Artist Robert Peake, active at the turn of the 16th century, isn’t a household name. But that might’ve proved otherwise had things turned out differently for one of his most famous subjects.
Peake painted some incredible portraits of Prince Henry, James I’s son. Had this little chap survived and become King Henry IX, perhaps this particular portrait painter would be as well known today as good old Hans Holbein. The National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition shows off some of Peake’s top pictures; called The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart, the new show is something of a lesson in what might have been.
Commemorating the 400th anniversary of Prince Henry’s death, The Lost Prince is a six-room show giving an insight into one short, but significant life. Prince Henry died aged 18, unmarried and, it must be said, now almost unremembered as far as school history books are concerned. This show heralds him as a brave, clever, athletic and princely youth: the hope of all Protestant Europe. (Instead, of course, we got Charles I, Civil War, and all the rest.) As well as the portraits, The Lost Prince features drawings, miniatures, letters in the boy’s own hand, books and even a couple the Prince’s teenage-sized suits of armour.
The Lost Prince also highlights Henry’s taste for art and culture. His father James I was uninterested in collecting; with a Prince of Wales into renaissance paintings, bronzes and coins, as well as actually owning a library, the whole of Europe must’ve been crowing for his patronage. Curator Catharine MacLeod draws attention to the Prince’s love of masques and festivals. She compares Jacobean masques to the Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies – huge propaganda-heavy displays of wealth and talent – and the show includes some masque designs by the Danny Boyle of his day, Inigo Jones.
The final room is dedicated to the Prince’s death, which inspired a lavish funeral procession, larger, its said, than that of Queen Elizabeth I. The remains of Henry’s funeral effigy are on display for the first time in two centuries, with an engraving showing it lying on his hearse. This sombre section is accompanied by recordings of mourning songs and requiems from the time, and the effect is rather moving.
With its sharp focus and many human details (look at his neat handwriting, his school books, his teenager’s taste for tromp l’oeil!), The Lost Prince is great show for anyone who feels over familiar with the Stuart dynasty story. There’s a frustratingly small panel of 10 of his pictures “not on display”, but “now in public or private collections around the world” which it would’ve been nice to see here at the National Portrait Gallery, but we shouldn’t be greedy. There’s plenty of treasures here to justify the admission price, and to have us all thinking about what might’ve been.
The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart runs from today until 13 January at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE. Tickets range from £10-£13. Visit npg.org.uk to find out more.