Queen Anne: Patroness Of The Arts, by James Anderson Winn - book review


The eventfulness of the last Stuart monarch’s 12-year reign, from 1702 to 1714, compensates for its brevity. Among other things Anne and her administrations dealt with union with Scotland, ongoing war in Europe, the far-reaching 1714 Treaty of Utrecht, ongoing worry about the succession, and the ever-present Jacobites. On a personal level, meanwhile, the never-healthy, and eventually morbidly obese, Anne faced continual failed pregnancies and the deaths of her only living child in 1700 and of her husband, Prince George of Denmark, in 1708.

But James Anderson Winn’s angle on Anne’s life is unusual. His thesis is that she was much more than a sad, sick woman who failed to give her country an heir. Not only, he contends, was she a highly skilled administrator, competent politician, and fair employer, she was also a lifelong and significant patron of the arts. A musician herself, she commissioned works from composers such as Purcell, Jeremiah Clark, and Handel. Anderson Winn’s scrupulous research, sometimes arguably too detailed, reveals programmes for almost every event in Anne’s life. He has, for example, found 28 instances of music written and performed for Anne, most of it hitherto lost in obscurity. His book reproduces the stave music, analysed with technical skill, for these. Moreover, the punctilious author has had the pieces recorded. Readers can hear them via a companion website.

Anne also liked theatre and Anderson Winn’s starting point is her taking part in childhood amateur dramatics with her older sister Mary, later the wife of William of Orange and Anne’s joint predecessor on the throne. Anderson Winn shows us the adult Anne struggling to get on with her dour sister and humourless, parsimonious brother-in-law. One of her first actions as queen was to pay William’s servants decent pensions and to hire musicians – both partly reactions to William’s meanness and philistinism. And she encouraged poets and playwrights even when, like Pope and Swift, they weren’t exactly on her side.

Winn Anderson contends that art and politics reflect each other. And his interesting book certainly convinces the reader that the arts were central to Anne’s life and rule. It might have been better though if he had structured her biography chronologically rather than presenting it in discursive chapters loosely themed on events. It is infuriatingly easy to lose the thread in a narrative which continually doubles back on itself.