The French point out – rightly, I think – that we had our Revolution in the 1640s. One has to wonder how things might have turned out differently but for the premature death of Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales, exactly 400 years ago, in 1612. He was the first-born of James I and VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark, hence elder brother to the tragic Charles I.
Henry was born in 1594 in Scotland when Queen Elizabeth’s reign had yet nine years to run. When his father acceded to the throne, the young prince and his household were set up in Henry the VIII’s legendary Nonsuch Palace in Surrey. There, the Henry IX-to-be continued his education in kingly matters.
The Lost Prince, the new show at the National Portrait Gallery, covers this period until the young man’s untimely death. We find out how the boy was chided both by his father and tutor for poor handwriting – the examples here are beautiful, though not without ink blots – perhaps that was the problem. His classical education included astronomy and to my brain very hard maths puzzles, examples on show. Europe being a dangerous place for a Protestant Prince to tour, he learned his geography from travel books. He did military exercises – there are a pair of gorgeous suits of armour on show.
Henry was coached in discernment and – like young Charles after him – he became an avid collector. He was advised by Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundell – the Anthony Blunt of his day. The show has some objects from the prince’s collection. The young man officially became Prince of Wales at a lavish ceremony in June 1610. We see the illuminated manuscript of the letters patent for this appointment with James’s enormous seal hanging off the bottom. A particularly pleasant feature is a collection of sketches by Inigo Jones of celebratory masques and pageants.
Henry and Charles’s sister Elizabeth was betrothed to Frederic V, Elector Palatine Henry, by this time 17 years old was asked to help organise affairs for the wedding including the flotilla taking the princess across the sea, using the flagship he himself had commissioned some years previous.
It was at this time he contracted typhoid fever, declined quickly, and died. He was a popular young prince (a good friend of Sir Walter Ralegh, among many) and the nation went into deep mourning. His funeral was more lavish than Elizabeth’s nine years previously. The final room of the exhibition is dedicated to Henry Stuart’s death. It is black and there is a soundtrack of mourning plainsong written specially for the occasion. Pride of place her, though, has to be the original wooden mannequin used for Henry’s funeral courtège.
So all sorts of objects have been assembled to give the visitor a clear sense of young Henry’s life as he was prepared for kingship. But best of all – lush, lavish, luxurious and joyously over-the-top – are the quite stunning Royal portraits. They range from miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard to a wonderful equestrian depiction by Robert Peake the Elder. Most of the others of Prince Henry are full length and also by Peake as are those of the other Royals. There are also works by Serjeant-Painter to the King, John de Critz the Elder and Isaac Oliver. The ruffs! The collars! The shoes! And most amazing of all, the hats!
A lady near me, remarked: “So exquisite! The detail!” And so it is. As is the whole exhibition. I think this show surpasses the Thomas Lawrence from a few years ago, and that’s going some. For best of year, I’d have difficulty separating it from National Maritime Museum’s superb Royal River. So congratulations, National Portrait Gallery. This is most definitely a Do-Not-Miss job.
The Lost Prince: The Life & Death of Henry Stuart runs until 13 January. Entrance is £9, free to Friends, half price to Art Fund Members, other concessions apply.