Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of King Edward I (1239 – 1307) from a set of medieval Kings 1618c.

Renold Elstrack, or after b.1570

Portrait of King Edward I (1239 – 1307) from a set of medieval Kings, Renold Elstrack, or after
Oil on oak panel
17th Century
23 x 11 inches, 60.3 x 29.2 cm
Matthew Robinson, 2nd Baron Rokeby (1712-1800), at Mount Morris, near Canterbury, Kent; C.D. Bailey by early 19th century
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This series of eight corridor portraits represents a significant addition to the iconography of England’s earliest monarchs. They are thought to have been painted by, or were generated as a result of, the engraver Renold Elstrack’s work for the publisher Henry Holland’s ‘Baziliwlogia’ of 1618. The kings represented are: William II Rufus (1087-1100); Henry II Curtmantle (1154-89); John Lackland (1199-1216); Edward I Longshanks (1272-1307); Henry IV Bolingbroke (1399-1413); Henry V (1413-1422); Henry VI (1422-1461 & 1470-71); and Edward IV (1461-70 & 1471-1483). Until recently, the set was thought to be of later origin and to represent a number of unknown English or French royal personages and nobles.

The ‘Baziliwlogia’, or ‘The Booke of Kings’, was first published by Holland in 1618. It is one of the most sought after collections of English engravings, and only four complete copies are known to survive; two in the British Museum, one in the Bodleian, and a fourth in the New York Library. In the nineteenth century, regard for Elstrack’s work was so high that his engravings regularly fetched more than those by Rembrandt. The importance of the Baziliwlogia lies both in its artistic skill and historical value. It was, when published, the most authoritative compilation of monarchical portraits yet made, and answered the growing popular demand for historical imagery. Prints were sold from “over against the exchange” in the city.

Henry Holland actively marketed the Baziliwlogia series as the most authentic series of royal portraits yet made. This assertion has led to some confusion in our knowledge of early English iconography, most notably that of Lady Jane Grey, which print was in fact based on an earlier panel portrait of Catherine Parr. It seems likely that for at least some of the Baziliwlogia portraits some inspiration, such as the likenesses of Henry II and Edward I, may have been taken from an earlier printed collection of English kings published in 1597 as the “Booke containing the True Portraiture of the King’s of England” (by the engraver known only as “T.T.”), while others were taken from well-known portrait types, such as the early Henry V in the royal collection. In other portraits, Elstrack has apparently added original artistic observation. The Henry VI shown here, for example, is a unique likeness, and although loosely based on a common corridor portrait, is the only known portrait of Henry as an older man. That of King John, of whom this appears to be the earliest easel portrait representation, seems to have been taken from his effigy at Worcester. The likeness of William II appears to be unique to Elstrack, lacking any known precedent.

Until now, little has been known of the original material used to prepare the engravings. In his definitive 1955 monograph “Engraving in England” Arthur Hind suggested that either Henry Holland or his brother, Compton, might have researched and drawn the source material for Elstrack to engrave. But since neither Holland is known to have had any artistic training, and both were publishers or “stationers”, it seems right to rule out both as the initial authors or designers. However, Hind also speculated that Elstrack, as a “skilful craftsman… might have been responsible for drawings as well as engravings”. This seems most likely, as Elstrack trained and practiced as a glazier – the profession of his father – and almost certainly had the necessary artistic skills himself.

The rediscovery of the present portraits strongly posits the likelihood that the engravings were made from, or in conjunction with, paintings, of which these appear to be the only surviving examples. The absence of any obvious theme to these eight, such as Lancastrian or Yorkist, suggests they are random survivals. Dendrochronological analysis of the Baltic oak panels reveals that the tree used was felled as early as 1607, and that the panels could therefore have been painted from 1609. Since this is some years before the publication of the prints in 1618, it seems likely that the paintings pre-date the prints. Minor differences between print and painting, such as the addition of a sword in the print of William II, further suggests that the paintings were made first, while the clear emphasis on overall impact and tone, rather than intricate detail, has clear parallels with the later practice of making monotone ‘grisailles’ to assist an engraver in judging a picture’s tone and balance of light.

Unfortunately, little is known of Elstrack’s life and practice, and he has left no surviving drawings, manuscripts or paintings. However, the present portraits are painted with a distinctive broad, lush technique not usually found in other types of historical panel portraits, which would rule out the likelihood of their originating in any of the well established portrait workshops of the time, and which regularly produced monarchical ‘corridor portraits’. We also know that all eight of the present paintings are related to plates that are almost certainly done by Elstrack himself, as opposed to other Baziliwlogia plates by engravers such as Francisco Delaram and Simon Passoeus. Both the manner of their composition and likely date of origin would point to Elstrack or his workshop as the likely progenitor of the paintings.
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