Monday, 23 July 2007

A National Maritime Museum talk by Ben Pollitt

Good afternoon.

Today I’m going to talk about this splendid painting.

It’s a portrait of Princess Elizabeth, also known as the Winter Queen of Bohemia, the Queen of Hearts and the Grandmother of Europe.

The talk will take about fifteen minutes. If there are any questions, please feel free to ask me them at the end.

When we think of famous Queens of English history, aside from Queen Victoria, we tend to focus on the Tudor era, Elizabeth I in particular, and maybe the Mary’s, Mary Tudor and Mary Queen of Scots.

As a result we’ve come to sideline some equally fascinating characters, like Elizabeth Stuart here, the eldest daughter of James I and Anne of Denmark, the Queen for whom this house was built.

Elizabeth lived a long and eventful life, certainly too long and eventful to summarise in such a brief talk, the main focus of which will be on the painting itself.

So here we have it: painted by Robert Peake in 1603.

In terms of portraiture, in this period there were painters who painted small and there were painters who painted big.

While artists such as Isaac Oliver and Nicolas Hilliard painted exquisite miniatures, so small you can fit them in a broach, others like Peake were expert at producing grand scale state portraits.

And this is very much in that tradition.

It’s large and impressive.

It was painted in 1603 in Warwickshire.

1603 was an important year, the year that, with Queen Elizabeth’s death, marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new one with the coronation of James VI of Scotland as king of England.

James’ two eldest children, Henry and Elizabeth arrived later that year accompanied by their mother, Anne. Their younger brother Charles, later Charles I, stayed in Scotland for fear the journey would worsen his already poor health.

The sight of the prince and princess captured the imagination of the British public. Crowds flocked to see the arrival of the family, the first royal family since the time of Henry VIII.

The painting aims to capture something of the charm, the novelty, the optimism of this new phenomenon.

So here she is the young princess in 1603, her first year in England, aged seven.

We can be sure of the date as it’s written in the bridge in the right background, while her age is inscribed on the fan she is holding.

As with images of the former queen, the princess’ namesake and godmother, Elizabeth I, Peake has lavished attention on the costume itself, every crease and pleat of it so richly handled, emphasising the wealth, the status, the extravagant refinement of the subject.

With pearls and rubies in her hair, jewelled bows decorating her dress, its farthingale skirt fashionably hitched up in front to show the red fringed hem of her underskirt, she is every inch a princess, but a modern princess.

If we compare this painting to that of the imposing figure of Elizabeth I in the next gallery painted at the height of her power about ten years earlier. We find something entirely different.

Although in many ways a formal painting, there is nothing of that intimidating, claustrophobic atmosphere here. The figure stands openly, unguardedly in a landscape, a summer‘s landscape interestingly enough, given that she didn‘t arrive in England until the winter of 1603. The colours are vibrant and joyful: red, white and green.

There is a breath of fresh air about the work.

It was painted in the estate of the Harrington’s in Warwickshire where Elizabeth lived until the age of 12.

It was her guardian, Lord Harrington who probably commissioned the painting.

In the right background is a hunting scene, almost certainly this represents her brother Henry on horseback and his groom on foot, which links the portrait to that of Henry at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, also commissioned by Harrington, showing the young prince on the point of delivering the coup du grace to a stag held down by Harrington‘s son and Henry‘s great friend, John.

The two paintings appear to be designed as a pair and as such we cannot look at one without reference to the other. In many ways this reflects the relationship between Henry and Elizabeth themselves who was particularly close.

If we look we can make out the same arched bridge in the centre ground, also in both images the rider, Henry, is dressed in green, while his groom wears red.

Like the portrait of Elizabeth, the painting is dynamic and full of colour, even more so in fact, dominated by different shades of green, the colour of new life, reflecting the hope of a bold and confident new age.

Henry was a very bright young man who took a serious interest in the political landscape of Europe. As a militant Protestant, he was prepared to go to war for his religious beliefs. As such he was seen as the future Protestant king of England and a liberator of Protestants across the continent.

This perhaps is evident in the way Peake chooses to portray him in this image.

Harrington for instance is in the position of prayer, looks into the distance. To God perhaps, while Henry wields the sword of truth.

Religion was an extremely live issue around this time.

Two years after this painting, when Elizabeth was nine, there was the Gunpowder Plot, the attempt to blow up the King and Prince Henry in the Houses of Parliament, the intention being to kidnap Elizabeth and install her as a Catholic Queen.

The attempt failed of course, but it did leave James jittery about the future and eager to negotiate peace with the Catholics.

One way he thought of achieving this was through marrying off his children for political ends, the idea being to marry Henry to a Catholic and Elizabeth to a Protestant.

He chose for her a German, Frederick V, Elector Palatine, the Palatine was an area of south-west Germany on the Rhine.

Here he is in his thirties. He was a shy man, scholarly, and also as he grew older, a victim of increasingly frequent and intense bouts of depression.

In 1612, aged just sixteen, the same age as Elizabeth herself, he arrived London.

Like Henry, Frederick was also a militant Protestant.

Perhaps Elizabeth saw something of Henry in him, either way, from their first meeting the couple seemed to be genuinely drawn to each other.

The news of their impeding marriage however was overshadowed by tragic events as the month following Frederick’s arrival, Prince Henry, the heir to the throne, caught typhoid and died.

His last words were: “Where is my sister?”

It was a hard blow for Elizabeth, the sudden death of her brother. Nevertheless preparations for the marriage continued.

At their betrothal she dressed in black save for a few white plumes of feathers in her hat.

Anne of Denmark however did not attend the ceremony. Devastated at the loss and convinced that Henry had been poisoned, she remained at home here in Greenwich.

As an aside, it’s often said that King James gave Anne this house in 1616 by way of apology for accidentally killing her dog while out hunting.

This doesn’t quite ring true. It seems more likely that James wanted Anne to have something to take her mind off her grief for her son.

Anyway, the wedding went ahead.

The marriage, the first royal wedding for seventy years, took place on Valentine’s Day 1613 in Whitehall and was a lavish affair.

This time Queen Anne did attend and Elizabeth was dressed in white, “the fair phoenix bride” as the poet John Donne described her.

During the wedding celebrations concerts and plays were performed, including The Tempest, written the year before by Shakespeare. Some have argued that the wedding scene in the play was re-written for the event, which, though possible, cannot be proven.

Her wedding begins a new chapter in her life in which she and her husband Frederick took up the Protestant cause against the Holy Roman Empire.

In Europe she proved herself to be a powerful and subtle political personality.

Described as the most beautiful princess in Europe, she used her looks to her advantage.

Never forgetting the legacy of Henry she became an important figurehead for the Protestant cause and to her followers came to be known as the “Queen of Hearts”.

She remained on the continent until she came to England in 1661 in the reign of her nephew Charles II and died in what is now Leicester Square in the following year.

Here she is, in her prime, looking regal and formidable.

As a final word, we remember Elizabeth less through what she achieved in her life than through her descendants.

She bore 20 children in as many years, ten survived.

Her daughter Sophia was the mother of George I which makes Elizabeth the only link between the Tudors and Stuarts and today’s royal family.

In fact, order to be king or queen you must, by the Act of Settlement, prove to be her descendant.

She was not only the grandmother of English royal family but in the 1930’s someone calculated that her descendants were ruling sovereigns in ten European countries, making her the “grandmother of Europe”.