Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of King Richard III (1452-85) 

Late 16th Century English School 

Portrait of King Richard III (1452-85), Late 16th Century English School
Oil on Panel
16th Century
21 7/8 x 17 7/8 in. (55.5 cm x 45.5 cm)
Private Collection, Italy.
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Few royal figures have captured the public’s imagination as much as Richard III. His controversial reign, dramatised by William Shakespeare has since achieved renewed topicality by the recent discovery of his remains that had been hitherto been thought lost. His life has come to epitomise an era of desperate power struggles and bloody conflict, and this striking image, known generically as a “corridor portrait”, and painted on a prepared oak panel, would have been an immediately recognisable and emotive royal icon to the educated Elizabethan audience for which it was designed.

Richard was a younger son on Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York (1411-60) and the younger brother of King Edward IV (1442-83). Soon after his birth came the start of the War of the Roses, when the powerful York and Lancaster families - both from the house of Plantagenet, fought for the throne. In 1461, following a number of victories against the Lancastrians, Richard’s brother Edward was pronounced king, and in 1470 his son Edward was born.

When Edward IV died in 1483 Richard seized the opportunity to take the throne for himself, and imprisoned his young nephew in the Tower, along with his younger brother Richard. Following a period of unrest, and the discovery of a plot to free the young boys from the tower, both children disappeared, leading to accusations that Richard had them murdered to prevent any further uprisings.

Any attempt to suppress his dissenters however was clearly in vain, and in 1483 a rebellion supported by Richard’s previous ally Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1455-83), was raised in favour of Henry Tudor (1457-1509), although later dispersed and Buckingham was beheaded. The solution, as devised by Richard, was greater royal presence in the discontented counties, which only antagonised the rebels, and in 1485 another rebellion, this time led directly by Henry Tudor and his uncle Jasper Tudor (c.1431-95) (future husband of Buckingham’s widow) arose in Wales. When they met for battle on 22 August 1485 Richard had the larger army, and although leading a powerful cavalry charge and purportedly coming close to victory, his troops were later overwhelmed by the Tudor forces and Richard was killed, marking an end to the House of Plantagenet and Yorkist rule.

The majority of Richard III’s iconography derive from the same portrait-type, the most illustrative example of which is the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London [NPG 148]. This work, which dendrochonological (tree ring) analysis confirms was produced in the late sixteenth century varies with the absence of Richard’s left hand, which is typically shown slipping a ring onto the little finger of his right hand.

This type is generically described as a ‘corridor portrait’ - a representational image of a monarch created as part of a set designed to furnish the long gallery of leading late Elizabethan and Jacobean houses. Corridor portraits served to emphasise the occupant’s dynastic association with monarchy, as well as historically appropriate furnishing and colour. Some sets of portraits stretched as far back as William 1, although these earlier images were largely painted from imaginative sources. Similar sets can be seen in the collections at the National Portrait Gallery, Boughton (Duke of Buccleuch), Longleat (Marquess of Bath), Helmingham Hall (Lord Tollemache) and Ingatestone (Lord Petre).
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