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HM George, King of Greece

Spy (Sir Leslie Ward) (1851-1922)



Watercolour and bodycolour with pen and ink on tinted paper

12 x 7 ¼ inches

Vanity Fair, 21 October 1876, Sovereigns No 12

'Chris Beetles Summer Show', 2021, No 63

Spy’s caricature of King George is a reminder of British, and generally international, involvement in the governance of Greece following its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830. The ‘Great Powers’ – Britain, France and Russia – recognised the country’s autonomy as early as 1828 and, at the London Conference in 1832, established a monarchy in Greece under the Bavarian prince, Otto. He reigned for 30 years, but became increasingly unpopular with native Greek politicians, and was deposed in 1862.

As a replacement for Otto, the Great Powers suggested the Danish prince, William (1845-1913), the seventeen-year-old second son of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. He was elected the King of the Hellenes by the Greek National Assembly in 1863, and took the regnal name of George. At his urging, Greece adopted a more democratic constitution, and greatly developed its parliamentary process, though the country struggled economically until late in the century.

In 1863, the year that George became King of Greece, his sister, Alexandria, married (Albert) Edward, the Prince of Wales and future Edward VII. In 1868-69, the Prince and Princess of Wales undertook a six-month international tour that included visits to George in Greece. Then, in 1875, Edward again visited George, while travelling en route to India on HMS Serapis. These personal bonds further strengthened relations between Britain and Greece, and helped maintain George’s reputation among the British people, as exemplified by Spy’s gentle caricature, which was published in 1876.

A recurrent issue in Greek politics through the nineteenth century was the desire to unify all areas that had been historically inhabited by the ethnically Greek people. So, in 1897, the Greek population of Crete rose up against its Ottoman rulers, and the Greek Prime Minister, Theodoros Diligiannis, mobilised troops, which invaded Crete and crossed the Macedonian border into the Ottoman Empire. When Greece lost the war that followed, King George considered abdicating. However, when he survived an assassination attempt in 1898, his subjects began to hold him in greater esteem. Then the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 made him the second-longest- reigning monarch in Europe.

George and his family lost some power during the opening decade of the twentieth century, as the politician, Eleftherios Venizelos, collaborated with a military league to force a revision of the constitution. Nevertheless, following the election of Venizelos as Prime Minister, in 1910, he and King George united to strengthen Greece’s military capability. So, when, in 1912, the Kingdom of Montenegro declared war against the Ottoman Empire, the Greek army was ready to offer support, so instigating what became known as the First Balkan War. Crown Prince Constantine led the Greek forces, which won victory after victory. In November 1912, King George joined Constantine in Thessaloniki, and together they rode through the streets in triumph. George planned to abdicate in favour of his son immediately after the celebration of his Golden Jubilee in October 1913. However, while walking in Thessaloniki on 18 March 1913, he was assassinated by the anarchist, Alexandros Schinas. Constantine succeeded to the throne.

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