Parliament Week Curator's Choice: Dr Richard Johns chooses a portrait of James, Duke of York

Dr Richard Johns interviewed by Ben Miller | 03 November 2011
An image of a colourful 16th century painting of a King against a naval scene
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital
Parliament Week 2011 Curator's Choice: Dr Richard Johns, Curator of Prints & Drawings at the National Maritime Museum, chooses a portrait of James, Duke of York (1633-1701) by the French artist Henri Gascar...

"Henri Gascar's Portrait of James, Duke of York, is among the most colourful and imposing images of royal power in the history of British art.

Painted around 1673, it presents the heir to the throne in the guise of a Roman emperor – or perhaps even as Mars, the Roman god of war – wearing an eye-catching outfit of red, gold and blue, although many visitors today find his green leggings most striking of all.

The armour at the Duke's feet and the naval scene in the background give the portrait a strong military flavour, suggesting that it was commissioned to commemorate the Duke’s role as Lord High Admiral at the beginning of the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-74).

Henri Gascar had travelled to England in the early 1670s to work for one of Charles II’s mistresses, Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth – suspected by some as being a French spy, placed in the King’s bed by Louis XIV. It is as a painter of female courtiers that he is best known.

But Gascar evidently retained an eye for the material luxury and sensuality that characterise his female portraits when painting the rich fabrics and jewel-like details that envelop the Duke of York.

A photo of a man standing beneath an oil painting of 17th century royalty in a dimly lit gallery
The painting hangs dramatically in an atmospheric gallery inside the Queen's House at the National Maritime Museum
There is no compunction, it seems, in this image of the Restoration Court in full swagger. But unbeknown to the artist, and perhaps even the Duke himself, Gascar's portrait also signals a turning point in the turbulent relationship between the Court and Parliament.

Around the same time that the portrait was commissioned, the Duke's brother, King Charles II, issued a Declaration of Indulgence, lifting penalties that previously had been imposed on Catholics and Nonconformists.

Reading the King's wishes as a move towards a more arbitrary, or 'absolute', style of government, Parliament responded quickly by passing the Test Act – a new law that required all public officials, regardless of their rank, to declare allegiance to the Established Church and condemn all 'popish' ways.

Even the King’s brother was not immune from the Test Act, and James chose to resign as Lord High Admiral rather than renounce his commitment to the Catholic Church.

Having successfully exposed James as a Catholic, Parliament went on to make several attempts to exclude the Duke of York from the succession, but their efforts were thwarted on each occasion by the King's intervention.

The exclusionists within Parliament did not necessarily object to James's personal religious beliefs, so much as the perceived political consequences of a Catholic monarchy.

Fearful that Britain would follow a similar path to France under Louis XIV, James’s opponents pointed to the impotence of the French parlements and aristocracy as a warning against an all-powerful Catholic monarchy.

Tensions between the Court and Parliament were heightened by the discovery that Louis XIV had been secretly bankrolling the English court.

So, as well as being a forthright display of royal authority – an enticing image of a future King, utterly confident – Gascar's extraordinary painting also spells trouble by parading in such a brazen manner the extent to which the English court was beholden to Louis XIV in the 1670s – in matters of policy, finance, culture and even sex."

Dr Richard Johns talks about the portrait:

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