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Warts and All? Court artists from Holbein to Harris

Henry VIII King of England Anonymous portrait. From the National Portrait Gallery, London.
An anonymous portrait of Henry VIII, from the National Portrait Gallery, London
© TopFoto.co.uk / HIP / Ann Ronan Picture Library

Keen to be noticed within the court, he produced, in around 1549, a faithful copy of the Henry VIII figure from Holbein’s now famous Whitehall mural:

While he never achieved quite the degree of royal esteem that Holbein had, Eworth nonetheless produced portraits of the three immediate successors of Henry VIII.

His portrait of the boy-king Edward VI, Henry's son by Jane Seymour, has him standing deliberately in the pose made famous by his father. The artist's intention is to overcome the obvious youthfulness of the only-just-teenage King by comparing him to Henry, both in his stance and style of dress:

Exact details of Eworth's career are lacking, but it seems certain that he was appointed official portraitist to the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, during her reign as Mary I (1553-8). In this painting, Mary wears the jewels given to her on her betrothal to King Philip II of Spain:

With the accession to the throne of Mary's half-sister Elizabeth I, the crown swung back behind the Protestant church established by Henry.

Despite all the violent upheaval of the times, Eworth steered a diplomatic path between the factions, and found himself working on his fourth English monarch. Or did he? There is some dispute over whether this celebrated symbolic picture of Elizabeth I And The Three Goddesses (1569) is his:

Portrait of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
Portrait of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
© TopFoto.co.uk

Elizabeth's favourite court painter was a home-grown English artist, Nicholas Hilliard.

Famous for his miniature portraits, Hilliard had also trained as a goldsmith and produced many medals, as well as several iconic full-sized portraits of the Queen. These works are interesting because they attempt to communicate more subtle messages about their subjects than the most basic one of undisputed power.

A characteristic example is the so-called Ermine Portrait of 1585. Note that the loyal stoat, whose white winter coat symbolises the virgin Queen's purity, is allowed to wear a crown collar in her presence:

Probably the greatest court painter after Holbein was Sir Anthony van Dyck, who served the two Stuart courts that preceded the Commonwealth.

He was initially summoned to London by James I in 1620 (although he was never presented to the King), and then returned in 1632 to produce a celebrated set of pictures of Charles I and his court. These have become every bit as representative of their subjects as Holbein's portraits of the court of Henry VIII. Typical is this outdoor scene of c1635:

After the abolition of the monarchy in 1649, and the arrival of the English Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, there was a conscious effort to avoid all the ostentation and self-promotion that the Puritans associated with the monarchy – and artists were expected to adopt a plain, unadorned style.

Cromwell made this crystal-clear in his famous instruction to one of his many portraitists, Dutch artist Peter Lely: "Mr Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint your picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughness, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me. Otherwise, I will never pay a farthing for it."  It is from these instructions that we derive our expression "warts and all", to mean any deliberately unflattering portrayal.

Ironically, Lely had also painted Charles I and his family, having filled the gap left by the death of van Dyck. After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he went on to become court painter to the flamboyant Charles II, and was knighted in 1679. His Charles II (1675) is a fashion-conscious vision in ivory-coloured silk and shell-pink heels, a deliberate swipe at the simplicity of the Puritan republic he had ousted:

The Georgian era, which saw the foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts, was a golden age for portrait painters.

They included Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence, although, once again, it was a foreign painter who found favour with the court. Johann Zoffany was responsible for one of the most renowned portraits of George III (1771), who didn't particularly care for Reynolds's work:

Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait of the dissolute George IV hints subtly at the lack of grandeur of the King. Beside him on the sofa are not the trappings of State but the opera hat and gloves that hint at his playboy social life, while the King himself sports a slightly silly, fashionably tousled wig and the highly coloured cheeks of the drinker:

Officially commissioned portraits did not always meet with royal approval. Sir David Wilkie's efforts with the young Queen Victoria in 1840 left the Queen unamused, and her displeasure was loyally echoed in the press. The young Victoria enjoyed a very close relationship with the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, and he appears to have influenced her opinion.

The picture was intended for the British Embassy in Paris, but as late as 1899, there is a record of the Queen intervening to prevent the curators of the National Portrait Gallery from accepting it when it was offered to them by its owner, the Marquis of Normanby. It was seen to accentuate all the Queen’s weakest facial features – the pronounced Hanoverian nose and the weak chin – and shortness (she was not quite five feet tall):

Much more to the Queen's liking was the work of foreign painters like the Austrian Rudolf Swoboda, and the German Franz Xavier Winterhalter, whose work embodies the high sentimentality that governed Victorian taste:

Victoria was the first monarch whose portrait was captured by photographers as well as painters. Initially nervous of the new technology, she later warmed to it and became a demanding director of her photographic image.

Group portraits of the royal family at Balmoral Castle, or in the nursery at Windsor, were designed to emphasise that this was a normal, loving household. After her husband Albert's death, Victoria stage-managed photos of herself to show her in the throes of the deepest inconsolable mourning:

The first truly iconic image of Queen Elizabeth II, by Italian artist Pietro Annigoni, was commissioned by the Fishmongers Company, one of the old City of London livery companies. It was completed in 1955:

Recent portraits of the Queen have not always met with public (or, reputedly, royal) approval. Antony Williams saw her as a rather careworn figure with gnarled hands (1996-7):

Lucian Freud's portrait shows a distinctly cross-looking monarch beneath an enormous, unwieldy crown (2000-1):

Television artist Rolf Harris painted the most recent official portrait of the Queen, commissioned to mark the monarch's 80th birthday in 2006. Speaking to the BBC in December 2005, after his work was unveiled, he said, "I wanted to avoid the formal sort of portrait with all the jewellery and pomp and splendour." The painting took two months to complete and involved two sittings: