Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of King James I & VI (1566-1625) 

Workshop of Arnold Bronckorst 

Portrait of King James I & VI (1566-1625), Workshop of Arnold Bronckorst
Oil on Panel
16th Century
12 ¾ x 11 inches, 32.3 x 28 cm
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This newly discovered portrait is a rare and important likeness of James at the age of 9. Mis-identified in a minor London auction as ‘a portrait of a girl’, the picture is thought to be the first portrait of James in full adult court dress. Furthermore, it is painted on top of another (much earlier) religious painting, giving an intriguing glimpse into how religious art in Scotland was viewed at the time of the Reformation.
The portrait of James would have been produced in the workshop of Arnold Bronckorst, then the court painter in Edinburgh. It uses the likeness from Bronckorst’s slightly earlier portrait of 1574, which shows the king at the age of eight. Bronckorst’s original, now cut down from a full-length, is today in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The face in the present portrait follows Bronckhorst’s original, but appears slightly older. It is possible, but not certain, that the artist was granted a fresh sitting. However, ‘updating’ portraits from earlier sittings seems to have been quite common, and we know from a contemporary source that later in life James ‘could never be brought to sit for the taking of that [a picture]’.
The chief difference between the present portrait and that in the Portrait Gallery is the costume. In Bronckorst’s original, James is shown with a sparrow hawk, and is wearing hunting dress. In the present portrait he is wearing a larger ruff, and a far more elaborate hat and cloak suitable for public display at court. It may be that the portrait was commissioned to record James as he entered a more adult phase of being presented at court. James, thanks to the abdication of his mother, Mary, was in his minority until 1584, and there would have been a keen interest in his development. Any image which presented the young king as an adult may have been perceived as enhancing his authority.
Conservation and technical analysis has revealed that the portrait is painted on top of a very detailed painting underneath of a praying monk, almost certainly a saint. The hands of the figure beneath can be seen in the lower left-hand corner of the picture, and above them floats a chalice, and above that the host. The saint’s ear can be seen above that of James’. The integral frame seen around the portrait now is original to the earlier painting, which appears to be by a Netherlandish hand of the late 15th or early 16th Centuries. Further research may reveal which saint is depicted. It is not clear why the saint was painted over, but we know that the growing reformist tendencies of James’ government led to the destruction of many religious images. And most likely, rather than waste a good (and expensive) imported oak panel and frame, the decision was taken to reuse it for a portrait of James.

James’ accession as King of England, thus unifying the two crowns of England and Scotland, must have seemed a distant prospect when he was born. When his mother Mary Stuart abdicated in July 1567 James 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 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’, or ‘blessed are the peacemakers.’

James’ great advantage was that he could always 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. It is also 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.
The accession of James to the throne of his cousin Elizabeth represented a considerable personal and political triumph. It could be regarded as a vindication of ambitions of his mother -whose memory James soon honoured by erecting a great tomb for her in Westminster Abbey and by obliterating Fotheringay Castle, the scene of her execution- and at the same time the acquisition of a territory whose economic and diplomatic power was considerably greater than that of his own. The early Stuarts are also remembered as the most dedicated royal artistic patrons since the early reign of Henry VIII, and although King Charles I is acknowledged the greatest Maecenas, it must be remembered that it was during the reign of his father that Inigo Jones and Sir Anthony van Dyck began their careers at the English Court.
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