Saturday, 22 December 2012

Season's Greetings from Ashdown House

Very best wishes for a Happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year from the Ashdown House Blog!

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Lost Prince National Portrait Gallery Exhibition

Last week I visited the National Portrait Gallery in London to see the exhibition The Lost Prince: The Life and death of Henry Stuart. Henry was the eldest son of King James VI and I and the elder brother of Elizabeth of Bohemia, and he died tragically young at only eighteen years old. The exhibition was fascinating on several levels, not only for the light it threw on Henry's life and the wider context of the early Jacobean court but also for the links to Elizabeth.

This exhibition celebrates Henry’s life, his interests, influences, and his place in the wider world. It is a glorious display of art and artefacts from the early 17th century. From the letters Henry wrote to his parents as a child to the highly-decorated armour he wore, the exhibition splendidly illuminates 17th century life in the court of the young heir to the throne. There are full length portraits and tiny miniatures. There is even the wooden effigy that was made to lie on top of Prince Henry’s  coffin, now missing the head and hands, which had been modelled in wax.  The exhibition is sumptuous in its reflection of the riches of the Jacobean court but it is also tragic. It was fascinating to see the expectations that had been riding on Prince Henry and the way in which his public image as a heroic, martial ruler was being built. It was also moving to see the genuine grief that erupted on his death, from the devastation felt by his family to the outpouring of grief on the streets to see the brightest star of the next generation go out: “Our Rising Sun Is Set.”

There was a lot of interesting information on Elizabeth as well and the exhibition provided a wonderful insight into her relationship with her brother. The first portrait of Elizabeth on display was the full length one of her painted by Robert Peake the elder when she was seven years old. Peake was a favourite portraitist of the royal children. The picture was commissioned by John, 1st Baron Harington of Exton, in whose household at Coombe Abbey Elizabeth grew up until the age of 12.  Harington's son, Sir John Harington, was a close friend of Prince Henry and there is a matching painting of Henry and John with a similar background. This depicts a hunting scene and could have been painted with Coombe as background.

John Harington's role in Henry's life was also very curious. It was a period when young men were expected to travel  to complete their education (similar to the Grand Tour of the 18th century.) Foreign travel was, however, dangerous to the health.  William Craven's youngest brother died on such a foreign tour in 1636. So John Harington travelled on Henry's behalf since it was too risky for the heir to the throne to go abroad and he sent back detailed reports of the places he visited. Like Henry, Harington died young, aged only 23, his promise unfulfilled. A print of him in the exhibition shows him holding a baton, the symbol of military command.  Contemporaries considered him the very epitome of a virtuous Protestant knight.

There was also a portrait of Henry on display that had been part of the Craven Collection until it was sold off in 1966.  This had been commissioned by or given to Elizabeth of Bohemia. This really did make me speculate on the relationship between Elizabeth and William Craven (again!) A portrait collection was considered a very personal possession - Charles I inherited most of the art collection that had belonged to his mother and his brother, for example - so for Elizabeth to bequeath her collection to William Craven was, I think, most significant. 

Amongst the other portraits was a dazzling miniature of Frederick, the Elector Palatine, Elizabeth's husband, and a stunning sea piece depicting the departure of Elizabeth and Frederick for the Netherlands after their wedding.  Prince Henry was a great supporter of the marriage between Elizabeth and Frederick even though his mother was not, and he was planning much of the entertainments and celebrations for the wedding when he died. He and Elizabeth were close; they wrote affectionate letters to one another in their youth and after Elizabeth came to court at the age of 12 they spent much time in each other's company and had a genuine bond. This was demonstrated when Henry died. His last coherent words were to ask for his sister. After he died she did not eat for two days and cried ceaselessly. The other portrait of Elizabeth in the exhibition was painted in 1613, shortly before Elizabeth's marriage and just after Henry's death. In it Elizabeth wears a black arm band on the sleeve of her gorgeously-decorated gown and also an elaborate black locket containing an image of her dead brother. Elizabeth and Frederick's son and heir was named Frederick Henry for her brother and the poet Henry Peachum wrote the poem "Prince Henrie revived" to commemorate the birth. It was clear that there were hopes that Prince Henry's intelligent and courageous spirit would live on in his nephew.