02 / 2022

The Portrait of Prince Henry Frederick Stuart

Clemmie de la Poer Beresford, Cultural Historian and Writer, shares her insight into the exceptional portrait of Prince Henry Frederick Stuart, which hangs in The Great Hall at Parham House.

‘Among the remarkable collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits at Parham House is a particularly fine equestrian portrait of Prince Henry Frederick Stuart. Henry Frederick was the jewel of the Jacobean court, the ‘rising son’ of the House of Stuart as the Venetian Ambassador observed. Henry’s glittering and dazzling personality, pro-militant, pan-European Protestantism and desire for overseas expansion made him immensely popular. Offering a striking alternative to his father, King James VI and I, who famously styled himself as the peacemaker of Europe, Henry won over the hearts and minds of many, becoming the nexus of a group of courtiers aligned to his own political outlook. Henry’s destiny, however, was not to rule and in 1612 he succumbed to typhoid fever after swimming in the Thames. Fate held that it would be his younger brother, Charles, who would later inherit the throne as Charles I and, in time, lose it.

            Commissioned in 1610, the portrait of Henry at Parham celebrates the most significant political event of Henry’s life, the moment when he was created Prince of Wales. Receiving the princedom denoted that Henry was considered to have reached an age whereby he could be given greater political responsibility, and entrusted with the lands and revenues from the principality of Wales. As such, the portrait commemorates Henry’s coming of age. An equestrian portrait had never before been seen in England, and the commission, which bears remarkable similarities to equestrian portraits of European monarchs at the time reflects Henry’s wish to compete with the great monarchs of continental Europe in power and prestige. Sitting astride an enormous white tilting horse, Henry is dressed in splendid jousting armour. His armoured skirt, intricately decorated with hands rising out of the earth in a reworking of the Arthurian tale of Excalibur, evokes chivalric militarism; in the distance, the rising son heralds Henry’s glorious future. With one hand on the reins, Henry controls the horse with ease, mirroring his ability to take on the princedom and rule in the years ahead. The red-bricked wall of the tiltyard forming the portrait’s backdrop suggests his destination, and he rides confidently to the martial ring, ready to demonstrate his militaristic prowess. The winged-figure of Father Time walks behind him, holding his lance and helmet which will be used in the ensuing combat. The helmet’s plumage billows behind the two figures, its red, white and blue feathers reflecting Henry’s own colours and those associated with his father’s union of the crowns. As if his identity is not manifest enough, his insignia and the three feathers of the Prince of Wales appear on a plaque behind.

            The portrait has not always appeared as such. It was only in 1986 that the original background that we see today was discovered through the use of infrared reflectography and X-radiography. At some point between the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the original background was overpainted. Father Time, the red-bricked wall, the archway and the greenery beyond were replaced by a landscape setting, a sprawling tree with Henry’s plaque suspended stiffly from an overhanging branch. The discovery prompted deliberations over whether the later overpainting should be removed. Taking it off would reveal the original 1610 commission and the artist’s original intentions, as well as enhance the work’s intended meaning. The presence of Father Time, symbolic of opportunity, denoted Henry was riding into a future of opportunity and hope, complementing the message articulated in his armour. The wall of the tiltyard behind associated Henry with the martialism that had come to define him. It was necessary to assess when the overpainting had been added. Analysis of its pigment showed it was at least thirty years after the Prince’s death, and therefore the overpainting was deemed to be ‘not historically important’. Additionally, it was important to determine whether the landscape was of equal or greater skill to the original and therefore worth keeping for artistic merit. X-rays showed the original was of considerably more skill. It was believed that what lay beneath was in an excellent condition, preserved for years by the pigment which had covered it, and that the landscape could be removed without causing damage. Therefore, the decision was taken to lift the landscape and the original commission was able to see daylight for the first time in roughly three-hundred years.

            Why the portrait was overpainted remains an enigma to this day. There are many theories. Was it the stylistic changes in art – the growing popularity of landscape subjects – which led its owner to commission a new background? Was it the decline of chivalry – synonymous with the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods, but increasingly waning as the seventeenth century progressed – which necessitated the tiltyard’s removal? Or, was it the Prince himself? Henry’s popularity during his lifetime engendered a cult like mythology to grow up around him and this only increased at his death. It is the removal of Father Time which speaks volumes. Henry’s premature death meant he could no longer seize opportunity. Father Time was no longer a symbol of hope, but one of morbidity and lost opportunity. It was deemed easier to overpaint the entire background than attempt to cover Father Time and match the bricks. Although this remains only a theory, it seems the most plausible. The truth behind the decision will, no doubt, never be known for certain. Yet, it is this mystery that makes the portrait at Parham all the more remarkable, adding so much to its already extraordinary composition and giving it a gripping and fascinating object-biography that will continue to enthral many generations to come.’

Article written by Clemmie de la Poer Beresford, Cultural Historian and Writer, and ‘@_the_history_gal‘ on Instagram.