Looking beyond the crown: Britain’s most insightful royal portraits (1500-1800)


As far as the history tells, the English monarch began systematically commissioning portrait paintings during the reign of Henry III. In around 1270, he began funding the small circle of Plantagenet court painters that produced the Westminster Retable and Wilton Diptych. For decades these elite craftsmen produced portraits that depend upon the ancient Egyptian style profile, immediately expressive of indifferent divine rule. Propelled by the arrival of increasing internationalism and the declining reliability of genealogical legitimacy, royal portraits finally began to turn expansively towards us during the Tudor age. This new interest in individualism was not simply dependent upon likeness, but upon the material terms of the portrait’s creation, carefully considering a sitter’s surroundings, age and circumstance. Newly embraced as tools of interpersonal connection, these portraits boldly risk monarchic authority in favour of becoming remarkably nuanced projections of power’s complex interdependency.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), By François Clouet (1561)

Our first painting also happens to be the distinct outlier of the set, being neither painted in England nor using an English monarch as it’s subject. Capturing a 19-year-old Mary whilst she was still living in France, it shows a queen yet to properly claim her Scottish kingdom. The image works in much a similar way as the epoch defining portrait of King Henry VII from 1505. Like Henry, she is shown in half-profile, gazing straight out at us and bound within a frame of golden oak. In addition, we can be confident that both images capture an accurate likeness.

A ghostly vision doomed to haunt the walls and corridors of English palaces for decades to come

However, whilst Henry’s portrait was produced as part of a marriage proposal, this image immortalises a marriage’s demise. Rendered in mourning dress, Mary sits in darkness following the deaths of her father-in-law, mother and husband. With the sudden death of Francis II, at just 16 years old, Mary’s prospects were completely transformed, along with the whole of the British Isles. The picture is a remarkable insight into this unfolding drama, appearing almost prophetic in its projection of a Queen who would go on to entirely invert Anglo-Scottish relations. Pushing to extremis the lead white makeup Queen Elizabeth would later use to focalise her stoical demeanour, Mary seems to foreshadow the royal double she would soon become. Complete with a wispy shroud, she seems to move beyond individuation, becoming an eternal evocation of her historical role, a ghostly vision doomed to haunt the walls and corridors of English palaces for decades to come.

Charles I (1600-1649), By William Dobson (1642-46)

I have done Anthony Van Dyck something of a disservice with this choice. However, the replacement of the arrogant hauteur we see in his renderings of Charles with this intimate portrait is simply unmatched.  In its solemnity, with no more than a hint of the gold chain of the Garter to indicate the status of its sitter, we are given a lonely father’s gaze, demanding our empathy. According to the historical accounts, this portrait was painted during a period of deep remorse for Charles. Now convinced that the devastation reaped by civil war was the direct result of God’s judgment and his own personal weakness, he entered a state of weary isolation.

We are given a lonely father’s gaze, demanding our empathy

Van Dyck’s death the year before was just one sign of the end of the artistic age over which Charles resided, leaving him only with Dobson, a humbler tonal painter of low birth, to complete his commissions. In this unfinished picture, Dobson’s heavy brushstrokes pull against the thick fibre canvas still visible beneath, leaving us with a beleaguered and fleshy suggestion of a once majestic king.


Image Credit: François Clouet, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: William Dobson, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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