Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Lost Prince: The Life & Death of Henry Stuart

Since at least the publication of Roy Strong's Henry, Prince of Wales and England's Lost Renaissance in 1986, scholarly work on Henry Frederick (1594-1612) has had to counter the presumption that any study of the eldest son of James VI and I would be conditioned by counterfactualism. Like the National Portrait Gallery exhibition which it catalogues, The Lost Prince: The Life & Death of Henry Stuart brings together several voices to recontextualise the life of Prince Henry in the hope of disentangling the youth himself from the constructions of dynastic propaganda. They are led by the NPG's seventeenth-century curator Catharine Macleod and include Malcolm Smuts, who contributes an astute essay on Henry's life and environment.

Henry occupied a position with few wholly appropriate historical precedents: he was the first heir apparent to the throne of 'Great Britain', a diplomatic and courtly reality though constitutionally intangible despite the wishes of his father the would-be British Caesar. Not only does the art which surrounded Henry illustrate this problem, it attempts to resolve it.

Through paintings and engravings, artists working for James VI and I and his courtiers appropriated swathes of iconography for Henry as they sought to project the prince as the convergence of a series of princely models. The first item in the catalogue, an unidentified artist's portrait of 'Fredericus Henricus D G Princeps Scotorum' in 1596, may be of a "flattened, decorative nature," but the two-year-old prince's elaborate velvet and gold cap and loose-fitting jacket positioned precariously over his elaborately embroidered and quilted shirt convey an impression of a caterpillar-like toddler who exudes more kingly potential with each instar, clutching an unclear object in his left hand like a sceptre. Seven years later, newly transported to England and installed as a knight of the Garter, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger's portrait shows Henry in red Garter robes. For comparison, the editors of his book inset a smaller reproduction of another Gheeraerts Garter portrait, of Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, from 1597. Once Elizabeth I's favourite, a series of disastrous political miscalculations had led to Essex's execution for treason in 1601. Drawing attention to a similar portrait depicting Sir Henry Lee, Elizabeth I's champion and consistently loyal to the monarchy, squashed my premature wish to interpret this picture as an early embodiment of Henry as an opposition figure.

The appropriation for or by Henry of images which had been associated with opposition to the crown is one of the subjects addressed in Timothy Wilks's Introduction (p. 14) and Catharine Macleod's essay 'Portraits of a most hopeful prince' (pp. 40-41). James VI and I was happy for Henry to develop and profess the martial virtues which the king himself lacked. Henry could also act as an emblem of idealised protestant kingship behind which anti-Catholic forces, sceptical of James's conciliatory policy, could rally. Ambassadors of foreign powers reported on Henry as potentially sympathetic to their causes when the king was not. Henry died on the verge of applying his symbolic role to the practicalities of European politics: the exhibition includes The Embarkation of the Elector Palatine in the Prince Royal from Margate, 25 April 1613, the Prince Royal being a ship intended for Prince Henry's use and depicted here making a voyage in which Henry would have participated as escort to his sister and her new husband before meeting Britain's ally in the Netherlands, Maurice of Nassau (pp. 146-7). Christine Gerrard's The Patriot Opposition to Walpole is justifiably referenced as a source for later centuries' misunderstanding of Henry's apparent factionalism, though the consistent oppositionism of the Hanoverian heirs can be exaggerated and Henry's death at eighteen left his political direction forever open to creative reconstruction.

There are many highlights in this book, but the prominence of Inigo Jones's set and costume designs for Prince Henry's Barriers and Oberon both impress in their own right and emphasise how self-conscious the performance of monarchy was. Henry might have played and been seen to play at Arthurian chivalry, but a clear distinction was drawn between the world of the imaginary past and the practical world of government. Paintings which might be taken as striving for naturalism in this view are deliberately artificial, illustrating Henry's willing conformity to the demands of a princely education, setting him in controlled environments recognisable to the audience. Occasionally fantastical elements would intrude into the realistic, such as Father Time being led by the forelock as Henry rides into the lists on Robert Peake the Elder's Prince Henry on Horseback. The inclusion of such details probably depended on the taste of the patron who commissioned the work.

The original nature of the latter painting was only discovered in 1985-6 when overpainting from the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century was removed. The existence of alterations points towards the continued attraction of Henry's image, though in this case its context was brutally adapted to suit later ideological trends, adapting the horse to resemble the work of Van Dyck and painting a dark woodland scene over the background wall and Father Time. Both book and exhibition are beacons for the discoveries of the last quarter-century. The portrait by John de Critz of Henry's mother Anna/Anne of Denmark included was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery from the princely house of Schaumburg-Lippe in 2010. A companion to a better-known portrait of her husband James VI and I, it reveals the strong features of a woman who had had to assert herself to disrupt Scottish court discipline to regain a say in her children's upbinging, and whose embrace of Roman Catholicism was both a rebellion against her husband's dynastic policy and an expression of his court's controversial and contested religious pluralism.

Henry emerges from The Lost Prince as interested in and exposed to a wide selection of practical arts appropriate to a maritime power establishing commercial and territorial footholds beyond Europe. Though more difficult to illustrate than hunting or chivalric fantasy, attention is paid to his scientific library at Richmond Palace, curated by Edward Wright. As well as being Henry's tutor in mathematics and natural philosophy, Wright had developed a practical methodology for the Mercator projection; the title page and dedication to the prince of the second edition of his Certaine Errors in Navigation (1610) are included, as are maps and an astrolabe. Henry was also taught perspective and the science of vision by Salomon de Caus and at least exposed to complex mathematical exercises. While beneficial to appreciation of the fine arts, it was also a technical education suitable for a prince who might be called on to command armies in the field, anticipating the detailed instruction in military science imposed upon his eighteenth-century great-great-great-nephew William, duke of Cumberland. Not for nothing did Isaac Oliver's drawing of Henry wielding a pike become the most reproduced image of the prince.

Nothing specific can be claimed about how Henry might have managed the problems which fell to his more bookish and pious brother Charles I to resolve, nor how the art which surrounded him as heir apparent might have developed into a school of patronage. The emphasis, convincingly, is on how the older men around Henry sought to present him as the fulfilment of their political and dynastic hopes and how the prince came to participate in this process. The fashioning of this first Stuart heir to the united crowns was so thorough and had involved so many, that his death could hardly appear less than the opening of a vacuum in state, church and high cultural life.

Henry's brother Charles - soon seeking to rebuild his own image at court - and also his sister Elizabeth were available to act as new and viable foci for an assertive Stuart British monarchy, but it is easy to see why the bereavement of those around him might overwhelm the wider context in earlier studies of Henry's career. While the legacy of Henry Stuart can never escape speculation about what was not and what might have been, Catharine Macleod and her colleagues convincingly demonstrate that from Henry's cultural life much can be learned about how early seventeenth-century British high politics projected itself and how the court of the combined kingdoms sought to understand and define the roles of heir apparent and king.

The Lost Prince: The Life & Death of Henry Stuart runs at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 13 January 2013.