Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of King Charles I at his Trial 1649 1650c.

Edward Bower, After fl1635 - 1667

Portrait of King Charles I at his Trial 1649, Edward Bower, After
Oil on canvas
45 1/2 x 34 1/2 inches 115.6 x 87.4cm
Colonel F. A. Fortescue
The painted representations of King Charles I cannot be divorced from an understanding of his reign, and since every stage of his kingship was documented by painters they form a crucial element in his mystique. The hesitant new monarch captured by Johnson and Mytens develops into the epitome of regal magnificence through the brush of Van Dyck. The death of that painter coincides with a new and darker phase, and it is then for Dobson to show an older man with few illusions, as Charles presided over the Royalist defeat in the Civil War.

Significantly the final portraits of the King were commissioned by other patrons, and by men who were not of the King's party. In 1647 Lely was set by the Earl of Northumberland to record one of the captive King's meetings with his son, the Duke of York, in a moving and dignified double portrait. The last life portrait was entrusted to Edward Bower and his studio, who produced a series of images, of which this portrait is an example, which depict the monarch in the last month of his life answering the charges that were to take him to the block in Whitehall.

Curiously, given the later popularity of the subject, the artist was commissioned by the King's judges, but it is unsurprising that almost immediately the portrait was seen more to commemorate a martyrdom than the satisfactory execution of legal process.
The King appeared before his accusers in Westminster Great Hall on 20th, 22nd, 23rd and 27th January 1649 (1648 Old Style) and it was there that Bower drew from the life, later working the sketches up into a series of portraits that depict the King with the accuracy not merely of a portraitist, but of one who knew that he was producing a document of historical importance. The fashion of the chair, for example, meets the description of the red velvet chair that the President of the Court, John Bradshaw, ordered to be placed in front of the judges. The King's cane is remembered in a moving anecdote: when John Cook, Clerk of the Court, read out the indictment, Charles touched his arm with his cane, indicating that he wished to speak. The silver head of the cane fell off, and for some moments the King waited for someone to hand it to him from the floor, only to realise that no one was going to do so. It was at this moment that Lady Fairfax, wife of the Parliamentary General answered Cook's assertion that the charge was made in the name ''of all the good people of England'' by calling out, ''No! nor one hundredth part of them.''

Three principal versions of the original portrait exist, which differ chiefly in the position of the King's hands. That in the Royal Collection, for example, shows the King holding a paper, as here, but with his other hand he reaches up to touch the Garter ribbon around his neck. Our version follows that which was produced by Bower for John Carew, one of the signatories to the King''s Death Warrant. This variation again, would seem to show that Bower had been at pains to depict the King in attitudes that those who had been present at the trial would recognise and remember.
The image was a powerful one in the Royalist consciousness. James II, who, in trying so hard to avoid the mistakes of his father's reign, made all of them, resembled this portrait to the Earl of Ailesbury after his unsuccesful escape from London in 1688, he found him ''sitting in a great chair, his hat on, his beard being much grown, and resembled the picture of his royal father at the pretended High Court of Justice''.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.