King Edward VI
by Unknown artist, after Hans Holbein the Younger
Edward VI's reign was characterised by popular discontent, political turmoil and the introduction of Protestant worship into England. As the only son of Henry VIII (by his third wife Jane Seymour) Edward VI succeeded to the throne in 1547, at the age of nine. Always a sickly child, he died, probably from tuberculosis, aged 15 in July 1553.
Four portraits of Edward VI have recently been scientifically examined to explore when they were made and the circumstances of their production. How did artists respond to the challenge of making a nine-year boy look like a regal figure?
The frontal portrait (NPG 1132), shows Edward as a very young prince and was probably painted around 1542.
The second portrait of Edward (NPG 1299) was painted a year before he became king. He is shown in distorted perspective (anamorphosis), a technique designed to display the virtuosity of the painter and amaze the spectator. When viewed from the right it is seen in correct perspective. The painting might have been produced as an amusing plaything for the young Prince. It was originally in the Royal Collection at Whitehall, until sold in 1649 for £2.
The profile portrait (NPG 442) shows Edward as a young boy dressed in an expensive costume. This portrait dates from just before Edward's accession to the throne at the age of nine.
Painted in the first year of his reign, the full length portrait (NPG 5511) shows him in a manly pose. It is based on an earlier version of Edward as Prince (now in the royal collection).
King Edward VI
attributed to William Scrots
Question 1: Why are the four portraits of Edward all slightly different?
Even though Edward VI (1537-1553) only lived for 16 years and reigned for just six years, a surprising number of portraits of him exist both as Prince of Wales and as King. The multiple images reflect his importance as Henry VIII's only male heir. During Edward's lifetime the ownership and display of his portrait became important also as a way of showing allegiance to the new Protestant faith.
Edward was drawn from life by the king's painter Hans Holbein and by other important foreign artists. Very soon afterwards many other versions of these portraits were made for widespread consumption.
Portraits of Edward in full-length format, (for example NPG 5511), date from around 1547 and at least four contemporary versions exist. The earliest shows Edward as Prince (Royal Collection, Windsor). Others are at the Louvre, the National Trust, Petworth House and Audley End. This type (sometimes in half length format) became one of the most popular ways to represent Edward in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. The National Portrait Gallery version shows Edward in very richly decorated costume. The painting materials (with gold and silver leaf evident in the micro details on the left) probably reflect the materials in the actual fabric worn by Edward.
Portraits showing Edward in profile were also popular within his lifetime. For example NPG 442 (above) shows Edward VI as Prince of Wales just before he succeeded his father in 1547 aged nine. The earliest version of this type has been ascribed to the Netherlandish artist William Scrots is dated to 1543 and is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
The anamorphic portrait NPG1299 (right) is also based on this profile type. Xray has revealed the signature on the frame: guilhelmus pingebat, making it likely the attribution may be accurate.
Examination of the anamorphic portrait revealed some interesting findings about different parts of the painting. The style, paint handling and pigments of the landscape differ considerably from those within the oval. These differences indicate that these areas were painted by two different artists.
Details from the outer landscape
Details from within The Oval
Question 2: How do we know when these pictures date from?
The portraits of Edward VI in the collection at the National Portrait Gallery were all analysed using dendrochronology. This technique of tree-ring dating can be used to help date panel paintings on wood. It can provide a date after which a tree was felled and estimate possible usage. This is very useful when thinking about which version of a portrait was made first and which others are later copies. Both the profile portrait (below left) and the full length (below right) were shown to have been painted in Edward's lifetime. The wood used for the panel of the profile portrait revealed that it is derived from a tree which was felled sometime after 1529. Similarly, the panel for the full length revealed the wood is from a tree which cannot have been felled before 1530.
Two of the boards that were used to make the full length panel have extremely interesting marks on the back of the panel. These are almost certainly cargo, merchant or quality marks inscribed into the wood before it was transported by ship to England (see arrow shape at bottom centre). Tudor port books recording imports travelling into the UK by sea reveal that vast quantities of oak timber was imported from the Baltic regions. Some of this wood was used by artists for panel paintings.
Question 3: Why is the full-length portrait of Edward VI unusual?
King Henry VIII; King Henry VII
by Hans Holbein the Younger
The full-length portrait of Edward is thought to have been painted after Edward's accession to the throne. The young king mimics the forceful pose of his father as seen in Holbein's Whitehall Cartoon (left). Edward's portrait is a deliberate repetition of his father's powerful stance with legs apart. But was this the artist's original intention?
From observations of the paint surface as well as in the x-ray of the whole work we can see that the position of Edward's feet, and to some extent the legs, have been changed during the painting process. These changes were made after the carpet was painted in. Edward's feet were initially painted even further apart with his right foot placed a little higher on the carpet. This was almost certainly done to reflect the wide legged stance of Henry VIII and make the link between father and son. It must have appeared a rather odd pose for a young boy and was adjusted by the artist before the portrait was finished.
The background has also been changed by the artist during the painting process. We can see from the x-rays that at an early stage of painting, a window was painted in at the left of the portrait. It seems that there may have been two windows in the initial design for the portrait or that the window was moved at an early stage. The left side window was later painted over with a layer of black and the column and coat of arms painted in by a different artist.
This was almost certainly done in order to make space for the royal coat of arms. These changes show the different ways that the artist was experimenting in trying to find the right way to present a nine year old boy as a powerful and believable ruler at the moment he inherited the throne. The portrait is painted by an English workshop and several different types of painting can be identified showing that at least three different artists worked on this picture.
Question 4: How have these portraits changed over time?
King Edward VI
attributed to William Scrots
From looking carefully at the anamorphic portrait, with the microscope and taking paint samples we know that some of the colours in the portrait have changed over time. The brown background of the oval in which Edward's head is seen was certainly once painted blue with a purple tinting around the lettering. The discolouration and fading of the pigments in the original paint colour has resulted in a mottled brown/grey colour. The original appearance would have thus been dramatically different to the image we see today, and Edward's features would have stood out more strongly in correct perspective.
The artist originally planned for the lettering around the head to be gilded, although this idea was soon abandoned as only the first four letters were gilded. It was unlikely this was an attempt to save on precious gold leaf, because the picture was almost certainly a royal commission or gift. Instead, this may have been the artist's deliberate choice.
The colour of the background paint in this portrait has faded and discoloured. The original colour would have been a brilliant blue. Edward's jewels and aglets on his hat and chain as well as a pattern on his cuffs of the coat and tunic were originally decorated with gold but much of this decoration has been lost over time.
Case study 1 - Portraits of two medieval kings
Case study 2 - 16th Century double portrait
Case study 4 - Henry VII
Case study 5 - Portrait of Bishop Foxe
Case study 6 - Portrait of John Astley
Case study 7 - Portraits based on designs by Hans Holbein the Younger
Case study 8 - Portrait of Sir Thomas Gresham
Case study 9 - Portrait of Sir Henry Lee
Case study 10 - The Phoenix and the Pelican