Richard III: The tree ring-dated portrait which could show the King's scoliosis as a "costume"

By Ben Miller | 08 December 2014

Richard III disability could have been used to demonise King in medieval times, say keepers of painting dated to 1510

An image of a colour oil painting of a medieval king with long hair and a black cap on
Richard III (arched) (circa 1510-1540). Oil on oak panel. Artist or workshop unknown, probably English© Society of Antiquaries of London,
The quest to reveal Richard III has been as impressive for its findings as for the breadth of science and history it has covered in pursuing the finer details of the last English king to die on the battlefield.

The art history perspective is just as fascinating: faced only with portraits of Richard post-dating his demise by several decades, Dr Turi King, of the University of Leicester, named a painting held at the Society of Antiquaries of London as the one most likely to truly resemble the king, known for its arched frame and showing the light brown hair and blue eyes which DNA strongly suggests fit this Plantagenet’s profile.

An image of a colour oil painting of a medieval king with long hair and a black cap on
Edward IV (arched) (after 1510). Tree ringing shows the two paintings were painted on wood from the same tree felled in 1510. Rev Thomas Kerrich, who bequeathed them, did not acquire these paintings from the same source, but they were originally part of a set intended for display together© Society of Antiquaries of London,
“We have the companion portrait to the one of Richard showing his brother, Edward IV," says Anooshka Rawden, the Collections Manager at the Society of Antiquaries in Piccadilly.

"Tree ring analysis has shown that they both came from the same tree, felled in around 1510, and so were likely to have been produced for the same commission and intended to be displayed together.

"It is believed the portrait of Richard is a 16th century copy of a prototype produced during the king’s lifetime.

“It’s also interesting to compare the arch-topped portrait that Turi focused on with another of Richard in our collection, produced later, between the 1520s and 1550s. This painting is known as ‘Richard III with the Broken Sword’.

“The Broken Sword portrait presents the king bearing all the hallmarks of the image of a villainous despot we see in the writings of Polydore Vergil, Thomas More or Shakespeare, but which, at some point during the 18th century, was overpainted to try and reduce the severity of the hunchback and ‘withered’ hand, illustrating the apologist reassessments of the King begun by [author] Horace Warpole.”

Many portraits of Richard, explains Rawden, show his scoliosis as a “costume” - enhanced and exaggerated for effect.

An image of a colour oil painting of a medieval king with long hair who is carrying a sword
© Society of Antiquaries of London,
His alleged physical appearance and its depiction in art can be related to a highly dubious-sounding pseudo-scientific theory known as physiognomics, in which his disability would have been seen as an outward manifestation of the king’s inner machinations.

The roots of physiognomic theory lie in the ancient Greek and Roman world, but it continued throughout the medieval period as a means of assessing character.

“Sadly, disability could be seen as a punishment from god or as a sign of an evil character, and so any indication that Richard had a disability would have been used against him to help create the persona of a monster," says Rawden.

“Richard was ultimately a man of his time, for good and bad. It’s interesting to speculate why relatively little, if any, comments are made about his scoliosis during his own lifetime.

“It is unlikely his disability would have been mentioned during his life if he held a particular sensitivity about it. Or - it’s interesting to speculate - was the parade of his naked corpse after Bosworth the first time people had had the chance to see its effects?

"And so, from there, did the need to demonise the fallen king capitalise on his disability in order to create the ‘hunchback’ monster?

“The Leicester project has demonstrated that the curvature of his spine was likely to have been fairly well hidden through tailoring and custom-made armour and is not visible in our portrait.
“Artists could, of course, omit unflattering features, but it seems that the knowledge of his disability provided an added means by which he could be demonised under the Tudors.”

There are, as Rawden enthuses, “lots and lots of possibilities” on a hugely exciting project that has brought together genetic sciences, archaeology, art history and genealogy.

She calls Richard’s hands “beautifully slender” in the arch-topped painting, as the king plays with a ring on his finger, with shoulders showing a “very slight sense of unevenness”.

Visitors had been specifically requesting a glimpse of the portrait long before the intriguing DNA results were announced. In the hands of curators, art historians and museum professionals who are just as intrigued as the public, this is a story of a monarch whose portraits point to more mysteries.

  • Read more on the Society of Antiquaries website. The Society will be publishing a catalogue of all its paintings, including the portrait and its relationship to the companion portrait of Edward IV, online.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Gray Friars skeleton is last Plantagenet king, say Leicester team on trail of Richard III

Richard III body infected with roundworms, say University of Leicester archaeologists

Richard III DNA tests to reveal hair, eyes and diseases of the King

Bread Angel creates Richard III food range to celebrate Leicester archaeological triumph

Richard III: Archaeologist Claire Calver on the search for the King's body in Leicester

The DNA of a King: Dr Turi King on the genome sequencing of Richard III

Richard III to be buried in Leicester, High Court rules

Experts see Richard III's battle injuries as infirmary remains help create new skeleton

Richard III skeleton reveals his prodigious alcohol consumption and rich diet

"Compelling" new forensic evidence shows grisly sustained attack on Richard III at Battle of Bosworth

Richard III cortege journey route revealed as Leicester Cathedral prepares to bury body

In Pictures: The archaeology and science which identified King Richard III in Leicester

Leicester Cathedral reveals "distinctive" Richard III tomb "imbued with spirituality"
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RE: Allan James - thank you for the correction. The article has been amended.
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