National Portrait Gallery revisits the life, death and art of the Lost Prince, Henry Stuart

Chloe McCormack | 30 October 2012
a painted portrait of a young man with a ruffled neck adornement and black and gold armour
Henry, Prince of Wales by Isaac Oliver, c. 1610-12© The Royal Collection Photo: Supplied by Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012
The Lost Prince, The Life and Death of Henry Stuart at The National Portrait Gallery until January 13 2012.

The Lost Prince, the first exhibition to explore the life, death and art of the forgotten heir to the throne, Henry Stuart, son of King James I, makes for a fascinating journey into the world of the 16th century royal court.  

Henry’s death from typhoid at the age of 18 in 1612 led to the ascension of elder brother Charles I whose catastrophic reign resulted in a Civil War, a permanent change in the monarchy’s powers – and Charles' execution. It also robbed England of a much loved potential king whose court was the centre of a revival of chivalry and a renaissance in the arts.

Marking the 400th anniversary of Henry’s death, the show features over 80 pieces, including major loans from the Royal Collection, and works from artists such as Holbein, Rubens and Robert Peake the Elder, amongst others. There are also poems written in the hand of Ben Johnson and court masque designs by Inigo Jones. 

The result is a complete immersion into the inner world of an enlightened Renaissance prince, and a clear and compelling narrative of hope and loss that not only explores the Prince’s life but also revisits the work of some key Renaissance artists.

a drawing of a man in Romanesque costume
Costume Design for Oberon, The Faery Prince by Inigo Jones, 1610© The Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement Photo: © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees
Among them is Robert Peake the Elder, portrait painter of the Jacobean royals. Peake’s initial paintings seem indistinguishable from those of his fellow Serjeant Painter to the court of James I, John de Critz, but his renderings of the young Henry become more dynamic as the show progresses.

Full of movement and ripe, startling colour, Peake painted in luxurious, festive hues with gold and scarlet flourishes. His vivid depictions of the ostentatious clothing of 16th century royalty is in marked contrast to the sitters' austere demeanors.

These paintings make a fine complement to the Holbein sketches of Henry's court, which are portrayed with unmistakably calm, still lines, faces wearing expressions of calm composure.

Henry was advised and attended by widely travelled and well-read courtiers, and the exhibition is awash with curiosities. There are bronze statuettes of horses, miniatures, maps, engraved armor, and an impressive array of books on many subjects. 

The myriad of mediums reflected his desire for learning – and his wish to have the collection of the English royal court rival those of Europe. He owned the first known collection of Renaissance sculpture and his painting collection was one of the first – and finest – in the world.

In 1599 King James I wrote a book for Henry; the Basilikon Doron, filled with monarchial wisdom and private and confidential insights into kingship. After Henry died it was given to James’s second son Charles and when it was printed in 1603 it became a best seller.

The original manuscript is here on display, bound in claret covered velvet with gold filigree lettering. There are also Henry’s journals - with their beautiful florid Latin script on fragile paper.

They make for striking viewing, but arguably the centrepiece of the show is a magnificent Robert Peake portrait of the young prince on horseback in regal armour, with a naked father time walking beside. It’s an extravagant and daring piece, and despite its unsettling bravado, gives us a bizarre glimpse into the level of adoration the prince achieved.

The final room, which features the poignant wooden remains of Prince Henry’s funeral effigy, is painted midnight blue and resounds to the specially composed funereal mourning music of the period. It is subtle and moving without being overwrought.

“Our rising sun has set” spoke his family after his elaborate funeral, which saw thousands line the streets. Eyewitness said mourners unleashed “an oceane of tears”.

Henry’s coffin was engraved with his motto “glory is the light of the noble mind”. A fitting epitaph for the impressive cultural legacy he left behind.

More pictures:

a pianitng of a young mnan in black armour on a white horse, with a winged naked male figure walking beside with a large plumed fan
Prince Henry on horseback by Robert Peake, c. 1606-8© From The Collection at Parham House, Pulborough, West Sussex Photo: © Michael Donne
a painting of a young man in Tudor/Jacobean green velvet attire with his sword drawn, standing over a slain deer. Another young man in green velvet kneels by his side and a white dog and horse can be seen in the background.
Prince Henry and Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex by Robert Peake, c. 1605© The Royal Collection Photo: Supplied by Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012
a coloured drawing of a Lady in Tudor dress
Elizabeth, Lady Vaux By Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1536© The Royal Collection Photo: Supplied by Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012
the wooden carved legs and torso remains of a male effigy
Funeral Effigy of Henry, Prince of Wales, 1612© Westminster Abbey Photo: © Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey
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