Two medieval kings

Henry VI and Edward IV

These two portraits were produced towards the end of Henry VIII's reign by an unknown English workshop. Recent technical analysis has found out more about how the pictures were made and what they might have looked like when first painted.

See the questions below to find out more



King Henry VI, by Unknown English artist, circa 1540 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Henry VI
by Unknown English artist
circa 1540
NPG 2457

Henry VI (1421-1471) descended from the royal house of Lancaster and succeeded to the throne at the age of nine months. A council ruled in his name during his minority. Contemporary accounts indicate his personal instability and he was involved in constant power struggles. He lost the crown to his cousin the Duke of York (see Edward IV on the right) in 1461 and was later imprisoned. In 1470 the hapless king was briefly restored to the throne but was captured and perhaps murdered. 

King Edward IV, by Unknown English artist, circa 1540 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Edward IV
by Unknown English artist
circa 1540
NPG 3542

Edward IV (1442-1483) was head of the house of York. He was exiled by King Henry VI (above left) in 1459. However, Edward returned to defeat the king and took the crown in 1461. He married Elizabeth Woodville, who bore him ten children. In 1470 Edward was forced into exile, but he returned to defeat his foes at the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.

These pictures were painted in the 1540s when there was a growing interest in the history of Britain. (The inscriptions on the frames reads: ' HENRICVS VI' and ' EDWARDE IIII')

These pictures were examined as part of a larger research project called Making Art in Tudor Britain


Question 1: What were the first marks the artist made?

New Research on Portraits of Two Medieval Kings: Henry VI and Edward IV

NPG 2457

Detail of cuff showing red chalk marks beneath the paint (NPG 2457) Henry VI

Before applying paint we would usually expect an artist to first draw freehand, or trace a design from a pattern, marking out the composition of the portrait he was to paint.

An exciting discovery was made when these portraits were examined under the microscope. Red underdrawing, indicating the outlines of the figures, was identified. These were probably the first lines made and can be seen beneath the paint defining Edward IV's nose and Henry VI's hand, tunic, shirt and cuff.

NPG 2457

Detail of finger with tunic paint above showing red chalk (NPG 2457) Henry VI

It is not yet clear how many artists used red underdrawing for painted portraits. Research is ongoing and because it is usually covered by layers of paint, red underdrawing cannot be easily identified. The soft red colour made it a good material to outline flesh tones. In Italy and elsewhere there was a tradition of using red for initial compositional drawing in Italian fresco painting.


Question 2: What was the original colour of Henry's tunic and what does it tell us about him?

New Research on Portraits of Two Medieval Kings: Henry VI and Edward IV

NPG 2457

Magnified details of blue pigments in fold of tunic (NPG 2457) Henry VI

Henry VI's tunic was not always this colour and the green pigment that we see has changed over time. Originally it was a deep blue colour and composed entirely of blue pigment. The rich blue pigment azurite (visible in the magnified image on the right) was found in this area. A second, darker blue pigment, perhaps the glass based pigment, smalt, is also scattered through the paint mixture.

The apparent colour change is the result of a chemical reaction. Today all the paint appears green on the surface.

NPG 2457

Photo of cross section of paint on tunic, showing blue azurite particles (NPG 2457) Henry VI

In the fifteenth century the colour blue would have been an unusual choice for a king to wear. It was principally a colour worn by working people and young apprentices, and it faded quickly. Records indicate that Henry VI seems to have been a gentle, deeply devout and kindly man with an aversion to violence. The portrait seems to confirm contemporary accounts about his physical appearance. Within his lifetime he was criticised for lack of grandeur in his clothes and often dressed simply "like a farmer". A contemporary, John Blakman, 1410-1484, author of the Life of King Henry VI, recalled:

' In his dress he was plain, and would not wear the shoes with the upturned points, then so much in fashion, and considered the distinguishing mark of a man of quality'.

Question 3: How were these pictures framed?

New Research on Portraits of Two Medieval Kings: Henry VI and Edward IV

NPG 2457

Edge of frame

These frames are original and were applied to the picture before they were painted. They are referred to as engaged frames. We can tell that the frame is 'engaged' because the painted area stops at the edge of the frame.

Both frames have been restored at least twice. They were originally painted black with gold borders.

NPG 3542

Inscription on (NPG 3542) Edward IV

Similar engaged frame portraits of English monarchs exist in other collections (such as the Government Art Collection, the Royal Collection and the Society of Antiquaries).

The engaged frame paintings were sold ready-framed which meant that they could be displayed immediately. Ready framed pictures certainly allowed the artists to control the presentation of a portrait set so that all the portraits looked the same. Inscriptions on the frames ensured that the portraits could be identified.

 


Question 4: Were these once part of a set?

New Research on Portraits of Two Medieval Kings: Henry VI and Edward IV

In the sixteenth century artists often painted several versions of the same picture. Portraits were copied and reproduced from an original painting for different patrons. A Tudor Monarch would sit just a few times for his or her portrait. Consequently the same facial type and pose for royal portraits would be copied again and again.

Similar examples of the portrait of Edward IV can be found at the Society of Antiquaries, in the Royal Collection and other private collections. Similar works of Henry VI are found in the Government Art Collection and the Society of Antiquaries. Some have different coloured backgrounds or more gold gilding in the jewellery for example. This may have resulted from the different workshop productions, or may reflect the taste of the purchaser.

Examples of versions of portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection

King Henry IV, by Unknown artist, late 16th or early 17th century - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Henry IV
by Unknown artist
late 16th or early 17th century
NPG 310

King Henry IV, by Unknown artist, late 16th century - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Henry IV
by Unknown artist
late 16th century
NPG 4980(9)

Henry IV
Other versions are in the Royal Collection, Dulwich Picture Gallery Collection and at Hardwick Hall
King Henry VI, by Unknown English artist, circa 1540 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Henry VI
by Unknown English artist
circa 1540
NPG 2457

King Henry VI, by Unknown artist, late 16th or early 17th century - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Henry VI
by Unknown artist
late 16th or early 17th century
NPG 546

Henry VI
Other versions are in the Government Art Collection, the Society of Antiquaries and Syon House
King Edward IV, by Unknown English artist, circa 1540 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Edward IV
by Unknown English artist
circa 1540
NPG 3542

King Edward IV, by Unknown artist, late 16th century - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Edward IV
by Unknown artist
late 16th century
NPG 4980(10)

Edward IV
Other versions are at the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Collection and there is one at Petworth House.
King Richard III, by Unknown artist, late 16th century (late 15th century) - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Richard III
by Unknown artist
late 16th century (late 15th century)
NPG 148

King Richard III, by Unknown artist, late 16th century - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Richard III
by Unknown artist
late 16th century
NPG 4980(12)

Richard III
Other versions are in the Government Art Collection, at Eton College and Syon House
King Henry VII, by Unknown Netherlandish artist, 1505 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Henry VII
by Unknown Netherlandish artist
1505
NPG 416

King Henry VII, after Unknown artist, late 16th century - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Henry VII
after Unknown artist
late 16th century
NPG 4980(13)

Henry VII
Other versions are at the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Collection and Christ Church Oxford

The National Portrait Gallery pictures of Henry VI and Edward IV are nearly identical to versions in the Government Art Collection and the Society of Antiquaries. Recent research has shown that these paintings all came from the same workshop.

© Crown copyright: UK Government Art Collection

© Crown copyright: UK Government Art Collection

King Henry VI, by Unknown English artist, circa 1540 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Henry VI
by Unknown English artist
circa 1540
NPG 2457

© Crown copyright: UK Government Art Collection

© Crown copyright: UK Government Art Collection

King Edward IV, by Unknown English artist, circa 1540 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Edward IV
by Unknown English artist
circa 1540
NPG 3542

It seems likely that these two portraits of Henry VI and Edward VI were produced as a pair. As Henry VI lost his crown twice to Edward IV the royal pairing presented a visual lesson in the instability of monarchy at a time when Henry VIII had only a very young male heir.

It is also possible these pictures may have formed part of a set of portraits of the most important monarchs of England. The National Portrait Gallery also owns a set of 16 kings and queens, NPG 4980 (1-16), depicting William I through to Mary I. Other sets exist for example the theatre owner Edward Alleyn (1566-1626) commissioned a set between 1618 and 1620 (now at Dulwich Picture Gallery). He purchased it from a local dealer at a cost of £8.13s.4d for 16 pictures.

The set of early kings and queens owned by the National Portrait Gallery is currently on display at Montacute House.

Next page...16th Century double portrait