Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Arthur Prince of Wales, c.1509 

 English School 

Portrait of Arthur Prince of Wales, c.1509,  English School
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Oil on Panel
16th Century
 
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It is difficult to exaggerate the rarity and the importance of this small royal portrait. When discovered it was described by Catherine MacLeod, curator of sixteenth and seventeenth century portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, as Ďthe only surviving portrait of Arthur that could have been painted within his lifetime,í1 which means that it is one of the earliest surviving easel portraits in British art.

When it was painted the sitter, Arthur Prince of Wales, was heir to the newly-won throne of his father King Henry VII, and was the hope of the country in reuniting the competing dynasties of York and Lancaster after a century of bitter warfare. Not only was the prince, as son of Elizabeth of York and Henry Tudor, the physical embodiment of the new dynastyís legitimacy, but he was also crucially placed on the diplomatic stage. His formal betrothal in 1497 to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain was the final element in Henry VIIís policy intended to guarantee Englandís security both at home and abroad. His untimely death a year after the marriage was solemnised at St Paulís cathedral in 1501 had consequences that resonate through British history to the present day, as Catherineís subsequent marriage to his younger brother the future King Henry VIII, its want of a male heir and its questionable legality resulted in Englandís break with Rome and began the English Reformation.

As an example of portraiture in England at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it is a priceless document. The jewel-like richness of its execution stands comparison with the few known royal portraits that survive from this period, most notably the portrait of the sitterís father King Henry VII (National Portrait Gallery, London) painted some five years later, and in the sympathetic treatment of the subject may be considered superior. Equally impressive is the meticulous and realistic treatment of the fur collar to the Princeís robe, whilst the jewel in the Princeís hat and around his neck are reminders of the opulence and display of aristocratic and royal dress at this period. The painterís preoccupation with the rich applied gilding used in the costume bears comparison with the image of Richard II in the Wilton Diptych (National Gallery, London) painted one hundred years previously. Indeed, although attributed to an unknown Anglo-Flemish painter, the execution has as much in common with the native medieval tradition as it does with the more recent developments on the continent, and suggests the almost miniature scale and original appearance of the lost paintings of the fifteenth century kings now known only through later copies.

From the sitterís age it is apparent that this portrait was executed in the concluding stages of the marriage negotiations, and by costume may be dated to c.1500. The association with the Princeís marriage is especially probable when one considers the flower that he is depicted holding. The white gillyflower traditionally connotes betrothal and purity, by reason of its colour, and kingship, by reason of the coronet-like shape of its flowers2. The identification of this motif is confirmed by the description of this panel in a seventeenth century inventory of the Royal Collection, compiled between 1637 and 1640 by Abraham van der Doort, Keeper of the Royal Pictures to Charles I:

A Whithall peece
Item the i5th being Princ Arthure in his minoritye
In a black cap and goulden habbitt houlding in his right
hand a white gillifloore in a reed pintit goulden frame3

Most probably the portrait was in the possession of Catherine of Aragon, the Princeís spouse and passed from her to her second husband King Henry VIII. It is recorded in an early Tudor Royal inventory as no.32 Item oone table with the picture of Prince Aurthure.4 From then until c.1714 it shared the fate of many items in the Royal picture collection, being dispersed after the execution of King Charles I in 16495 and reacquired for his son after the Restoration6. The panelís last appearance in a Royal inventory is in the reign of Queen Anne, after which it may have been given away as a gift by King George I or II. This practice was not unusual8 and a descent is traceable from the prominent courtiers Francis and Theophilus Hastings, 9th and 10th Earls of Huntingdon and Premier Earls of England to the Earls of Granard that most probably explains the disappearance of the painting from the Royal inventories and its subsequent ownership by the Earls of Granard.
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