British / British / Look Back: Art History / Painting / Photography

A Short, Pleasant History of Royal Baby Portraits

Now I’ll miss the weekly slideshows and double-page layouts of the Duchess of Cambridge in maternity wear as much as the next person. But don’t worry, now that the long-awaited Royal Baby is here we’ll still have plenty to look at – after all, the royal baby portraits are coming.

Even in the earlier parts of British history, long before the invention of the camera, it was possible to find images of monarchs as they were depicted on coins, manuscript illustrations, contemporary portraits or posthumous representations. But how has the royal baby been represented in years past?

One beautiful example is the portrait of the future Edward VI (1537-1553) by Hans Holbein.

Edward_VI_by_Holbein

Holbein, Edward VI as a Child, probably 1538. Oil on panel, 56.8 x 44 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Now I know what you’re thinking – “Edward VI! Why not start us out with a picture of Ethelred the Unready?” Fair enough. I know that’s everyone’s favorite British monarch, and much earlier chronologically.

Sometimes, even with a super big sword, you just aren't ready. Posthumous image of Aethelred (c.968-1016) from the Chronicle of Abingdon, c. 1220.

Sometimes, even with a super big sword, you just aren’t ready. Image of Aethelred (c.968-1016) from the Chronicle of Abingdon, c. 1220.

However, the simple fact is that in the time of Aethelred, and indeed until fairly recently, producing portraits of royal babies wasn’t common practice.  Generally speaking, until the 19th century  “babies” as well as “children” were essentially viewed as mini-adults — grown-ups in waiting. And they were presented that way, sombre and stiff. Imbuing a being that is essentially senseless with the proper gravity is a difficult task. How to produce an image a royal baby look not only real but regal? Many artists chose to do so by emphasizing features of what the child would be like as an adult, not really as a child at all. Usually painted long after the child was grown up or at least confirmed as a ruler, strong features were complimented with the symbolism of the monarch’s power. To our eyes, the resulting images often seem bizarre.

Detail of a miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, from Bellum Gallicum, illuminated in the Netherlands (Bruges), 1473 - 1476, Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 32r; The British Library

Detail of a miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, from Bellum Gallicum, illuminated in the Netherlands (Bruges), 1473 – 1476, Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 32r; The British Library

Add to these challenges the tumultuous early history of Britain leading up to the age of the Tudors. Countries, tribes and families fought for the throne. In the case of Aethelred, as with many of the other early kings, no one bothered depicting them as a vulnerable infant. Though he actually wasn’t more than thirteen when he took the throne, Aethelred always appears in the visual record as fully grown. It wasn’t until there was a fairly stable succession that the tradition of contemporary portraits of young British monarchs could get started properly.

So let’s return to the portrait of Edward VI. After years of personal tumult and international religious strife, King Henry VIII found himself with a son. Around 1538, when Hans Holbein (1497/8-1543) painted the boy’s portrait, Edward was around a year and a half old. With the production of the portrait, Henry was being confirmed as king through his powerful lineage — and looking at the portrait of Edward, it’s easy to identify the boy as the successor. Never has a child of one year seemed more robust, more compassionate, more mighty than does Edward VI in this image. He wears golden clothes, holds his rattle like a scepter, and, though presented as a quasi-religious figure, facing the viewer full on, he is made human by rosy cheeks and a shadow in the background, which gives the figure more presence.

Nearly a century later, a portrait by an unknown portraitist shows the future King Charles II (1630-1685), again outrageously grownup, though he was only 4 months old at the time of the sitting.

Unknown, Portrait of King Charles II oil on canvas, 1630 47 1/2 in. x 36 3/4 in., National Portrait Gallery, London

Unknown, Portrait of King Charles II oil on canvas, 1630
47 1/2 in. x 36 3/4 in., National Portrait Gallery, London

The portrait was probably made for Charles’ grandmother, Marie de’ Medici. Though it lacks some of the physical strength shown in the portrait of Edward, it makes up for it with suggestions of sophistication and learning. Portrayed a generally Dutch manner to match portraits of his father, the boy is framed by two curtains, as though a work of art himself. Presented as a child of wealth and refinement, he holds a dog — a symbol of loyalty — on his lap. As well as a symbol, this breed of dog was a royal favorite and would later be known as the King Charles Spaniel.

NPG D20087; King William III after Unknown artist

After unknown artist, King William III, engraving, 1650s, 14 in. x 10 3/4 in. National Portrait Gallery, London

Charles’ choice of pet would be no match for that of young William III (1650-1702), when his baby portrait was circulated in print. Though he succeeded to the throne of England much later through a combination of marriage and invasion, he became ruler over the Netherlands and the Dutch Republic during the first year of his life. In the image, the lion is a symbol of Dutch power.

Another print depicts young King George IV (1762-1830) in the lap of his mother.

Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz; King George IV when Prince of Wales by Richard Houston, published by Robert Sayer, after Robert Pyle, mezzotint, mid 1760s, 19 3/4 in. x 13 7/8 in.

Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz; King George IV when Prince of Wales
by Richard Houston, published by Robert Sayer, after Robert Pyle, mezzotint, mid 1760s, 19 3/4 in. x 13 7/8 in.

Made Prince of Wales just five days after his birth, he appears in this image disconcertingly slender yet fully formed. Charlotte, wife of the current king and mother of the young George gazes out of the frame demurely. The scene recalls traditional Madonna and Child images, suggesting great things for the firstborn child and son of George III.

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was also depicted with her mother.

Henry Bone, Princess Victoria and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, c.1824. Royal Collection Trust © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012 RCIN 404239

Henry Bone, Princess Victoria and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, c.1824. Royal Collection Trust
© HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012 RCIN 404239

In the nineteenth century, ideas of childhood had developed substantially, and this image, though plush and dreamy, is far closer to our contemporary ideas of childhood. Perhaps farther removed is the image of Victoria at age 4. Though the portrait is formal, it shows her at Kensington Gardens, where she often played at this age.

Denning,_Stephen_Poyntz_-_Princess_Victoria_aged_Four_-_Google_Art_Project

Stephen Poyntz Denning, Princess Victoria Aged 4, 1823. Oil on Canvas, Dulwich Picture Gallery.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, the camera would take over would become integral to the tradition of depicting scenes of the royal family. From that time forward, more people than ever before could see royals as they really appeared, even as infants.

W. & D. Downey, King George VI, bromide proof print, circa 1896. 6 1/2 in. x 4 3/8 in., photograph, National Portrait Gallery, London.

W. & D. Downey, King George VI,
bromide proof print, circa 1896. 6 1/2 in. x 4 3/8 in., photograph, National Portrait Gallery, London.

Now, not all royal children who were depicted would ascend the throne. Such was the case of the son of Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland (1640-1709) and, mistress of Charles II.

Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, Charles Fitzroy, as Madonna and Child by Sir Peter Lely oil on canvas, circa 1664, 49 1/8 in. x 40 1/8 in. National Portrait Gallery.

Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, Charles Fitzroy, as Madonna and Child, by Sir Peter Lely.
oil on canvas, circa 1664, 49 1/8 in. x 40 1/8 in. National Portrait Gallery.

Here, they are depicted in glowing colours as Madonna and Child. Though never a monarch, Charles would grow up to be the second Duke of Cleveland. As for his mother, Palmer’s distinguished line of descendants was Lady Diana Spencer (1961-1997), who would become mother to William, Duke of Cambridge and future Prince of Wales.

Princess Diana Spencer, Prince William and Prince Harry. Tim Graham, Getty Images, 1985.

Princess Diana Spencer, Prince William and Prince Harry. Tim Graham, Getty Images, 1985.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Congratulations to the Duchess of Cambridge, who yesterday gave birth to her first son, the future Prince of Wales and King of England.

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6 thoughts on “A Short, Pleasant History of Royal Baby Portraits

  1. Another fascinating post, but you fail to mention the tragically high infant mortality rate that often laid waste to even royal family trees. Apparently this is why so few portraits of children were made until the Victorian times, when public health improved to the point that more children survived.

    • Hi Barb – you’re right, of course! Infant mortality definitely adds a new dimension to the history of infant portraiture. I think i must have gotten carried away with trying to make the topic “pleasant”!

      • Getting carried away is no bad thing, and missing some aspect is fine – it’s a blog not a thesis. Maybe omitting things helps the conversation. Cheers.

  2. Pingback: A Short, Pleasant History of Royal Baby Portraits | texthistory

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