The Visiting Monarchs

Winter Queen and Lost Prince

 

Guest post by Andonis Georgiou

When any of the British Royal Family visit Australia there is much excitement, media attention and, sometimes, debate. But, currently we have two visiting monarchs that carry no entourage, or fanfare, nor garner any sustained, high-profile attention. We have the early 17th century portraits of Prince Henry Frederick Stuart and his sister, Elizabeth, on loan from London’s National Portrait Gallery, here, at Sydney’s Art Gallery of NSW.

Whilst the snaking queues of visitors clamour to see the glitz of celebrities displayed in the Archibald portraits downstairs, and the quiet murmur of the early Australian Modernists hang in their usual ground floor posts, the two royal guests stand in the temple-like space of the Lowy, Gondi Gallery. In here, where rectangular Ionic columns buttress the walls and a high, white dome adds a regal air to the space, the portraits face each other. An arrangement of flowers including roses and thistles decorate the wall beyond them, lifting the tone of viewing to one more reverential than usual.

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The Lost Prince, Robert

To the right stands Prince Henry set inside a room. Only three objects furnish this room: a patterned carpet, a table draped with cloth and a pulled back curtain revealing a garden through a window. Just three things, but all are overly sumptuous , and tell us that we are in a courtly place. The curtain is of the richest burgundy, decorated with gold embroidered borders. The fabric is so thick that each fold seems as solid as a mountain crevice, and the deep black cloth that hangs generously over the table overflows onto the carpet in frills of splashing gold.

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His court painter ,Robert Peake the elder, shows Henry wearing not royal robes or war-waging armour, but rather ,sporting the fashionable clothes of Italian flavour.The Prince himself stands poised before the table in scarlet tights and elegantly embroidered trunk hose. His matching vest and contrasting doublet spare no space for unadorned material.He shimmers like a jewel in his own attire. Delicate lace cuffs and a collar frame his hands and face like radiating light. Even his white shoes sparkle and are topped by giant pearled rosettes.

shoe

On the opposite wall his beloved sister Elizabeth stares back. Her surroundings are equally sumptuous. Again we see a boldly patterned carpet and tied back curtains that are of lighter material but crackle with almost electric highlights. The interior is darker with no rear window to add more light ,or a deepened perspective, and a  boldly embroidered  ‘X-frame’ chair sits throne-like behind her. These furnishings can only be glimpsed on the edges, for Elizabeth’s huge skirt nearly fills the frame. Her tiny torso seems to float atop this brocaded gown where her jewels of diamonds and rubys and pearls add yet another glittering layer.

NPG 6113; Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia by Robert Peake the Elder

For me, the real resounding features of both of these portraits, are the lustrous skin tones. Only hands and faces are exposed, but their luminosity is far deeper than a pearls. The ultra-thin scumbles of lead white pigment allowed Peake to achieve this effect. Tints of warm pink and cool, grey blues provide the subtle modelling. The eyes eventually rest  where they should after being dazzled by the exquisite surrounding decoration.

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The focused faces and stylised poses in these Jacobean portraits hold me in intrigue. They seem to sit ,for me, at some weird stylistic half-way mark, between the hypnotically intense icons of the Byzantine era , and the fleshed out realism of  Italian Renaissance paintings. The faces stare pensively out ,their bodies in rigid, almost stilted poses. The perspective is slightly flattened giving a naive or slightly unreal quality to the shallow surrounds of the quiet but lavish interiors. Their captivating quality is not just in the intricately and expertly painted fabrics and furnishings, but some magical combination of all these factors.

The history that surrounds our ‘visitors’ is intriguing too. Knowing their story  only adds to the appreciation of these portraits. Their lives were meant to fulfill the new found expectations of the English people for a stable lineage of a Stuart rule. With the death of Queen Elizabeth I , the line of Tudors died too. Her distant cousin James VI of Scotland was then also crowned, James I of England ( the rose and thistle now united). His eldest son, Prince Henry carried much promise within himself as well as in his royal birthright. As a young boy he was dynamic and athletic. He took an avid interest in politics and religion, and was highly cultured in the arts. He was meant to grow into a man who truly deserved the clothes he wore, but, he was tragically struck down by typhoid fever before he could rightly lead England and Scotland into what many thought would be a renaissance for both countries.


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I have described him as a visiting ‘monarch’ in my title out of respect for the crown he should have worn. This loss is why he is commonly referred to as ‘The Lost Prince’.

His sister was devastated by his death, as indeed was his father and the whole country. Thousands of mourners lined London’s streets on the day of his burial. Elizabeth married her match-made husband , Frederick V of Bohemia, only a few months after Henry’s death. She left England to live in Heidelberg and after six years he and she were made King and Queen of neighbouring Bohemia due to a Protestant uprising against their current Catholic king. However, the Catholic population soon fought back and Frederick and Elizabeth were forced to flee and lose their brief one-year reign. Thus, they became known as the ‘Winter King and Queen’. She lived on, past her husband’s untimely death, to a life of vast influence in The Hague.

Both of these portraits are shown in conjunction with this year’s Archibald show. They provide a perfect counterpoint to modern-day portraiture . They will soon be ‘lost’ to us when they return to their London home at the end of this month.

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