commissioners passing enabling legislation without the expressed consent of the King, who was unable to give it. The King recovered, however, and the Regency did not come into effect until he was taken ill again in 1811.

During this period, the Prince of Wales (later George IV) became notorious for his dissolute and extravagant lifestyle, and for consorting with commoners of all sorts. He was, to the disapproval of his father, sympathetic to the Whig leader Charles James Fox, although he remained opposed to Catholic emancipation even while having affairs with Catholic women.

One of the Prince’s lasting contributions to British life was to transform a small South coast fishing village, Brighthelmstone, into the major resort and centre of creativity and dissolute entertainment that Brighton remains today. A spirit of anything goes and cross-class socialising took root here, along with the new slightly risqué but health-giving activity of sea-bathing.

It is in the light of these social and historical developments that we should view the paintings of Martha Gunn at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. Martha remains a local hero, a working class pioneer of the ‘bathing machine’ who is buried in St Nicholas’ churchyard in central Brighton. She made a living and a degree of fame by ‘dipping’, plunging customers vigorously into the sea. She enabled fashionable people and the sickly to take part in this new health and leisure fad. Entering the machine fully clothed, they would therein don swimming gear and Martha would help them down into the sea where they could take to the water without undue immodesty.

The 1790 picture is unusual in the context of previous portraiture – no eminent society figure, no titled lady this, her classical pose modified by very particular contemporary attire. And unlike, say, Hogarth’s sketches of the working classes in Gin Alley, morally degraded through drink and hardship, here is a woman who is robust, ruddy-cheeked and very well dressed. Her social elevation is apparent, her gaze confident and equal to the viewer. One cannot imagine this Martha being submissive or demure in the manner of conventional ladies’ portraits of the day. She has a sense of entitlement and a twinkle in her eye that would not be out of place two centuries later.

To get a sense of how great were these upheavals in social perceptions – and also of how disruptingly un-royal was Prince George’s behaviour – we can look at the undated pictures by Russell and Broughton, also in Brighton Museum, of Martha holding the prince as an infant child. These appear almost tongue-in-cheek references to Madonna and Child imagery – but no saints these. The paintings are perhaps more noteworthy for what they show than the quality of the art, but nonetheless it is hard to imagine the birth of a city captured more aptly by a portrait of two of its inhabitants. The figure of Martha is maternal, sturdy, but also something more than that: a woman of strength and healthy appetites who can withstand the sea, a guide to the infant prince into the pleasures of physicality and unrestraint, providing some form of education that lessons and tutors do not offer. Coming as they do before the advent of Victorian-style control and propriety, there is something free, levelling and liberating about these pictures. The prince is only a mortal body like the rest of us. Not a divine. At the time of the 1790 picture, he was already an adult with famously incontinent and licentious habits – Martha is the queen here.

Martha Gunn and the Prince of Wales

Martha Gunn and the Prince of Wales

John Russell (1745–1806)

In our post-Victorian, post-neoliberal age, we might be surprised to see our newest Prince George photographed in the arms of a working class swimming attendant. But then these are not, perhaps, revolutionary times.

Emma Drew, Art UK Bookseller