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The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered

16 September 2014 | Jessica Johnston

'Perhaps more remarkable than the portraits, are the intriguing secrets hidden beneath the paintwork'

The five Sovereigns of the Tudor dynasty are among the most well known figures in Royal history. For 118 years, Henry VII, his son Henry VIII and his three children Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I presided over England during an era of great change and triumph. This autumn, the National Portrait Gallery invites visitors to rediscover the Tudor monarchs through the most complete presentation of their portraiture displayed to date, featuring rare loans and important works from the gallery’s own collection. Visitors will experience a face-to-face encounter with the House of Tudor and discover how England’s most notorious royals would have been seen in their own time.

Bringing together key portraits of all the Tudor monarchs, this exhibition highlights groundbreaking new research undertaken as part of the gallery’s Making Art in Tudor Britain project. Through the use of scientific analysis, the project has revealed new discoveries and insights into the dating, technique and production of Tudor portraits. From a death mask to a diary, the exhibition will also display a single prized possession belonging to each monarch, giving visitors a sense of the personal nature of each ruler.

Displayed in chronological order of reign, the exhibition opens with the gallery’s oldest portrait, depicting Henry VII. Visitors are also given the rare opportunity to see a Book of Hours inscribed by the king to his daughter Margaret, presented alongside an effigy of the monarch’s head cast by Italian artist Pietro Torrigiano. Modelled in plaster from the dead king’s face, this image provides visitors with the most realistic surviving portrait of the first Tudor king.

Six portraits of King Henry VIII reveal his distinctive features, with artists capturing his small eyes, long nose, narrow mouth and infamous beard that was said to have been grown in imitation of his greatest personal rival, King Francois I.  The collection of portraits is accompanied by the King’s delicately carved rosary on loan from Chatsworth. Portraits of a pale-faced Edward VI are shown alongside a page from his diary in which the 9 year old reports his father’s death and consequently learns of his own accession to the throne. Written with a somewhat impersonal tone, the chronicle provides a fascinating insight into the young king’s mind and visitors are able to get a sense of the great weight that now rests on his shoulders. England’s first crowned Queen, Mary I, is presented in 5 portraits together with her prayer book loaned from Westminster Cathedral. Each portrait masterfully captures the queen’s delicate frame and piercing eyes that inspired ‘not only respect, but fear, in those on whom she fixes them’ according to the Venetian Ambassador in 1557.

Several portraits of Queen Elizabeth I form the final part of the exhibition. Adorned with jewel-encrusted collars and wearing extravagant gowns draped in lavish fabrics, these portraits depict Elizabeth as a striking queen - an empress of the renaissance world.  On loan from the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers, visitors can also admire her exquisite locket ring that opens to reveal two portraits, one of Elizabeth in profile and the other of a woman in a French hood, thought to be her mother Anne Boleyn.

Perhaps more remarkable than the portraits, are the intriguing secrets hidden beneath the paintwork. Conservators working on a portrait of Edward VI discovered a bug trapped in the varnish whilst Nicholas Hilliard’s ‘Phoenix’ portrait of Elizabeth I, has shown that the position of her face was moved during the painting process and a second set of features can be seen faintly beneath the surface. X-rays also revealed that a portrait of Edward VI underwent changes during its commission; the position of the Prince’s feet was adapted so as to echo the stance of his father- and then amended again when it looked ‘ridiculous’.

The Tudor era has bequeathed us some of the most captivating and enduring images of English history, none more so than the masterpieces of the monarchy. Chief Curator of the National Portrait Gallery, Dr Tarnya Cooper says, ‘Visitors will encounter multiple lifetime portraits of each monarch providing a fascinating and vivid impression of one of the most dynamic dynasties in history’.

The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered is on at the National Portrait Gallery from 12th September – 1st March 2015. Admission is free, for further information please click here.

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