Kings and Queens

Royal portraiture was a tricky thing. In a world where an official painting (or an engraving of it) was, for many people, the only opportunity they had to lay eyes on their monarch, the portrayal of royalty had to show strength, power and confidence, not just to the people they ruled, but to relatives, friends and, most importantly, adversaries and enemies. Think of Henry VIII’s supremely arrogant, hands-on-hips ‘don’t mess with me’ poses. Even today that image gives us a sense of the character and reputation of the man, and adds colour and shape to what we know of him on paper.

The Stuarts, too, commissioned numerous portraits, although some were more reluctant than others. James I was said to be uncomfortable with the process, and this comes across in awkward and stiff poses. While he was merely unenthused by the whole idea, there is little suggestion that he was uncertain of his role as king, only that he wouldn’t have been the kind of ruler who liked pasting selfies all over Instagram. Compare this with the images we have of Charles I, trying his best to appear strong and capable, when he frequently appears uncertain and troubled, particularly during the conflict in the 1640s when chaos reigned rather than him. In such times we would expect his portraits to show a man absolutely confident and in control, a king who needed his people to get behind him, yet Dobson’s portraits give us a man who is far from confident or assured of victory, despite the haughty expression and rich clothes of state.

So here’s a look at how the Stuart kings and consorts showed us their game-faces, some with more success than others!

James I van Somer I
King James I of England, before 1621, by Paul van Somer
©Museo del Prado, Madrid

Anne of Denmark2
Queen Anne of Denmark, 1614, attrib. Marcus Gheerearts the Younger
©The Royal Collection

Charles I Hamptn Ct Dobson
King Charles I, c.1640-1646, by William Dobson
©The Royal Collection

Van Dyck Henrietta Maria em MN575 l
Queen Henrietta Maria, c. late 1630s, by Anthony Van Dyck
©Philip Mould Ltd

Charles II NPG
King Charles II, c. 1660-1665, by John Michael Wright
©National Portrait Gallery, London

490px-Catherine_of_Braganza_-_Lely_1663-65
Queen Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Charles II, 1665, by Sir Peter Lely
©Philip Mould Ltd

James II Kneller
King James II, 1683, by Sir Godfrey Kneller
©Government Art Collection

Anne_Hyde_by_Sir_Peter_Lely
Anne Hyde, Duchess of York  (first wife of the future King James II), c.1662, by Sir Peter Lely

484px-Mary_of_Modena_Pietersz
Mary of Modena, second wife and Queen Consort of King James II, 1680, by Simon Petersz Verelst

Dobson

What I love about 17th century portraiture is that you can watch its artistic development changing as the decades pass,  from the end of the Tudors to the beginning of the Stuarts, through the Civil War and on into the Restoration.  Beginning with the likes of William Peake and John de Critz in the opening years of the century, to Daniel Mytens, Peter Paul Rubens, Antony Van Dyck, William Dobson, Godfrey Kneller and Peter Lely, each decade seems to have its own illustrator to tell its story.

You can also chart the events of the period through its art, from the death of Elizabeth and the end of the Tudor dynasty in 1603, through King James’s court to the unsettled and nervous reign of Charles I, into the austere war years, and on to the glamour of Charles II’s restored monarchy. For me, no other period in British history can be so well-defined by those that painted it.

There were many memorable artists  working in England during the 17th century, but my favourite of them all is William Dobson.

William Dobson
“Portrait of the Artist”, possibly c.1645/6, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Dobson was an Englishman, born in St Albans in 1611 and trained in London with what seems to have been an ordinary painter’s apprenticeship. What is remarkable about him is that he wasn’t famous or well-travelled like Sir Antony Van Dyck or Rubens, both of whom worked for the most prestigious and influential people across Europe, nor did he have a distinguished education or career to recommend him, yet somehow, by the end of 1642, he had left London and was living in Oxford as the court painter to King Charles I. We have no idea how he got the job, but the works he produced of the Royalist supporters during four years of civil war became the eye-witness images of the conflict that we recognise today.  The Parliamentarian side had their own painter, Robert Walker, whose work we know by his many portraits of Oliver Cromwell, and other artists were also present during the period, but no name is as closely associated with the tragedy of the English Civil War as William Dobson. His ability to portray ‘real’ people, with their flaws and vulnerabilities,  is what makes his work so poignant and moving. Take this painting of the troubled King Charles, for example. I’ve not seen any other royal picture, of any king or queen, painted more honestly than this.

Charles I
“Charles I” c. 1642-1646, ©HistoricalPortraits.com/Philip Mould Ltd
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