Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Full Length Portrait of King James VI and I (1566 - 1625) 1618-1620c.

 English School 

Full Length Portrait of King James VI and I (1566 - 1625),  English School
Oil on canvas
17th Century
76 ½ x 47 inches, 194 x 119 cm
The Dukes of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha by descent to H.H. Andreas, Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Schloss Greinburg, Austria (1)
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With its significant Saxe-Coburg provenance (2), our portrait may have been commissioned at a time when Protestant principalities, such as the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg under its then sovereign Duke Johann-Casimir (1564 – 1633), only recently independent from Saxony, would have had many reasons to seek friendship with the English Crown. For James I, who had inherited Queen Elizabeth’s mantel as guardian of Protestantism in Europe, had by the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to Frederick Elector Palatine in 1619 acquired direct interest and influence in the German states. (3) Though it remains uncertain whether our portrait was painted as a token of Saxe-Coburg loyalty to James, or received as a gift from the English King to the Court of Johann-Casimir, it remains an important symbol of the complex diplomacy that underpinned the Protestant resistance to the Catholic League.

James was the son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and succeeded to the throne upon the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Witty, well-read and a staunch believer in the Divine Right of Kingship, the Scottish-born James I was not readily accepted by England on his accession to the throne in 1603. The old conflicts between Scotland and England, religious tensions and James’s inability to respect Parliament, served only to exacerbate the situation during his somewhat unsuccessful reign. However he was the first Scottish King to act in his own right as a decisive player on the European political stage, and the last English monarch to enjoy at his accession the supreme, unquestioned authority of the Tudors and their medieval predecessors.

His entourage of Scottish court favourites and his bribes and lavish rewards, most infamous being the creation of his closest advisor George Villiers as Duke of Buckingham, were factors that kept the King and Parliament permanently at odds and allowed his rule to appear capricious and corrupt, whilst its exalted character grew more and more offensive to an age that had begun, almost instinctively, the progression towards parliamentary government. Religious dissension reached a climax with the Gunpowder plot, the Papist attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament provoking a renewed anti-Catholic fervour in England. James however, also disliked the excessive demands of the Puritans, which finally resulted in the first exodus of English emigrants to North America. Nonetheless, at his death in 1625 he bequeathed a prosperous country and is perhaps best remembered for his Authorised Version of the English Bible, published in 1611.

Unlike Anne of Denmark, his statuesque Queen, James had little desire to have his portrait painted. Indeed it is recorded that the King ‘… could never be brought to sit for the taking of that [picture], which is the reason of so few good peeces of him’. (4) Indeed the first, and best known, portrait type was produced at the beginning of his reign in England and emanated from the studio of the King’s Serjeant Painter, John de Critz. The pattern, as seen in the full-length versions such as those at The Prado, Dulwich College and Loseley Park, remained in use for fifteen years until it was superseded by a new sitting to Paul van Somer in around 1618. (5) Though our portrait likely utilises the earlier de Critz face pattern, as well as mirroring the full-length pose (6), the King is now depicted in costume appropriate to a date of circa 1618. However its design owes nothing to the Van Somer portrait. Indeed, not known in any other versions, it would appear to be unique and perhaps was a special commission produced specifically for a European noble court. (7)

(1) Schloss Greinburg, a picturesque castle in Austria, was acquired in 1822 by Prince Albert’s father Prince Ernest III of Saxe-Coburg.
(2) This ancient ducal family was to become by later prudent marriages not only the ancestor of the Royal House of Great Britain but of six other European monarchies, earning it by the date that Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg married his cousin Princess Victoria in 1840, the nickname of ‘the stud-farm of Europe.’
(3) Although the Elector’s imprudent claim to the throne of Bohemia and his subsequent defeat and expulsion by the Austrian Emperor determined James against any direct involvement in the Germany, he still was established as a wealthy and influential player on the world stage and one who was wisely courted by the smaller states.
(4) Weldon, The Court and Character of King James, 1650, reprinted by G. Smeeton, 1817, p.55.
(5) See Roy Strong, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, pp. 178-80 for a discussion of the iconography of James I.
(6) With one arm covered by his cloak and that hand on hip, the other resting by his side and wearing an angled plumed hat decorated with a large jewel.
(7) Intriguingly the curious heads which are visible on his stockings would appear to be the remnants of an earlier painting.
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