The Lost Prince

Although our blog usually focusses on portraits painted with oils on canvas, today I wanted to share a beautiful likeness drawn on paper, using pencil and white chalk.

Prince Henry

Prince Henry Fredrick Stuart was the eldest son of King James I and Queen Anne of Denmark. Brother to the ill-fated Charles I, Henry was seen as the great hope for the future of the Stuart dynasty. Confident and assured, Henry was immensely popular and loved by the people, while his personal household was one of  learning, culture and art.

Tragically, Henry’s great promise was lost when he died of typhoid fever at the age of just 18, leaving a heartbroken nation in mourning. Surely no heir to the throne, except perhaps Prince Arthur, elder brother of King Henry VIII, has caused such a devastating change in the country’s fortunes and future, simply by dying young. Where Prince Arthur’s early death led, thanks to his brother’s subsequent succession, to the English Reformation and the split from the Pope in Rome, Henry’s death brought about the reign of younger brother Charles, whose lost grip on his nobility and Parliament led to the horrors of the English Civil Wars. How would the 17th century have unfolded had Prince Henry not fallen ill? We can only imagine how England’s landscape would look today had he lived.

This sketch, attributed to Constantino de’ Servi, was created around 1611. Until 2016 it was held in a private collection in France, and is now at the Weiss Gallery in London.

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In need of some TLC

I sometimes wonder what goes through the mind of a sitter, as he poses in front of his chosen artist, watching them make the preliminary sketches on paper, or the first brushstrokes on canvas. In the case of those painted in the 16th or 17th centuries especially, did they ponder where their likeness would find itself, hundreds of years later? Did he or she hope it would survive the centuries unscathed, or were they unbothered, distracted by the more pressing concerns of the day?

A painting is always made more  interesting when its own history, and not just that of the sitter portrayed, offers up a question mark about its past, and sometimes it’s the overlooked and forgotten ones that offer the best stories.

Joseph Williamson

This dirty and neglected gentleman is Sir Joseph Williamson (1633-1701), an English MP whose other appointments included, among others, Fellow of Queen’s College, Oxford, a Secretary of State, President of the Royal Society, and Keeper of the King’s Library at Whitehall. He also made an appearance in Samuel Pepys’ diary.

The seller claims the picture came from a private Bedfordshire estate, and was for many years left in storage, gathering dust and taking damage to its original antique frame. For a man with such varied and important roles in the running of both his locality and the country itself, he may not have been amused to see how his self-assured and self-important portrait ended up.

I’d be curious to know how the unnamed Bedfordshire estate came to own the picture, and if it had any personal connection to Williamson. If it did, surely that would be a sadder neglect than if it had been simply purchased at auction. He isn’t alone, though. There will be countless similar images sitting in vaults, attics or warehouse storage today, their sitters’ original hopes or intentions for their posterity now long-forgotten.

Yet Williamson is luckier than most. This painted impression of him may have spent its recent years in obscurity, but unlike other such sitters whose identities are lost forever, his memory has survived into the modern age and lives on in the Mathematical School in Rochester bearing his name. He was also married to a cousin of the king, and later buried at Westminster Abbey,  so perhaps in this case some dust and cobwebs wouldn’t upset him too much.  History hasn’t forgotten him after all!

Sir Joseph’s portrait is for sale HERE  at the current asking price of just £366, with Sir Godfrey Kneller suggested as the artist. I’m not familiar enough with his work to judge, although it does seem a little understated and modest in comparison to the one below that is by Kneller, copyright of the Royal Society.  Perhaps if the first had a serious clean, though, we may be surprised!

Joseph Williamson by Kneller

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