Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of King James VI and I (1585 - 1625) 1590s

Adrian Vanson (d. before 1610)

Portrait of King James VI and I (1585 - 1625), Adrian Vanson
Oil on Panel
17th Century
20 x 15 7/8 inches 52.7 x 40.2 cm
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The portrait of King James of Scotland by Vanson is an important and revealing glimpse of the monarch before his accession to the throne of England and the consequent union of the crowns, and it provides perhaps the last suggestion of the private man before his transformation in the more majestic and iconic images painted after 1603. The diffident, hesitant character, combined with a hint of shrewdness, suggested by Vanson's portrait would seem from the record to be an honest reflection of that monarch's temperament, and a product of his experience.

When his mother Mary Stuart abdicated in July 1567 the new King was barely one year old. His minority was marked by the ceaseless plotting of competing noble factions, and the conflicting interests of pro-French and pro-English parties. As a result, James's principal aim was always to steer a middle course between the extremes that were presented to him. He tried to avoid taking sides with France or with England, and saw himself as a mediator between the violent and self-interested Scottish nobility and the political encroachments of the puritan clergy. In 1586 by the Treaty of Berwick he was forced at least to appear to favour the cause of England and Queen Elizabeth, and was had to accept the fact of his mother''s death sentence later in the year. Throughout his reign in both countries he remained true to his chosen motto beati pacifici ''Blessed are the peacemakers.''

In any case, he could afford to play a waiting game. The throne of England would be his eventually, despite Elizabeth's refusal to name him or anyone as her heir, and when he acceded he could then enjoy the wealth and liberty that had been lacking in Scotland. He was able to play a part on the world stage, and again through making peace with Spain in 1622 whilst also favouring his son-in-law the protestant Elector Palatine he imagined that he was Europe's mediator. His reputation was damaged by his celebrated dependency on and devotion to his favourites (although this was not unusual in the European courts of the early seventeenth century) and by the repugnance of his new subjects for the Spanish whom they had demonised for over half a century. His foreign policy fell apart with the beginning of the Thirty Years War, when the Elector's claimed the throne of Bohemia leading to renewed war with Spain. Yet it is worth noting that many of the tensions that were to lead to the Civil War in 1642 were already present in Jacobean England, and that the King - perhaps more prudent, certainly more cautious, than his son and reluctant to be seen to champion any party - stifled them to some degree.

This likeness is dated to 1595, on the evidence of two portraits attributed to Vanson in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. It broadly repeats the composition of PG 156, in which the King is shown at half-length wearing a fur-trimmed cloak and tall hat slanting at an angle into the left of the picture. A small tondo (PG 1109), paired with a portrait of the Queen, places the king more centrally - losing something of the drama created by the diagonal within the rectangle of this composition - but agrees in all the principal details. Each is dated in an inscription to 1595, which accords with the sitter's apparent age (twenty nine) and a terminus post quem is provided by the King''s jewelled hat badge in the form of a crowned ''A'', which refers to Anne of Denmark whom he married in 1589 by proxy and then in person in the following year. The magnificence of this jewel indicates a love of such objects on the King's part, which we may take as a true representation of his taste. The later portraits of c.1608 by John de Critz (example: Dulwich Picture Gallery, London) famously show a different and even larger jewel worn in the King''s hat.

Adrian Vanson had arrived in Scotland by 1584, and succeeded his fellow Netherlander Arnold Brockorst as painter to the King. Bronckorst had been the king's painter since the monarch's minority, and had painted the famous portrait of the child-king James VI holding a small hawk. The selection of this earlier Dutchman as King''s painter is highly significant, therefore: he could not have been chosen by the King himself, but rather by his regents, and it is symptomatic of the extraordinary change of direction in the Scottish state and religion after the flight and abdication of Mary Stuart in 1567. Previously Scotland's ties had always been with Catholic France, and it was to French art that Scottish painting in the sixteenth century looked for inspiration. Just as the country's religion was reformed after Mary, so its art also took on a decidedly protestant character, and it was natural that James's court should employ painters from militantly Protestant Holland.

It is suggested that Vanson may have entered Scottish court circles in the retinue of George 5th Lord Seton1, who travelled extensively in protestant Europe and is known to have employed a continental painter who supplied images for James's coinage in 1575 and 1582. The similarity of these likenesses to Vanson's portraits of James VI and John Knox (now known only from their engravings in that writer's Icones of 1580), which were sent to the Calvinist reformer Theodore Beza in Geneva, makes it possible that Vanson and Lord Seton's painter are one and the same person. Certainly Vanson painted Lord Seton in a portrait now in the collection of the Scottish National Gallery. The two portraits sent to Geneva, for which the painter received payment in June 1581, are his earliest certain works in Scotland. Their subject matter and use is entirely compatible with the aggressive programme of cultural reformation that was taking place at the Scottish court at his time. Subsequently Vanson's name appears regularly in the royal accounts, and in 1594 he was presented with a medal by the King, which refers to him as ''Our painter.''2 Like other court painters at this period his duties extended beyond the execution of scale-of-life portraits. He also painted miniatures and was responsible for the visual effect of temporary spectacle. In 1590 he produced the trumpeters' banners used at the coronation of Queen Anne of Denmark.

Although he was made a free burgess of the city of Edinburgh with the intention of founding an academy to train painters the development of a Scottish school was hampered by the removal of the court to London in 1603. Vanson is last mentioned in records as attending a Christening in 1602. His son Adam (fl.1622 - 1628) - who took his mother's name of de Colone - was also a court painter, producing a number of portraits of King James VI and I.

1. Duncan Thomson Adrian Vanson in The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy
2. Tabitha Barber in Karen Hearn Dynasties Tate Gallery Exhibition catalogue 1995. p.172
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