Today, we are all extremely familiar with what our Royal Family looks like, thanks to advances in photography and the advent of the internet and television, yet 500 years ago, the public only knew what their King (or Queen) looked like thanks to royal portraiture.
Employing court artists to capture their likeness, most monarchs utilised coded symbolism to get important messages about who they were across: the future King James II was painted as the Roman God of War, Mars, to showcase his strength, while Queen Anne was dressed up to look like her famous predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I.
Now, the National Maritime Museum, in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, is exploring the history of royal portraiture and what it has been used for, from the Tudors to the Windsors. Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits spans over five centuries and five royal dynasties, taking the viewer from King Henry VII, the father of the Tudors, to our current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. As well as paintings, there are also medals, miniatures and postage stamps, all commemorating the Crown.
Highlights include the earliest known portrait of King Henry VII, as well as the famous ‘Ditchley Portrait’ of Queen Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Other figures important to the Royal Family are also shown, from Queen Elizabeth I’s favourites (most notably Robert Dudley) to King Charles I’s many mistresses.
With the Victorian era came the invention of photography, which saw a proliferation of images of the young Queen, her beloved husband Prince Albert, and their family. Princess Alexandra of Denmark, the future Queen of England and wife of King Edward VII, is shown as a glamorous prototype to Diana, Princess of Wales and the Duchess of Cambridge, known for her fashion choices and maternal instincts.
Moving into the present day, the familiar pictures of the Queen growing up appear, before her marriage to Prince Philip and the births of her four children, Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward. Later, there is the first official royal portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales, notable for being slashed by an IRA sympathiser when it was first put on display, as well as Mario Testino-shot portraits of the People’s Princess.
The exhibition ends with Chris Levine’s picture of the Queen now, with the image changing as you move around the room thanks to stop-motion photography, symbolising her decades-long reign.
Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits opens tomorrow at the National Maritime Museum. For more information and to book, visit rmg.co.uk