Poor painted Queen

“Poor painted Queen” (I.3)

Royal portraits: Henry VI, Edward IV, Queen Elizabeth, etc. With commentary by Pamela Tudor-Craig, Ph.D., FSA

Royal Portraits

The taking of a realistic likeness had only been practised in Europe for one hundred years when Richard III came to the throne in 1483. Nevertheless, we would probably recognise most of the royal characters in the play if they came into the room. For Margaret of Anjou; little Edward V; George, Duke of Clarence and his son; Anthony, Lord Rivers; and perhaps Lord Hastings we have only representations in illuminated manuscripts; for Cecily, Duchess of York and her husband, Richard, we have formal images in stained glass, where the artists may never have seen the persons represented, or any true likeness of them. There is nothing at all of Richard, Duke of York, or the Duke of Buckingham, or any of the lesser fry. Alas, the portraits of “Jane” Shore at Eton and at King’s College, Cambridge, are sixteenth century versions of a portrait of Diane de Poitiers.

Posing for an artist had been developed by Jan van Eyck, who died in 1441. So famous was he that Italians went to him when in the Netherlands. The first English Commoner on whose appearance we can rely was Edward Grimston, whose occupation found him in Bruges, where he sat to van Eyck’s successor, Petrus Christus, in 1446. Four years before Henry VI had sent “Hans” to paint the three daughters of the Count of Armagnac, with a view to choosing the best for a wife. Marriage negotiations were a key incentive for portraits, accounting for the best images of Henry VII and probably also of Richard III. There is no pair, however, of Henry VI and his final choice, Margaret of Anjou, and I believe the known type for Henry VI was made later in his reign, possibly in 1470, by an artist who knew the work of Roger van der Weyden. Meanwhile, his rival, Edward IV, was absorbing Flemish fashions while in exile, and probably commissioned not only lavish manuscripts but portraits of himself and his Queen upon his return in 1471. Here we can trace family resemblances: Edward IV was every inch (in all directions) the grandfather of Henry VIII. Elizabeth I inherited much from her grandfather, Henry VII, more from her great-grandmother, Elizabeth Woodville. With the Tudors portraiture enters the full light of day. We have no young Henry VII but he gave two sittings, one with his playing-card Queen, Elizabeth of York, and another on losing her, plus the superb terracotta bust by Torrigiano and his bronze effigies in Henry VII’s Chapel of them both. The Tudors had their own historians, Polydore Vergil, Leland and Hall, as the Warwick family had employed John Rous. A lively interest in British history led to a demand for portraits in the cycle of kings who were heroes of Shakespeare’s History Plays. The fashion was set by Henry VIII, who commissioned the series running from Henry V (the famous profile, perhaps based on a lost votie picture) to Richard III. Henry VIII had inherited Long Galleries at Richmond, Whitehall and Hampton Court. His portraits have painted inner frames of vaguely Tudor form.

The Royal Collection series lie behind all later Long Gallery portraits. When Galleries and, therefore, runs of Kings (with the occasional Queen) grew longer, painters had to look about for images of earlier monarchs. Not realising there was an effigy at Canterbury, they contrived a Henry IV form a wood-cut of his contemporary, Charles VI of France. Richard II’s coronation portrait at Westminster Abbey was rediscovered by Lord Lumley in the decade of Shakespeare’s play. Edward III was taken from his effigy at the Abbey. For earlier kings they were feebly supported by the “Player King” dummies of the fifteenth century choir screens of Canterbury, Ripon and York.

The National Portrait Gallery’s set hangs in the Long Gallery at Montacute, others were recorded in 1590 at Lumley Castle, and in 1601 at Hardwick Hall.

In the early 1970s the analysis of tree rings offered a new scientific precision to the dating of panel paintings. A number of dated panels were plotted, and the relative width of their growth rings used to provide a dating sequence. The “graphs” of undated panels were then matched against the dated ones, and dates for the felling of trees from which their planks had been cut extrapolated. The results were in many cases convincing, but of late the data base has been greatly extended by information from Baltic timber. Moreover, a new method of collecting evidence has been pursued: the boring of cores through living trees to obtain an inarguable time sequence. While the massive new evidence is being absorbed, earlier conclusions have been brought into doubt. For the time being, it would be wise to rely on the traditional method of dating pictures on circumstantial evidence.

Full caption information appears after the exhibit text.

1-3–Henry VI.

1. National Portrait Gallery
2. Windsor
3. National Portrait Gallery

4-6–Elizabeth Woodville

4. Windsor
5. Queen’s College, Cambridge
6. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

7-10–Edward IV.

7. Windsor
8. National Portrait Gallery
9. Society of Antiquaries
10. 1472 Engraving

11-15–Various Monarchs

11. Edward IV, Canterbury Window
12. Elizabeth Woodville, Canterbury Window
13. Henry VII, Society of Antiquaries
14. Elizabeth of York, National Portrait Gallery
15. Henry VII, National Portrait Gallery
16. (Base of text), National Portrait Gallery, Long Gallery Set at Montacute

Henry VI [Windsor and two versions in National Portrait Gallery]: henry6

The portrait image of Henry VI that has come down to us follows a formula in three-quarter length pose, in the description of hands with a hint of arms, and the proportion of head to background that was established by Roger van der Weyden in the 1450s. The king certainly does not look less than thirty in these representations and he reached that age in 1451. Since there is no trace of a portrait of his wife, it would seem that they did not give sittings upon their marriage. The custom was not yet established in this country. It is difficult to isolate a moment in his lamentable reign when Henry or his supporters could have felt sufficiently confident to organize a portrait unless it was at his readeption in 1470. The most striking evidence that the (undoubtedly later) versions we have go back to a contemporary original is the trace in the Royal Collection of an overpainted conical hat. The brocade has been clumsily drawn over the upper portion of the hat, to reduce it to early Tudor proportions, but the shadow it cast over the background is not touched out. Such a hat was worn, for example, by the ‘Man of 1462’ by Dirk Bouts in the National Gallery. Henry’s costume otherwise presents conflicting evidence — the slashings of his gown are misunderstood. He appears to wear brown fur cuffs, but an ermine collar and trim. Gathered cuffs were not worn normally before Henry VIII’s time. Such undoubtedly is the date of the earliest version we have, and I see insufficient evidence to support the thesis that there were two lost prototypes, one of his earlier and the other of his later years. The glazed and open-mouthed expression of the Cast Shadow workshop replicas (NPG) were painted when his periods of insanity were known. There does not seem to be any more evidence for two sittings than there is for Elizabeth Woodville, whose indistinct features in the Royal Collection crystallize into the hardened beauty of historic expectations.

Elizabeth Woodville [Royal Collection, Queen’s College, Ashmolean Museum]:woodvilleelizabeth

Elizabeth Woodville was twenty seven when she secretly married Edward IV in 1464. All the portraits show her as a slightly older woman and her hair shaved and scraped back to serve as the base of a gauze and wire extension. The full ‘butterfly’ headdress appears in the brass of Anne St. Leger in 1470. The image in the Royal Collection has been heavily overpainted and the jewellery may be somewhat misrepresented. The pendant may really be a belt buckle. The panel was originally arch-topped — a form not usually found before 1480. However the extension to make the picture into a rectangle shows the proportions are compatible with those of the round-topped Edward IV. The most likely occasion for painting would have been at the same time as her husband, on his return to the throne in 1471. She would have been 34 and at last, after three daughters, mother of a male heir.

Her svelte appearance accounts well with Mancini’s contemporary description ‘propter forme prestanciam et morum elegantiam’ — beauty of person and charm of manner.’ Elizabeth Woodville following in the steps of Margaret of Amjou patronized Queen’s College Cambridge, and the statute of 1475 called her the ‘true foundress.’ Front Court and Cloister Court were already standing in 1475; therefore, the college had good reason to want a portrait of Elizabeth Woodville. Though it is unlikely that theirs was painted before the late 16th century, it may once have been part of a Long Gallery set.

Edward IV [Royal Collection, National Portrait Gallery. Society of Antiquaries and engraving of 1472]:


In 1967 an engraved portrait of Edward IV was found in a copy of Livy’s ‘History of Rome,’ published in Rome in 1472. The book belonged to Dr. Hartmann Schedel, author of the ‘Liber Chronicarum,’ published in Nuremberg in 1493. Schedel thought it was the Emperor Frederick III who went to Italy in 1469, since he is wearing a hooped Imperial Crown. However, jewels and face establish this as Edward, and at a date close to his recovery of the throne in 1471. The version in the Royal Collection was painted on boards cut from the same tree as companion portraits of Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III, probably recorded in the Royal Inventories of 1542 and 1547, and the source of all later images. Edward’s background is striped, a feature of Italian paintings of the early 16th century. Both the Edward and the Richard are toying with rings. Perhaps the lost original of Edward was paired with his wife. The version in the National Portrait Gallery is in reverse: thereby suggesting a drawn intermediary. Like another version in the Society of Antiquaries, it comes from the “Cast Shadow Workshop” which was active in the production of portraits of the great in England in the 1520s and the 1530s. Most of its mannerisms are found in the work of Holbein, and its exponents were probably lesser artists from Germany. Its distinctive signs are plain green or red backgrounds, cast shadows, and punctilious renderings of eyebrows and eyelashes.

Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville [Canterbury Cathedral glass]:

canterbury cathedral

The religious centre of this great, but much altered, window was destroyed by Richard Culmer in 1642-3. It was a gift to the Cathedral to commemorate the marriage there of Edward’s namesake, Edward I the ‘Hammer of the Scots’ to Margaret of France in 1299. In 1482 Edward IV paid the last of several visits to Canterbury. He was within an ace of resolving the Scots war by placing a puppet king, Alexander, Duke of Albany, with Edward’s daughter Cecily, for wife, on the Scottish throne. If the glass was put in h and in 1482 it may not have been finished till 1487-99, when Cecily was actually married to Viscount Welles, whose heraldic arms also appear in the glass.

The glass has only two original heads, those of the king and queen. They are vaguely compatible with their likenesses in panel paintings. If executed by William Neve, royal glazier, the artist may have known his subjects by sight. Edward, in the Canterbury Glass, looks thinner than in the panel portraits. Perhaps on account of his increasing weight, image has departed from reality.

Henry VII [Society of Antiquaries, National Portrait Gallery], Elizabeth of York [National Portrait Gallery]:


Henry VIII, like his father, was a collector of curiosities. In his day sets of portraits of English royalty were out of fashion and in Cromwell’s time even incriminating. Henry VII posed twice for his portrait. He was only 28 at Bosworth in 1485 and he looks a great deal older in all his portraits. In 1502 the French painter Mynour brought ‘the figure of the King and Queen and Prince of England and of our Queen’ to Scotland. Mynour is surely the royal painter Maynard Warnick and the occasion, the marriage of Henry VII’s daughter Margaret to James IV of Scotland. The even more significant marriage of Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur to Catherine of Aragon in 1501 may have been the original catalyst for family portraits. Elizabeth from the Maynard set of 1502 is still at Holyrood House, and the Henry is recorded. It was often copied. He wears a collar of roses, enamelled, with pansies. He carries a red rose, she the white. The NPG Elizabeth is a Long Gallery replica. Versions of this type of the Royal couple were used by Holbein in Whitehall in 1567. After Elizabeth of York died in 1503, Henry VII was painted, probably by Michael Sittow, as part of the negotiations for a match with Margaret of Austria, daughter of the Emperor Maxmillian. The frame of this picture is inscribed with the information that Hermann Rink, Marimillian’s ambassador who had brought two portraits of Margaret to Henry, ordered the painting of Henry in October 1505. This most striking likeness of the eligible widower of 48 had no impact on English iconography of Henry VII, because the picture was abroad until 1871.

Related link: Many of the portraits listed here can be found in theNational Portrait Gallery.