Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VI Late 1540s

 English School 

Portrait of Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VI,  English School
Oil on Panel
16th Century
11 1/2 x 11 1/2 in., 29.3 x 29.3 cm
The Hunter Blair collection, Blairquhan, Scotland; Until sold, 24th May 2007, Christies London, lot 39, as “probably seventeenth century”.
To view portraits of Edward VI for sale, please visit the Tudor and Stuart page at Philip Mould.

This portrait is a fine example of the profile likeness taken when Edward was about nine years old, on the eve of his succession as King. The original example, which has yet to be conclusively identified, but which may be that in the Met Museum, New York, was almost certainly done by William Scrots, a talented Flemish artist first employed by Henry VIII as the King’s Painter from 1546. A larger example, thought to be from Scrot’s studio, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Today, the use of the profile portrait is closely associated with the monarchy. However, these profile portraits of Edward VI represent the first time the pose was used in painted form. Some scholars have seen Edward’s use of the profile as a revival of the late fifteenth century practice of using profile portraits, or the continuation of similar compositions by Holbein. And yet Holbein never actually used the pure profile seen here in his English works, and nor is there any obvious reason for an artist to resuscitate an out of date formula for a royal image.

Instead, we should look for a more political reason for the use of the profile pose. The purpose of royal portraiture, especially in the hands of the Tudors, was overwhelmingly dynastic and political. On coming to power in 1485, the first Tudor, Henry VII saw the ability of the pictorial image to disseminate royal authority, and two of his innovations, the Tudor Rose and the monarch’s image on our coinage, are still in use today. The profile image therefore became associated with royalty, and the use of the monarch’s head in profile has continued ever since. In this instance, the decision to paint the young Edward in profile was a clear signal that, despite his youth and size, this young boy was the future monarch.

The portraiture of Edward VI is the one of the most varied of all Tudor monarchs. It is certainly the most extensive of any Tudor child, perhaps even of any royal child. It has often been assumed that the bulk of Edward’s portraits stem from his historical portrayal as a Protestant icon, especially after the religious revolution following the reign of his sister Mary. However, such a view underestimates the role and importance of royal imagery, and views such pictures as we see them today – as historical artefacts.

In fact, Tudor royal portraits were not historical records. They were commissioned as current likenesses, either in an attempt to project the royal face, or as symbols of loyalty, and only a current likeness would do. Recent research has shown that some royal portraits were entirely over-painted in an attempt to maintain an up to date likeness of the monarch; the Anglesey Abbey portrait of Henry VIII as a young man is in fact painted over an earlier portrait of Henry as a child.

Modern newspaper practice serves as a crude but illustrative analogy. If a Sunday Times story about a leading politician was illustrated with a photograph of the individual taken, say, a decade earlier, readers would be confused and annoyed. Although the photograph would show the same person, a contemporary audience would instinctively anticipate a current likeness.

The same was true for Tudor royal portraits, especially in Edward’s case. For not only was he the heir to the throne and the raison d’etre of years of political upheaval, but he was a child whose appearance changed every year. As a result, the demand for new portraits was great, and today we have a complete visual record of what Edward looked like as he grew up. The present portrait probably had a ‘shelf life’ of only a few years, and was soon superseded by later types, especially after he became King. Until recently, this picture was thought to be a seventeenth century copy. However, dendrochronological analysis of the panel on which it is painted has revealed that the original portrait was painted within Edward’s lifetime. It was subsequently altered, probably in the eighteenth century, to fit into the diamond-shaped format seen here, when the green background and other later additions such as the ‘Ich Dien’ were included.
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