Finding a Lost Prince at The National Portrait Gallery

28 Oct

The first thing that anyone will read about Prince Henry will concern his unexpected death from typhoid fever, two weeks before his 19th birthday.  Although The Lost Prince at the National Portrait Gallery does indeed look at that, it seeks to focus on his life, his achievements and give a suggestion as to what would have happened had Henry survived.  Henry is portrayed as a figure of hope, which is how he was seen by the people of the day.

Isaac Oliver, Henry, Prince of Wales, c. 1610-12.  Image courtesy of The Royal Collection and via www.npg.org.uk

The Lost Prince marks the 400th anniversary of Henry’s death and is the first ever exhibition to focus on his short life.  His death precipitated widespread national grief and mourning and led to the ascension to the throne of his younger brother who as King Charles I, of course, led England into Civil War.

Prince Henry’s Armour, c. 1608.  Image courtesy of the Royal Armouries and via www.npg.org.uk

The exhibition focuses on how amazing Henry was; you can feel the heavy expectation that sat upon his shoulders as a brave and talented youth, the hope of Protestant Europe.  Had Henry survived to become King Henry IX, his court was expected to be the centre of the arts.  He was the first British Prince to collect works of art that were not solely portraits – specifically European Renaissance paintings, Italian Renaissance bronzes, antique coins and medals.  He also accumulated a magnificent library.

Pietro Tacca after Giambologna, Pacing Horse, c. 1600. Image courtesy of The Royal Collection and via www.npg.org.uk

The exhibition includes a range of paintings, miniatures, manuscripts, books, armour and various other artefacts to illustrate the creative community that developed under his patronage; there’s a letter from father to son congratulating him on the completion of his homework and offering some constructive criticism, letters to his parents, images of his teachers, a doctor’s autopsy and elegies by the leading poets of the day.  One page of his copy-book shows him practising his handwriting under the supervision of his writing master.  On the left, he practises flourishes, letters, Latin phrases and his own signature while, on the right, he repeatedly copies out a passage of Latin adapted from Cicero.

Prince Henry’s Copy Book, c. 1604-6.  Image courtesy of The Master and Fellows, Trinity College, Cambridge and via www.npg.org.uk

Robert Peake, not a particularly well-known artist, is credited with some of the best portraits of Henry.  Peake created an entirely new kind of portraiture for the Prince showing him as a man of action rather than in the static, conventional poses to which everyone had become accustomed.  Prince Henry on Horseback is the first full-sized equestrian portrait of an English Royal and the third of Peake’s portraits of Henry.  It is fun and extravagant although there is now a sad irony that the Prince is followed by the figure of Father Time.  This figure was painted over with a wooded landscape in the early eighteenth century, transforming it into a work more akin to Van Dyck’s equestrian portraits but this overpaint was removed in 1985-6.

Robert Peake, Prince Henry on horseback, c. 1606-8. Image courtesy of The Collection at Parham House, Pulborough and via www.npg.org.uk

The last room of the exhibition is dedicated to the Prince’s death; he had a larger funeral procession than Queen Elizabeth I with over 2,000 official mourners.  Here, we find his effigy; this was the first occasion that an effigy was made in England for the son of a reigning monarch and its creation showed the exceptional circumstances of his life and death.  The robes and head no longer remain and what is left is infested with woodworm but, as the curator astutely points out, the effigy symbolises both his significance in life and the obscurity into which he has faded since his death.

Funeral Effigy of Henry, Prince of Wales, 1612.  Image courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey and via www.npg.org.uk

This room has a series of recordings of contemporaneous mourning music and requiems.  Some might feel this was moving but I found it a distraction, verging on creepy.  The other objects act as a better illustration of the heartfelt grief experienced by the nation.  The effigy is seen alongside an engraving that shows it lying on Henry’s hearse dressed in his clothes; the engraving also records the appearance of the hearse, which may have been designed by Inigo Jones.

William Hole, The Hearse of Henry, Prince of Wales, 1612.  Image courtesy of The British Museum and via www.npg.org.uk

The objects all connect and flow from one into the next.  It does not seem to be a mish-mash and yet it sort of is.  But, it is beautifully put together and curator, Catherine MacLeod, is to be praised.  I do foresee dreadful bottlenecks though as the exhibition grows in popularity; with six small rooms, you often find yourself looking at an object with no way out as people close in on you.  It is hard to get the distance required at some points and, with this in mind, the quotes are placed too high on the walls unless you want to leave with neckache or are in real killer heels (mine were relatively low for this visit).

Hans Holbein the Younger, Elizabeth, Lady Vaux, c. 1536.  Image courtesy of The Royal Collection and via www.npg.org.uk

It is a great show which you leave feeling saddened by Henry’s death.  It is riveting and educational, bringing this Lost Prince to the forefront of our historical awareness and transforming our knowledge.  The exhibition takes us through Henry’s short life, from baby to teenager, looking at his upbringing and education, his court and patronage, his collecting and his illness, death and legacy.  I imagine many people had not even been aware of the Prince’s existence before this show and now people leave in mourning.

The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart is at the National Portrait Gallery until 13th January 2013, www.npg.org.uk.

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4 Responses to “Finding a Lost Prince at The National Portrait Gallery”

  1. Judith Draper October 31, 2012 at 3:48 am #

    Very intriguing subject matter and extremely interesting.

    • chloenelkin November 4, 2012 at 5:47 pm #

      Thank you very much for reading 🙂

  2. Frank Zweegers December 17, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    Great article, Oliver’s work is really amazing!

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