Exhibition review: The Lost Prince - National Portrait Gallery, London

Share this article
Have your say

IT IS easy to forget that that unhappy monarch Charles I was a Scot. He was born in Dunfermline. It is easy to forget, too, that he was never expected to be king.

The Lost Prince

National Portrait Gallery, London

* * * *

His elder brother, Henry, should have succeeded their father, James VI and I, as Henry I of Scotland and IX of England. But Henry died too soon and it was Charles who became king. Henry was born on 19 February, 1594, at Stirling. He is thought to have died of typhoid fever, not yet 18, at Richmond on 6 November, 1612. Six years older than Charles, he was athletic, good looking and remarkably accomplished. Charles was short in stature, weak in physique, had a speech impediment and had perhaps suffered from rickets as a child.

That James had his heir christened with the Tudor name of Henry already indicated the aspiration that he would eventually inherit both kingdoms, although James’s own succession to his cousin Elizabeth who had so recently murdered his mother, albeit judicially, was still far from certain. From the beginning, James was determined Henry would be brought up worthy of that destiny. His baptism at Stirling was a spectacular event. Later, his installation as Prince of Wales in 1610, the first for a century, was followed by a whole year of festivities. His funeral too was splendid, a measure of the grief and disappointed hope, not just of the king, but of the nation.

The exhibition, the Lost Prince, marks the 400th anniversary of Henry’s death. It presents the facts of his short life. It illustrates his real promise and also the aspirations invested in him. The first portrait of him was painted in Scotland when he was just two years old. Wearing a tall crown and a matching coat richly embroidered with gold and precious stones, he is already regal. When he was just nine, he was painted by Marcus Gheeraerts in the robes of a Knight of the Garter, but then in his early teens he was painted in a series of portraits by Robert Peake. They are unlike any other royal portraits. He is shown as an active, vigorous youth, not a withdrawn and formal royal presence.

In one portrait, he is hunting with a companion and the artist has caught him in the act of drawing his sword. In another he is alone and in a strikingly energetic pose confronts us, again to draw his sword. He is not dressed in warlike fashion, however, but in a handsome green suit with ribboned shoes. Mock tournaments and Arthurian and classical masques where an important part of the entertainment of the court. The masques were written by the likes of Ben Johnson and a number of drawings by Inigo Jones record their extravagant costumes and settings. These masques were fantastic, certainly, but were not just fantasy. Rather they were an allegorical projection of the values personified in the prince.

The third of these portraits is of the prince on horseback. He is leading by the forelock the elderly, bearded and winged figure of Time: Youth overtakes Age. In this latter portrait, Henry is wearing armour, but a soft hat, so it is more an allegorical image than a martial one. Two magnificent suits of armour are included in the show. They were made for the prince, although armour was about as useful then as the Royal Archers’ bows are now. Nevertheless, jousting was taken very seriously as a court entertainment. Several contemporary witnesses record that Henry was athletic and very good at these martial games, but they were also another piece of chivalric allegory. It seems the image of Arthur’s chivalrous knights in anachronistic shining armour was a Stuart invention, not a Victorian one.

Henry was to be a renaissance prince, but it was not only his physical prowess that was to qualify him. When he was only four, his father wrote a guide to kingship for him, the Basilikon Douron, or Royal Gift. The manuscript is in the king’s hand. Initially printed in an edition of just seven copies, its purpose was not to advertise the royal wisdom, but to give practical advice to his son drawn from the king’s own hard experience. James’s common sense is still applicable today. He writes for instance: “for Kings being publike persons… are as it were set… upon a publike stage, in the sight of all the people; where all the beholders’ eyes are attentively bent to look and pry in the least circumstances of the secretest drift.” Nothing changes then. Even without the paparazzi, Royal persons were objects of intrusive, public curiosity.

From very early on so that he could learn responsibility, Henry had his own court and his own palaces. He took an interest in building, adding a riding school to St James’s Palace and laying out gardens for Richmond Palace. He also took an active interest in the colony of Virginia, in exploration and in ships and shipbuilding. Following his great-great grandfather James IV’s example, he commissioned a modern warship, the Prince Royal. (James IV’s Great Michael had been the first modern warship.) Henry’s ship appears in a painting by Adam Willaerts. It took Henry’s sister, Elizabeth, and her new husband, Frederick Elector of Hanover to their home in Germany. Henry also built up a very fine library which included books on the new science which at just this time was laying the foundations of the modern world.

Henry took a position distinct from his father in contemporary politics and on the religious issues that shaped them. This evidently suited James as it meant that between their two courts they could cater for a wider range of opinion and so command wider loyalty. A key political issue, affecting Henry directly, was the choice of a bride. Writing to his ­father about the relative merits of marrying a French princess, or one from Savoy, Henry demonstrates a remarkable grasp of the political realities that should shape his choice.

One of the most intriguing aspects of his short career was that he was the first great royal collector. His collection was dispersed, but such pictures as can now be identified, such as Mierveldt’s Old Man with a Shell, are good contemporary art. Even if they cannot be compared to the great renaissance pictures his brother Charles was later to acquire, Henry’s initiative was no doubt Charles’s own starting point for he greatly admired his elder brother. Henry was also the first royal owner of the Holbein drawings, now one of the jewels of the royal collection. (His brother disposed of them, but Charles II bought them back.) Henry also acquired an important collection of antique gems and coins. Their classical portraits inspired several striking miniatures by Isaac ­Oliver. Cosimo II, Duke of Florence, gave Henry 15 bronzes from the studio of Giambologna. They were to promote the suit of the Duke’s daughter, Caterina de Medici, as Henry’s bride. Henry was so fond of them that his brother Charles brought his favourite, a small bronze horse, to his deathbed to comfort him.

All this and yet Henry died before his 18th birthday. Clearly propaganda and hyperbole played a part in his reputation, but his portraits show a young man with a clear-eyed gaze and determined chin –the king that never was. Who knows, like his ancestors James IV and V, renaissance princes who brought Scotland into the modern world – or his uncle Christian IV, one of Denmark’s most distinguished rulers to whom Henry was compared in his lifetime – he might have been an energetic and successful king. In his short life, he had not only become the vehicle for the nation’s hopes. He had to a remarkable degree proved himself worthy of that faith. So much greater was the disappointment at his early demise.

• Until 13 January