As the National Portrait Gallery is open late on Thursdays and Fridays, I sometimes like to walk down after work to have a wander around. On Friday night I decided to pay a visit – although I took the tube to Leicester Square, as it was pouring down.
My plan was to see the new exhibition The Lost Prince: The Life & Death of Henry Stuart. As someone with a strong interest in history, and who has studied the period immediately preceding the Stuart accession (the Elizabethan era), I was very excited about this.
Henry (1594-1612) was the elder son of James VI of Scotland and I of England, who succeeded to the English throne on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Elizabeth had reigned for so long that the last time an entire family inhabited the royal household was beyond living memory. As the eldest, Henry was the heir to the throne and the hopes and dreams of the nation were invested in him: his princely nature, air of nobility, youth and exuberance promised a positive future.
The exhibition displays portraits of Henry, his royal parents and siblings, as well as those around him responsible for teaching, caring for or advising him. The pictures give some indication of the personality of the royal Prince, as well as the impression he and his advisers wished to convey. Miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver and full-size portraits by Robert Peake show Henry wearing armour, demonstrating the noble values of bravery and chivalry, or handsome, richly costumed and showcasing his extensive collections of jewels and other riches. Henry and his court helped to inspire a renaissance in the arts, and some of the items he collected are on display.
By modern standards I am not sure if Henry was the most likeable person. It was reported in the exhibition that when Henry received a gift of a number of brass statuettes, he was asked if he would like to give one of them – a horse, on display here – to his little brother Charles. Henry’s response was to say no: he wanted to keep them all for himself!
Perhaps it is unfair of me to condemn this attitude: the Prince of Wales, as he was created in 1610, had to bear the weight of a nation’s expectations and this was a lot to take for one so young. Some of the earlier portraits show the young boy dressed in lavish royal costumes that seem to swamp him. This is echoed in the two small suits of armour belonging to the Prince which are on display, worn by him during lavish court tournaments and masques.
Though clever, Henry apparently did not enjoy book-learning to the same extent as his younger brother. Some of his school books are displayed here, one of which in particular made me smile: one of his tutors wrote a couple of sentences below his own writing which are very disparaging towards Henry’s handwriting skills! However, the Prince possessed an extensive library and a number of works of art – many of which are now scattered all over the world in the hands of public galleries and private collectors – and he was interested in gardens, authorising a lavish project to redevelop the gardens of Richmond Palace, though he sadly died before the work could take place.
The final room of the exhibition explores Henry’s death and the reactions it provoked among his family, the nobility and the rest of the country. While helping to prepare for his sister Margaret’s wedding, Henry caught a fever (now thought to be typhoid fever) and, despite the best efforts of several doctors, died a few weeks later. His family and the nation were distraught: writers and composers registered their sorrow in poetry and music; printed books had pages with black borders and one of the dirges composed on his death is playing in the room. A portrait of Queen Anne, Henry’s mother, is displayed and shows her wearing black clothes for mourning: I found this interesting as I had thought the fashion for wearing black for mourning only came in with Queen Victoria.
At Henry’s funeral, weeping crowds lined the streets and the effigy on top of the hearse was reportedly so lifelike that it provoked fresh storms of grief. What remains of this effigy – namely the wooden torso and limbs, the wax head and hands having been stolen or rotted away years ago – is on display in this room, looking poignantly small in the plain glass case.
Charles Stuart was devastated by his brother’s death and treasured his memory all his life. During his reign as Charles I he commissioned an enlargement of a miniature of Henry which hung in his rooms at Whitehall, and is now on display here, the final portrait of a Prince who was never to fulfill his potential.
The exhibition got me thinking about how the course of history can change. What if Henry hadn’t died? He would have become King Henry IX, and the events which resulted in the English Civil War might never have happened – although, given Henry’s somewhat imperious personality, this is not certain. His life and death reminded me of another, very similar situation a hundred years before: the premature death of Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII. Named for the legendary English king, hopes and expectations surrounded young Arthur as they would encircle Henry a century later, but Arthur’s premature death ended them, paving the way for his younger brother Henry to inherit the throne. In both cases, the death of the much loved and admired heir led to the accession of a ruler who would change the course of English history – albeit more successfully in Henry VIII’s case, at least for him.
I definitely recommend this exhibition to anyone with an interest in Stuart England, seventeenth-century art and the history of royalty in Britain. The curators have chosen their objects well and they are presented with thought and care. Unlike some exhibitions and galleries, which contain an overwhelming number of items, this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery takes the ‘less is more’ approach, meaning that you can examine each individual item in more detail, finding out more about it.