On kings and art

July 13 2012

Image of On kings and art

Picture: National Gallery

In case you haven't seen them, the BBC has made new films of Shakespeare's plays Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V. Normally Shakespeare on telly is rather turgid, but these new productions are quite brilliant, with mesmeric performances from the likes of Ben Whishaw, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Simon Russell Beale. You can watch them here

The random art historical angle here is that the film of Richard II makes clever allusions to the King's love of art. We see him having his portrait taken, and watching (a little too keenly) as a half-naked, effete youth poses as St Sebastian for the court artist. The allusion is obvious, Richard, as a somewhat fey lover of art, is thus not a good king.

Now Richard II genuinely did like art, and was the first English king to try and project his royal authority in paintings. In the Wilton Diptych, above, Richard is seen kneeling before the Virgin and the Infant Christ. The image tells us a great deal about Richard's belief in his divine ordination to rule. Of course, it didn't do him much good in the end, for he was deposed in 1399 by Henry IV. 

So here's a question for you - is there an inverse correlation between a monarch's love of art and their actual power? After Richard II, the two other English kings who most loved art for its own sake, and who not only sought to use it to glorify their own image, but made the mistake of believing that the painted image matched reality, were also amongst history's most ineffectual - Charles I and George IV. 

In other words, do philistines make the best monarchs? Discuss.

Update - a reader writes:

Much as we are richer for their patronage Richard II and Charles I could have done with being a bit more sword-and-saddle. 

King Henry VIII is an exception though - his patronage kick-started British art, but he could also bang heads together (the kingly skill par excellence). Otherwise he would be just another in your list - writing Greensleeves, building Nonsuch and commissioning hollow fantasies of power from one of Europe's greatest portrait painters.

I've always liked the line ascribed to Henry VIII on Holbein - 'I could make a dozen dukes, but not one Holbein' (or something like that). Still, it's worth mentioning that there is no hint of Henry pursuing, say, Raphaels, or even Leonardos, in the way that Charles I would later do. That is, was Henry VIII aesthetically interested in painting? Or did he see it purely as a means to glorify his power? 

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